Performing under pressure: What you need to know…

Some of you probably know that I’m trained as a sport psychologist, and spent four years running a Masters’ degree in Sport and Performance Psychology in London. During that time, I designed what I believed to be a cutting-edge course, had it ratified and accredited by the British Psychological Society, and trained around 35 potential sport psychologists. And pretty much every technique I taught on that course, I don’t use anymore…

Stress ball

Sport and performance psychology is the study and application of performance under pressure. Although a large aspect of sport psychology involves the former (studying what happens under pressure and the best ways of functioning in those situations), the practical side of sport psychology has, typically, been about teaching performers a raft of techniques to use when they need to. Some of these techniques involve attempting to reduce anxiety when it happens, others are about ‘controlling’ negative self talk, while others harness mental imagery in an attempt to increase physical functioning in situ. Annoyingly, sport psychologists, for the most part, forget two important things when teaching these techniques. The first is a biggy: humans simply can’t control their thoughts and feelings. Encouraging the illusion that they can usually ends in disappointment – especially when an athlete tries to talk him or herself out of a stressful situation and fails. The second is also rather important: because performance is degraded during high-pressure situations, skills that require a large presence of mind to work simply don’t occur to the performer and, usually, he or she returns to default, with a resultant drop in performance. During this drop, the performer starts paying attention to intrusive thoughts and unpleasant feelings, and stops paying attention to the matter at hand. No one can perform well when distracted.

Let me clarify. I’m not saying that traditional sport psychology techniques don’t work. I’m saying that, during stressful periods, it seldom occurs to anyone (no matter how well trained) to use these techniques. Instead, pretty much everyone gets distracted by their distressing thoughts and feelings, with resultant performance degradation. And note that, when I say performance, I mean any human endeavour that requires high-level functioning: work, sport, art, or tiddly-winks.

Let’s sidestep for just a minute and revise the basics of human attention. I’ve written about this extensively in other blogs (here for example) but, in a nutshell, humans are largely directed by our fear systems, housed in the limbic system (in networks around the amygdala). This system evolved to keep us alive when presented with potential danger, and one way it does that is to evoke a temporary ‘fight or flight’ response that activates a variety of physiological processes (such as increased heart rate and oxygenation of the blood). From a performance perspective, the most disruptive aspect of fight or flight is the reduction of prefrontal lobe activity during high-stress periods. In other words, when we (or at least our limbic system) perceives that we are in potential danger (substitute ‘pressure’ in the modern world), the part of our brain that we use to make executive decisions, and for logical thought, stops functioning properly. There’s a great reason for this (if by great, you mean “worked really well when survival under pressure actually required us to fight or flee”): the prefrontal lobes need a lot of energy to function, and they are powered (mostly) by blood sugar. In a real fight or flight situation, that blood sugar is a lot better used for fueling major muscles. But the limbic system evolved long before the modern world, and it’s not very good at distinguishing between real danger and perceived danger. It doesn’t know that we actually need our prefrontal lobes during high-pressure situations, and it certainly doesn’t know that we now have ready access to replacement sugars. Sadly, our inability to perform in situations where we really need to is the result of an outmoded system that used to do a great job of keeping us alive, and now tends to fuck it up.

So, instead of “what techniques can we implement once the limbic system activates to try and deactivate it (knowing that we probably won’t have the wherewithal to access these techniques during limbic activation)?”, the real question for sport and performance psychologists should be “how do we reduce the likelihood of limbic system activation under pressure, and what can we do to reduce its impact when it does?”. The answer is actually quite simple: teach people to be more comfortable with being uncomfortable (TM).

OK, shameless self-promotion plug here: myself and two other sport psychologists (Dane Barclay and Daniel Dymond) have started a training program that does just that. We’re called Mindful Leaders, and we run “the Uncomfortable Workshop”, a one-day masterclass that helps people (especially business people) to increase their tolerance for discomfort, and to continue to function in high-stress situations without relying on stress-reducing techniques. We’re launching soon, so feel free to get in touch if you’re interested.

So, moving on. Most of us stop functioning in high-pressure situations because we perceive danger, resulting in limbic system activation (reducing our ability to think clearly). The key word here is “perceived”, because danger is purely a question of interpretation; we don’t interpret familiar or comfortable situations as dangerous (and vice-versa). But because most of us have a very low tolerance for discomfort, many of us automatically equate discomfort with danger and act accordingly. This explains why we overreact when we’re angry, go to great lengths to avoid things that make us feel anxious, or attempt to control situations that are unfamiliar. In fact, this behaviour underlies a major meme in modern society: avoiding things that are unpleasant (including physical discomfort, ‘negative’ emotions, and intrusive or distressing thoughts) because they are “bad”. This message is primed in small children, and we repeat it over and over again throughout our lives. No wonder we end up so discomfort-averse.

But what’s so bad about feeling uncomfortable? Who said that life should be constantly pleasant? Plainly, life isn’t a box of chocolates, and it fucks us up when we assume that it should be. The consequence of this delusion is, on the one hand, a population with extremely low tolerances to discomfort (cold, pain, hunger, stress, sadness, fear, anger, worry, etc.) and, on the other hand, an almost pathological need for things that provide the illusion of safety (happiness, material things, a lack of stressors). We’re quite probably the first few generations of humans to ever have this luxury. Prior to recent times, humans lived hard, brutal, painful lives. I’m not saying that this was fun, or suggesting we go back to the ‘good old days’. I am saying that our ancestors probably coped with discomfort a lot better than we do and, unlike us, didn’t spend their lives whinging about how bad they felt.

OK, rant over. Yes, we’ve devolved into a society of deluded, comfort-addicted whusses. But it’s not like we can’t do something about it. Throughout my blogs I’ve pointed out one thing consistently: humans are capable of change if we pay attention. Performing under pressure is no exception.

So (apart from coming to our amazing masterclass), here’s what you can do to be more comfortable with being uncomfortable.

1) Understand that, when you perceive something as stressful, there’s a good chance that you’ll get limbic activation, and that this will degrade your ability to think clearly;

2) Recognise that you have choices: you do not need to act on default (with a stereotypical response) to stressful situations;

3) Realise that you can’t control your thoughts, feelings, sensations, or urges. You can, however, control whether you pay attention to them. In other words, just because you’re feeling tired, stressed and frustrated, and have a whole load of unpleasant, distressing thoughts (“I can’t stand this”, “this is sooo boring”), doesn’t mean you have to pay attention to them;

4) Instead of paying attention to unpleasant thoughts and feelings, try recognising what’s going on and deliberately moving your attention to something else, such as your breathing. This is something you can control. Note that this is not a distraction technique. You’re recognising the thought or feeling, acknowledging its presence, accepting that it’s there and that you can’t control it, and then deliberately moving your attention to something else;

5) Learn to recognise your values (read here) and develop a series of alternative behaviours that are values-congruent (i.e., in line with your values). Cultivate a willingness to experience discomfort in the service of something that’s important to you. For example, even though you’re tired and pissed off, you might be willing to experience these unpleasant sensations because your value is to help your team, or create something meaningful, or learn new skills. This is about being OK with feeling uncomfortable in the short term, in service of something longer-term that you find personally meaningful;

6) Work on exposing yourself to discomfort whilst taking values-congruent action. Over time, you’ll learn to be more comfortable with being uncomfortable. It isn’t actually “bad”, it’s just uncomfortable at the moment, and it’s certainly tolerable when you take into account the more important reason you’re in this uncomfortable situation.

Oh, and come to our Uncomfortable Workshop.

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