What’s the difference between you and Rory McIlroy on the green? Well, apart from about a 50 stroke handicap, the main thing that sets apart people like pro athletes from the rest of us is the ability to perform under pressure.
Maybe you’re not trying to win an ugly gold blazer, but we all face moments of pressure in our lives, especially at work.
So how can we cultivate the same sort of mindset and skills as a professional athlete on the course – in the boardroom?
It’s mostly mental.
Turns out, according to sports psychologists, the way we face a stressful situation mostly comes down to how we instinctively react in those first few moments. Do we assess the situation as a challenge to be met, or a threat to be feared.
A lot of this is instinctual — which is why it seems like some people are just wired to perform well under pressure. But there are some ways you can help increase your chances of success, even if you aren’t one of those lucky ones wired to meet a challenge.
Prepare. Then prepare some more.
A lot of the “stage fright” type fear that arises when we are forced to perform comes from worry that we aren’t prepared — that we’ll forget our lines, sound like an idiot, our tech won’t work or we’ll fall off the stage. The best way to address this fear is to practice. Practice a presentation forwards and backwards (literally). Test out all the tech beforehand. Walk the stage. Whatever you can do to feel as prepared as possible.
Play “What if?”
It seems counter-intuitive, but go ahead and let your mind wander and think of all the worst possible things that can go wrong. Go wild! Imagine your computer catching fire, the boss falling asleep, the crowd booing you. Imagine how you will handle each situation and succeed. I can practically guarantee that if anything does go wrong, it won’t be as bad as the scenarios you dreamed up — and you’ll already have thought about how to handle it with grace.
Once you’ve played the what if game and taken it out to its most ridiculous conclusions — stop it. Focusing on what could go wrong directly leading up to your performance is just about the worst thing you could do. Instead, in the days and hours leading up to your moment, visualise yourself knocking it out of the park. If that feels hard, bring to mind past successes and really focus on the details: sights, smells, sounds, feelings. Inhabit these visualisations as fully as possible.
Use positive self-talk.
If your mind is playing a constant litany of negative thoughts — “I’m going to fail. They’re all going to laugh at me. I’ll never live this down,” — it will just increase your stress levels. Instead, give yourself one to three positive mantras like “breathe,” “stay focused,” and “be your best,” to give yourself something positive to focus on.
Eliminate as many variables as possible with routines.
You don’t want to be searching your house for your keys before a big interview or panicking when your computer crashes moments before a presentation. You can help eliminate these sorts of negative variables by setting up a “pre-game” routine. Lay out your clothes, car keys, phone, etc. the night before an important interview. Make backup copies of presentations, print hard copies, or know where you can borrow extra tech before a presentation. Experienced photographers and event planners often have an “emergency kit” they bring to every job full of random bits like tape, hair pins, extra batteries, and breath mints — things they know from experience they might need. Build your own emergency kit for any high pressure situation.
With practice and preparation, even those who aren’t normally comfortable in high-pressure situations can relax and seem a little more adept and at ease.