What can we learn from someone who’s performed at an Olympic final (the ultimate crucible of pressure) who withstood the drip, drip, drip pressure of years of tough physical challenge? Here is the Olympic strategy for performing under pressure during the pandemic and beyond from Will it Make the Boat go Faster? by Ben Hunt-Davis and Harriet Beveridge.
There is a Goldilocks zone with pressure: you don’t want too much, but you don’t want none. Have you ever messed up because you’ve been too blasé? Without a bit of adrenaline pumping you’ve had a lacklustre day? Pressure works like caffeine; without a morning cuppa many of us are sluggish. One cup and we’re firing on all cylinders, but too many cups can create disaster. (From personal experience, I don’t recommend three flat whites in 20 minutes before attending a job interview… I wasn’t hired, but at least I wasn’t arrested.
Why are we built like that? Here’s a simplified explanation: in cavemen days, food was scarce and it was useful to conserve energy. It was therefore useful for our cavemen to have ‘do nothing’ as the default setting. However, it was also useful for them to get a hormonal kick to summon the energy to hunt for food. It was also helpful for our ancestors to get a hormonal helping hand when they faced life-or-death situations.
Humans have fundamentally the same design as in cavemen days, but with new brain functionalities that help us to think conceptually and imagine things that aren’t real. The old, survival-based brain still runs the show, while now the newer, imaginative brain is feeding it with imagined threats, and the old brain can’t tell the difference. The results? We get the same physiological reaction from confronting a high-stakes meeting as we would from confronting a grizzly bear.
Isn’t it obvious if we’re firing on all cylinders and performing brilliantly, or if we’re under too much pressure and performing terribly? Sadly, we often ignore or misattribute telltale warning signals. Knowing how pressure shows up for you emotionally can be immensely helpful – like a warning light on a mental dashboard before it impacts your results too much. Maybe your go-to feeling is overwhelm? Fear? Anger?
What triggers you? I am happily adrenalised on stage in front of hundreds of people, but I tip into panic if you give me a spreadsheet or put me near a cliff face (don’t ever get me to do maths while abseiling). If you look back over the last month, what put you under too much pressure? When we get to know our stressors we can proactively manage them.
It’s not the stressor that creates the pressure, it’s the meaning we give it: our perceptions and generalisations. If we manage our perceptions, the pressure goes down. When we get caught up in a chain of panic, we need to change the perception at the earliest point we can. This can be as simple as telling yourself to STOP when your caveman brain is on overdrive, or having a catch-all mantra that blocks out negativity: ‘I can handle it’ or ‘This will pass’.
For more performance-related tips to help your team through the coming months, read our article on the four drivers of employee engagement at a time of crisis.
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