Pressure is an unavoidable fact of life, and we all know what it’s like to crumble under it. Whether we’re asking someone out on a date, applying for a job, or speaking in public, we’re all well aware of how it can make us freeze up.
What’s worse is that those high pressure moments are, by definition, the moments when we least want to feel tense and nervous and incapable of performing at our best. So why does this happen? It turns out there are two competing theories.
First, there’s the idea that the desire to perform well acts as a distraction, which takes valuable mental resources away from the task at hand.
The second is, in a way, the opposite. On this view, too much conscious attention is being paid to a task which we would normally perform instinctively. This extra attention actually makes us over-think what we’re doing. Essentially, we’re micro-managing ourselves.
Whatever the reason for pressure’s ability to derail is, there are ways we can get ourselves back on track. Firstly, we can practice under pressure. Unsurprisingly, research has found that those who train themselves to become accustomed to pressure perform better than those who don’t.
Secondly, we can develop a pre-game routine. A sequence of movements or mental cues that we associate with performing well (Think Sylvester Stallone turning his cap around in “Over The Top”).
And lastly, keeping your focus on your goal, rather than the intricacies of reaching it, can reap benefits during those high pressure moments. Getting the details right is why you practice. In the big moments it’s best to put your faith in the work you’ve done and go for it.