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How to perform well under pressure | Psyche

The Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton prepares for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November 2013. Photo by Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters

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Guide

How to perform well under pressure

Ditch the tough talk, it won’t help. Instead cultivate your mental flexibility so you can handle whatever comes your way

by Josephine Perry + BIO

The Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton prepares for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November 2013. Photo by Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters

Need to know

Whatever sphere you inhabit, whether you’re a pro or amateur athlete, businessperson, teacher, full-time parent or something else entirely, you’re bound to have felt the pressure of your own expectations and the expectations of others. Almost everyone must cope with daunting situations, in which they don’t feel they have the skills needed to succeed and meet the weight of those expectations. I’m a sports psychologist and I help teach my clients mental techniques to deal with this kind of pressure. I’ve found the same practical techniques and principles that I teach to athletes are also invaluable to my clients from many walks of life, including business and theatre.

‘Mental toughness’ is the wrong approach

You might have noticed that, in contemporary Western working cultures, the way people are often expected to respond to pressure is by becoming mentally ‘stronger’ or ‘tougher’. This magical mental toughness will supposedly block the annoying nerves, and reduce the frustration and upset that come from feeling out of our depth.

‘Mental toughness’, and the ‘tough guy, special forces, battle-ready’ approach that it exemplifies, does make a great soundbite. The concept is widely adopted by athletes, adventurers, entrepreneurs and those in the military who talk about their journey to find it. Companies pay thousands of pounds for keynote speeches to their staff explaining how to get it. The renowned American football coach Vince Lombardi summarised our cultural worship for the phrase when he said: ‘Mental toughness is Spartanism with its qualities of sacrifice and self-denial, also the qualities of dedication and fearlessness and love.’

In sports psychology, the concept of mental toughness combines the traits of confidence and determination with the feeling of being in control of your own destiny. It might sound appealing, but in my work I take a completely different approach. I’ve seen the harm that can be caused by over-idolising confidence, determination and control, along with self-denial, sacrifice and fearlessness. This tough mindset might look strong and unbreakable from afar, but it actually prompts performers to bury their heads in the sand when faced by an intimidating challenge. Students of mental toughness are taught to ignore their worries and they will often self-sabotage. If you’ve fallen into this trap, you might recognise it in a speech you’ve put off practising, a paper you procrastinated over or a project sitting only half done – all with valid-sounding excuses, but also creating poor performance.

I’ve also seen how aspiring to mental toughness can trigger unhelpful and unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as self-imposed rigid rules, perfectionistic traits, a lack of self-compassion, and goals being attacked as threats rather than embraced like challenges. Entering any high-performance arena and seeing the encounter ahead of you as a threat is highly problematic because it means you are thinking with the avoidant, fear-driven parts of your brain, rather than the open-minded, approach-oriented parts. In a fearful state, you don’t think and respond creatively, you just follow patterns you have used before, usually following rigid rules, which means you cannot adapt well to new information or changes in your environment.

Consider a mentally tough bike rider who might be great at climbing a mountain, but prone to complete panic if they get a puncture or a spectator runs out into the road. Or a mentally tough actor who can handle the pressure of a live audience – right up till the moment of distraction from a mobile phone, at which point they forget their lines. Their mental toughness means they would survive the moment, but they wouldn’t be thriving in it or ready to adapt – their performance will suffer and their enjoyment will disappear.

The benefits of mental flexibility

The approach to coping with pressure that I teach is all about cultivating not mental toughness but mental flexibility, also known as ‘psychological flexibility’ (drawing partly on the principles of acceptance and commitment therapy or ACT, an approach in psychotherapy that has grown out of cognitive and behavioural therapy and blends it with insights from Buddhism and other perspectives). Mental flexibility is vital for coping well with pressure because, if you want to perform brilliantly, you need the skills to handle whatever is thrown at you, especially the unexpected. In sport, this might be a last-minute course change or finding out a scout will be watching your match that night. On the stage, it could be the understudy having to step in during the interval. In office work, it could be a last-minute request to join the team for a new business pitch. Cultivating your mental flexibility will allow you to better manage these kinds of moments.

