Discover more from Unfair Advantage
The Complete Guide to Performing Under Pressure Part 2: Short-Term Pressure
What to do to manage the big day
In part 1 of this guide, we talked about ways to manage pressure over the long term. We explored strategies around maintaining perspective, building in recovery, and managing uncertainty. When dealing with pressure over the course of a season, whether it’s 17 games, 82 games, or 162 games, these strategies work to keep us appropriately calibrated to the moment.
That’s all fine and good until we get to the big game. High performers have to get comfortable with the fact that some performances do matter more than others. A playoff game is more important than a regular season game, no matter how much we try to approach them as though they’re all the same (and there’s merit to trying to keep it as similar and predictable as possible). When the big day is here, we need a different set of strategies to help us perform under pressure, in addition to the set we developed in part 1.
Strategy 1: Make it predictable
The single best thing you can do to manage pressure for the big day is to make it predictable. That means two things: practicing and preparing psychologically.
Good practice is about varying the constraints and conditions under which you execute your performance. If you’re giving a big speech, that means practicing standing up, sitting down, inside, outside, with people, without people, first thing in the morning, first thing at night, on an empty stomach… you get the idea. The more varied the conditions are, the richer your model of performance. Since we know the brain is a prediction machine - it basically tests hypotheses based on your model against what’s happening in the real world, and then adjusts - the richer your model, the better your predictions, and the better your performance.
In the sports context, that means practicing the scenarios you expect to see in the big game under different conditions - at the beginning of practice, end of practice, middle of practice, with different player groups, with different coaches… the list goes on. You want to help your athletes have the richest possible dataset to draw from when the big day comes.
Good practice has another benefit beyond enriching our performance model that helps us manage the pressure - building our confidence. When we’ve practiced well, we start to feel grounded in our capabilities and the sense that we are prepared gives us a sense of control. That feeling of control increases our confidence by minimizing uncertainty, one of the most metabolically taxing experiences for our brain. This is a nice double-whammy effect of good practice.
The second element of making it predictable is psychological preparation. Off the field or court, or outside the board room, you can do things like train your self-talk, imagine yourself in different scenarios walking through your pitch or performing in a big moment, and practicing skills like mindfulness to direct your attention. Leveraging psychological skills before the big game means that when the big game arrives, they’ll be easier to access in the moment.
Strategy 2: Focus on what you can control AND influence
Everyone has heard the saying “control the controllables,” and for good reason - it works. In any performance, which is essentially just an odds-based event we care about, there are things we can control, things we can influence, and things we can do nothing about.
Here’s a secret from the best performers: they don’t only focus on controlling the controllables, but they dip into that second bucket, too - they focus on what they can influence.
The more competent we are, the more we are able to influence the outcomes, even if we can’t control them completely. Think about an NBA defender getting a hand up to block a shot. What he can control is giving good effort and putting a hand up. What he can influence is the other player’s shot by positioning himself well, getting close in to him, and making it challenging. What he can’t do anything about is whether or not the other player still makes it .
In pressure situations, you want to expand your cirlce of influence. What you can control is a necessity, and what you can influence is a little bit more than a nice-to-have. The key is to recognize where to draw the line - what falls clearly outside the scope of what you can do anything about - and to stay grounded within what you can control and influence.
All performances are odds-based events - and the more you dominate what you can control and maximize what you can influence, the better your odds.
Strategy 3: Be present
When things really get going, it’ll be easy in the big game to look ahead to the future and wonder about the outcome, or look back to the past and wonder about a mistake you made or an opportunity you missed.
Those are good exercises (kinda) for when the clock expires.
In the heat of the moment, you want to stay as present as you can - with your focus directed externally on the cues you need to perform as they unfold in the here and now.
In sport, that means focusing on the play of your opponents and taking it one play at a time. It’s not helpful to be focused on what’s happening inside your own head or your own body, because that’s not where the game is played. By directing your attention to the information you need to execute your skills here and now, you give yourself the best chance to win.
Of course, it’s totally normal to find yourself in your own head at times in these situations. The key is to just redirect back to the task at hand, much like mindfulness practice. A simple tool to do that is WIN - What’s Important Now? By asking yourself this question, you can quickly refocus on the task at hand and immerse yourself back in the game.
Strategy 4: Leave your baggage behind
Just because you’re walking into the big game doesn’t mean the rest of the world cares or is stopping for you. We all have stuff going on outside the big game that we bring to the door. Whether or not we choose to bring it onto the court or into the boardroom is up to us.
At it’s core, this is really just another way of saying be present. But, it’s a little bit more than that. It can be helpful to make a conscious choice to check out of the other things you have going, and check into the big game. You can write down the other things that are important, and come back to them later. But, essentially, you want to find any way you can to make sure that your full attention is on the performance, and there’s no risk of it drifting to something else.
We’re all human, and to expect even the best athletes in the world to cross an arbitrary boundary onto a playing surface and just transform into someone with nothing else going on is a bit unrealistic - and yet, that’s what the best in the world do, time and again. For those 2-3 hours, they are completely, fully, there. Many of the best players I’ve been around don’t bring their phones to the arena, and proactively protect communication with them on game day by setting some ground rules about what is and isn’t okay with them on the day of the competition. By clearly drawing some lines in the sand, you can set yourself up to carry less baggage to the arena and more easily drop it in the locker room on the way to the game.
Strategy 5: Don’t let it define you
Look, even if this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (which there often tend to be several of…) - it doesn’t define you. The best performers recognize that who they are as people, their worth and contributions to the world, don’t hinge on the outcome of a playoff game. It might be part of their story, some of what they’re remembered for, but they control their own internal narrative and as a result, reshape the external narrative.
It’s important to not lose touch with what you value you most, who is most important to you, and what you want your legacy to be. In any competitive venue, we all want to be champions. That’s a given, so not defining yourself by number of rings won or banners hung doesn’t mean you aren’t competitive. It just means that you’ve got a good head on your shoulders.
To recap, we’ve got 5 strategies we can use to manage pressure on the big day:
Make it predictable
Focus on what you can control and influence
Leave your baggage behind
Don’t let it define you
In the final step of the complete guide to performing under pressure, we’ll learn how to deliberately come up clutch.