When under pressure, your performance can suffer. There are many proven ways to overcome this problem.
Are you ever nervous at a crucial time? It might be an interview for a job you desperately want. Or a public talk in front of friends or critics. If you play sport, it could be a big game.
Most people have performance anxiety at some times. It is cruel. Not only does it make you feel terrible, but it can harm your performance. Speakers at a big occasion freeze up and can’t remember their lines, or speak in a leaden voice while reading a text. A golfer misses a crucial putt, commonly called choking.
I’ve read that many people are more afraid of public speaking than of dying. Some famous opera singers are anxious throughout their careers and have to be pushed onto the stage. I’ve talked with academics who never get over their worries about giving lectures. Some professional musicians take beta blockers to calm their nerves.
Decades ago, I played competition chess, and eventually began to become nervous about making a blunder, a bad move that meant the game was lost. Strangely, after making a blunder I would totally relax, because I knew I didn’t need to worry any more. After several games like this, I stopped playing.
Pressure can also have a more drawn-out effect. I see this among colleagues who have trouble finishing articles and sending them to journals. Their anxiety is caused by thinking their work is not good enough. Some of them fear rejection; others cannot measure up to their own internal critics.
If you suffer performance nerves in any part of your life, I recommend the book Performing under Pressure by Hendrie Weisinger and J. P. Pawliw-Fry. It draws on the large amount of research in this area. Best of all, it has a multitude of practical tips.
You might imagine that you perform better under pressure. A looming deadline concentrates the mind, enabling you to get the work done. But in many ways pressure can have a negative impact.
You are in the middle of a crucial interview or presentation. To do your best, you need all of your mental capacity directed to the task at hand, with no distractions. However, the pressure of the situation may cause you to worry about making a mistake. You might even start thinking of worst-case scenarios, if you mess up entirely. It doesn’t matter exactly what you’re thinking of: if it’s anything except the task at hand, it saps mental energy and prevents you from doing your best.
For some tasks, you rely entirely on your unconscious mind: you do things without thinking consciously about them. Your breathing is an example. When you learn a skill well, like a golf swing, eventually it becomes automatic, and you don’t need to think consciously about it. Under pressure though, if you start doubting yourself, you may pay attention to what is usually routine. You start thinking about your golf swing rather than where the ball will go. You lose the benefit of unconscious, automatic processing, and your skill level declines. You may end up choking: your stroke is way off!
Part 2 of Performing under Pressure describes “pressure solutions.” When you’re under pressure, these are things you can do to perform better. There are 22 of them!
Pressure solution 1 is “befriend the moment”. The way you think about pressure makes a big difference.
“… individuals who perceive a task or situation not as a threat but instead as a challenge, an opportunity, or fun are far more likely to perform up to the level of their ability, increasing their changes for success.” (p. 112)
Number 13 is “pressure yourself.” When preparing for a high-pressure situation, the idea is to practise what’s involved with pressure. I did this years ago when preparing to play the Weber clarinet concerto #2 with the Wollongong Symphony, a really high-stress occasion for me. I practised the piece for months, of course, and rehearsed with the orchestra. Then, closer to the concert, I simulated some of the circumstances. At home, I played through the entire concerto without stopping. I played it along with a recording. I dressed up in my performance clothes and played it, imagining being in front of an audience of 500. At the concert, I was very nervous beforehand but relaxed as soon as I walked on stage. I’m sure that pressuring myself in advance made a difference.
Pressure solution #15 is to write down your fears. There is a considerable body of research showing the power of writing to reduce the mental effects of traumatic experiences. The technique is simple: spend a few minutes writing down what happened and how you felt or feel about it. This straightforward exercise, spending just 20 minutes writing on three days, has been shown to have lasting benefits. Weisinger and Pawliw-Fry report on one study about using writing in advance of a stressful challenge.
For students who didn’t write out their thoughts and feelings, there was a high correlation between test anxiety and performance – the more anxious the student, the worse the performance. In contrast, those students who wrote about their test thoughts and feelings showed no relationship between test anxiety and performance. In fact, the highly anxious students did as well as the less anxious students. (p. 140)
With 22 pressure solutions on offer, you should find it easy to find at least a few that work. It’s a matter of trying them and seeing what difference they make, and recruiting a few friends who can provide an independent assessment of the outcomes.
I think a big obstacle is that many people do not want to talk about their performance anxiety, or even think about it, perhaps with the fear that this will make it worse. Avoidance is easier in the short term. Checking out solutions means confronting what causes anxiety.
The COTE of armour
In part 3, Weisinger and Pawliw-Fry take a step back and look at ways for people to become more resistant to performance anxiety and more able to use it to their advantage. They present four generic personality strengths: confidence, optimism, tenacity and enthusiasm. Each one can be fostered.
Consider optimism. Many people believe that pessimism or optimism are character traits, which is true enough, but also believe that they are unalterable. Actually, though, there ways to change.
Optimism is not just thinking that everything will turn out okay. It involves several features. One is permanence. An optimistic attitude involves assuming that good things will continue but that bad things are temporary. A promotion at work is taken as a sign of continued success, but rejection of a promotion is treated as a short-term setback to be overcome by trying harder.
A second important feature of optimism is pervasiveness. An optimistic attitude treats positives as pervading all parts of life and treating negatives as restricted in relevance. A pessimistic salesperson, having a bad day, might say “I’ll never be any good at anything” whereas an optimistic one might just say “It was a bad day but tomorrow will be different.”
An important part of optimism is looking for positives, even in disastrous situations, and working towards them. The willingness to continue is important.
As well as describing the value of confidence, optimism, tenacity and enthusiasm, Weisinger and Pawliw-Fry give tips on becoming stronger in each of them. For example, to become more tenacious, they recommend setting meaningful goals, practising focusing, being adaptable enough to look for alternative paths to achieve goals, and thinking of obstacles as opportunities.
Putting it into practice
Performing under Pressure is a valuable manual for improving in clutch situations. Following the authors’ suggestions will lead to short-term solutions and long-term improvement. Eventually, pressure that used to cause anxiety will be welcomed as a challenge and as a prod to doing ever better. Too good to be true? For many individuals, the challenge is to just get started.
Based on my observations, many people seem resigned to their current set of skills. Rather than study and practise how to become better under pressure, they are more likely to continue what they’ve always done. To improve requires a willingness to become involved in self-transformation, to think of yourself in a different way, and to put in the effort to achieve the vision.
Ironically, those with the most confidence, optimism, tenacity and enthusiasm are most likely to benefit from the authors’ insights and advice. It requires a degree of tenacity to obtain and read a book, think about its relevance and to institute a programme to implement some of its suggestions.
My guess is that the most promising way to improve is to find one or two friends and work together at changing, helping each other. How to proceed is straightforward. The challenge is to begin.