A great definition of the type of mental flexibility I’m talking about comes from the American clinical psychologist Steven Hayes, the co-founder of ACT, and his colleagues, in which they describe it as ‘the ability to contact the present moment more fully … and to change or persist when doing so serves valued ends’. The mention of ‘valued ends’ is important here. When you are rigid (or psychologically inflexible), you persist in your actions even when they are no longer effective in helping you achieve what matters to you. With flexibility, by contrast, you can switch quickly between strategies based on the demands of each situation, and make decisions for how to act in line with your values (ie, ‘your heart’s deepest desires’, in the words of the ACT trainer and author Russ Harris).

Mental flexibility is associated with superior performance and better mental health. In 2006, Hayes and his colleagues published a meta-analysis of 32 studies involving 6,628 participants who had completed a measure of mental flexibility known as the ‘Acceptance and Action Questionnaire’. Across the studies, people who scored higher in mental flexibility were less likely to have a psychiatric disorder and they had higher overall mental health. Among the participants with chronic pain, those who scored higher in psychological flexibility were able to function for longer periods of time, took fewer painkillers and needed fewer healthcare visits. In the workplace, higher scorers made fewer errors and held a higher status.

The move towards mental flexibility as a goal in therapy comes from psychological approaches, such as ACT, that recognise everyone has fears, worries and stress, and that people fare better when they face and acknowledge these, instead of trying to fight them. Psychologists have seen that the more you try to block out difficult thoughts and emotions, the more they appear. In accepting rather than suppressing, a person still notices those thoughts, but they have less impact. The things you fear then distract you less, so you can use more helpful, solution-focused thinking and fewer avoidance-focused coping mechanisms. This means you unstick yourself from behaviours that are no longer helping you work toward your values in life.

These same principles are especially important when you feel under pressure – for instance, imagine your boss surprises you by asking you to pitch your product to an array of potential buyers, or perhaps you’re feeling nervous as you prepare to meet your partner’s parents for the first time. You might think that, in such high-pressure situations, the way to excel is to grit your teeth and toughen up. But a mentally flexible approach is arguably more beneficial, especially when you are clear on your values and know what matters to you. With values, you always have a direction, and every time you need to make a decision under pressure, you have a barometer against which to measure. A flexible, values-driven approach helps you perform well because you’ll be mentally nimble and you’re always working to meet your own metrics in life, not those driven by others, by fears or by expectations.

In this Guide, I will show you some basic techniques to develop your mental flexibility and become more aware of your values. Whenever you’re feeling under pressure, these foundations will allow you to proactively choose the direction you take, thus helping you perform better.

What to do

To perform well under pressure, you need several elements in place: an ability to distance yourself from destructive thoughts and self-talk; a way to cope with overwhelming feelings; the mental flexibility to respond in the most effective way; and, finally, to know what matters to you.

Here are five steps to take to build this approach to performing well under pressure:

Separate yourself from your thoughts

To begin, it is essential to remember that the thoughts you might have when feeling under pressure are often not actually true. When you are standing on the tennis court, you might catch yourself thinking ‘I’m useless at tennis, this will be embarrassing’ (or in the office, you might think ‘I’m useless at presenting, this will be embarrassing’) but these are not facts, they are emotionally driven thoughts. By recognising this (in ACT, it is known as ‘defusion’), you won’t get unhelpfully caught up in these negative thoughts and any related self-talk, and instead you will have the flexibility to make better decisions that move you towards what matters, not away from whatever you find scary.

Here’s an exercise that can help you achieve this distance from your thoughts. Firstly, you need to notice the unhelpful thoughts that are rattling around your head – not to dwell on them, but to become more aware of them. A visual way to think of this is to imagine your life as a bus. You are the driver, the direction of travel is set by your values, and the passengers are the thoughts or feelings that might try to direct you down the wrong roads. Your job as the driver is to stay focused on the direction of travel and not be distracted by the noise and chatter of the passengers – but you can’t kick them off the bus or stop them from talking. So, the way forward is not to try to block them out, but to notice what these passengers (your thoughts) say, nod along as if you are listening, all the while staying focused on the road and where you want to go.

A way to create an even greater sense of separation from your thoughts is to repeat them in an amusing voice – something like Minnie Mouse or ‘Movie Trailer Man’. This will further help you to suck out the negativity and power from the thought until it is clear it is just an unhelpful distraction.

If the voices idea sounds too silly to you, another approach is to try ‘distanced self-talk’. For example, in your tennis match, instead of thinking ‘I’m always weak with my first serve,’ add some distance, such as ‘I am thinking that my first serve is weak.’ A step even further away from negativity would see you get to ‘I am noticing that I am thinking that my first serve is weak’ (and to create even further distance, try referring to yourself with the second-person pronoun ‘you’ or by using your name). Creating distance in this way takes the sting out of the thought and allows you to flex around the belief, such as focusing on a strong serve, rather than being beaten up by it.

