What athletes can teach us about performing under pressure?

Elite level sport, whether performed at the absolute highest level, with the world analysing your every step during competition, or if we are representing an elite institute/club nationally, the pressures endured can be relentless. From a young age, athletes dedicate their lives to performing for fans, coaches, management, their family and themselves. And it is the latter that often weighs the biggest burden of pressure for an athlete. But we know that pressure doesn’t just come in the form of sport – It is part of our everyday life.

Family life has its pressures, and so does working life – Albeit the audience and context may be different.

You may be competing in front of 2,000 people, or you may be presenting in front of 5 senior stakeholders. Whatever the situation, pressure will play its part. And what makes us successful is not how we perform in the easy moments, but it is how we perform when the pressure is really on.

So how do athletes learn to deal with the relentless pressures they face? And can this be taken in to the world of business

Training for those moments, and let the outcome take care of itself

An athlete will often do absolutely everything they can in training, repeatedly recreating those pressure moments they will face in competition – So when that moment comes, they are physically, and emotionally prepared – They know what they need to do.

Sport psychologists tell us, that those athletes that thrive under pressure, learn how to channel their efforts in to performing to the best they can, consistently and when it really matters. This ‘tunnel-vision’ like focus, can help with clarity of thinking, and gives the opportunity to solely face the moment in front of them. Fundamentally, this removes over thinking about the absolute end goal, and channels the concentration on the ‘there and then.’ Sports psychologist will often train athletes to get in to this habit of thinking – Focus on the present, rather than that absolute end goal. If you do all that you can to prepare for those key moments, when they come, you ‘let the outcome take care of itself.’

So if you are presenting in front of a panel for a promotion – Try to not think about the end goal – getting promoted, and what that will look like. Instead prepare the outright best you can, so when the pressure is on, you have given yourself the best chance to succeed in that moment. And you can then feel comfortable that you have done everything you could have done – And hopefully the outcome will take care of itself.

See the success and see the failure

Visualisation for some athletes allows them to mentally see and feel themselves in future moments of success and failure. By doing so, they are able to ‘re-create’ the environment of peak pressure, to help them develop pre-competition routines. The visualisation of athletes is guided by sports psychologists towards the feelings of success, rather than visualising the avoidance of failure – there is a key difference. This allows for true repetition, to train the brain to think with clarity, build self-confidence for those moments, and increase apparent levels of control towards the feeling of success.

So before your next meeting, presentation, or business pitch – visualise not what you need to do to avoid failure, but instead what success will look like in that moment. Recreate that feeling, recreate that environment and use this to channel preparation and build confidence that in that moment, when it comes, you can deal with it.

Lets yourself be challenged

You will improve much more, when you step outside of your comfort zone. And often this means failing first. Athletes constantly allow themselves to be pushed to their limits, and quickly understand that making mistakes will come when you are performing under pressure. But over time, they can refine their performance to minimise these mistakes, and thus make effective decisions, at the right times. But this comes from making mistakes in the first place, and then using this experience of failure towards longer term success

Pressure will create unnatural behaviour, and create uncomfortable environments in all types of life. So it is inevitable that mistakes and failure will occur. But too often, people distance themselves from getting in to situations where mistakes and failure are possible. So consequently, they then don’t allow themselves to be pushed and challenged in new environments.

If, like successful athletes, people within business and everyday life, see each mistake and failure as a piece of learning, then they may be able to feel more comfortable taking on these pressurised moments, outside of their comfort zone. Many athletes quickly understand the mistake, analyse themselves, seek a solution, and ensure this is improved upon next time. So if a mistake is made at work, don’t be put off. Seek feedback – Understand how learning from this can lead to improvements for next time, and don’t be put off by making mistakes. Instead, let’s think about putting ourselves under pressure and taking on the challenge.