The same principle applies across contexts, so for example, in the office, try switching from something like ‘I always begin my presentations poorly’ to ‘I am thinking that I begin my presentations poorly,’ and so on, to create distance from the negative thoughts.

Practise labelling your feelings more accurately

When you’re under pressure, you might feel overwhelmed by your feelings and notice aggressive, unforgiving language bouncing around your mind, such as ‘I’m furious’ or ‘I’m terrified’. It’s as if the passengers on your bus are using very emotive language as they try to get your attention. Interpreting your feelings in this way can trigger your automatic fight-or-flight response, which evolved to help you survive danger, but is highly unhelpful to performance in many situations in modern life.

Instead of catastrophising about these feelings or trying to suppress them outright, a more mentally flexible approach is to increase your emotional vocabulary so that you can describe your feelings with more accuracy and nuance (psychologists call this ‘affect labelling’). This is important because most of us tend to be fairly lazy in our language and rely upon six to eight basic emotional descriptors (usually focused around joy, sadness, acceptance, disgust, fear, anger, surprise, and anticipation). When you use more precise words that better describe your actual feelings (there are actually hundreds of emotion words; see here for a list of 135 of the more common ones), this will help you to choose a more helpful coping mechanism for that feeling.

For example, say you’re feeling under pressure having just missed out on making the first team in rugby, or because a colleague achieved the promotion that you wanted. If you decide you are ‘angry’, then you will be more likely to respond in an aggressive or avoidant way, which is likely to be counterproductive. In contrast, if you notice that, actually, you are envious (one of the anger emotions), then you can actively pick out whichever element of the situation is making you envious and put in place more positive actions, such as planning extra rugby training or arranging a personal review with your manager. Identifying the envy means you can be clearer in your own goals and work more proactively towards achieving them.

Replace forms of self-talk that increase the pressure

How you think about your feelings and emotions is one aspect of self-talk, but there’s another kind that can also be highly counterproductive when you’re under pressure. One word that particularly raises a red flag is ‘should’, as in ‘I should be able to give this presentation easily’ or ‘I should be able to finish this project tonight.’ This word is loaded with expectations and pressure, and it prevents you from being open to all the options in front of you.

First, let me take another example from tennis. When, before the match, a player has checked out the rankings and seen her opponent is ranked far lower than she is, she might go into the match thinking tough, telling herself ‘I should win.’ Unfortunately, this will instantly trigger a threat reaction because, if she doesn’t win, she will have failed twice over – not just losing a match, but losing a match to a supposedly inferior player. By contrast, by being mentally flexible and making a concerted effort to see the bigger picture, she might realise that her opponent hasn’t been playing ranking events recently (ie, events that contribute to a formal ranking in a league) or has played a great deal but all of it overseas. With this more open attitude, she gives her opponent the respect she deserves and places far fewer expectations on herself – she might say to herself that she has an opportunity here to do well, rather than that she should do well – which will probably mean she plays in a more relaxed way and performs better.

By using a broader range of emotional language and avoiding pressurised self-talk, you too can start to replace words such as ‘should’, ‘must’ and ‘have’ with more open, alternative words such as ‘notice’, ‘awareness’ and ‘opportunity’. In moving towards this gentler language, you can adjust to the demands of a situation without allowing emotion to take over. It will help you focus more on process (the way you perform) over outcome (in terms of success or failure) and allow you to look at what you can do to live in line with your values, rather than fearing or avoiding potential failure.

For an example away from sport, imagine being at work and a new senior leader comes to visit your team, asking about the projects you work on. You could tell yourself to be tough and that you should be able to do this without preparation or that you must do well to impress your boss (self-talk that’s likely to make you feel panicky), but if you try instead to think ‘Here’s an opportunity to share what I’ve been working on’ or ‘This will be a great way to get more support for our project,’ then it should soften the pressure and help you think on your feet.

If thinking this way feels unnatural, you can make it easier through practice. Try writing down a few of examples of the kind of pressurised self-talk that goes through your head, such as ‘I should be the best,’ and then cross out the ‘should’ and replace it with something less restrictive, such as ‘I have an opportunity to do better than last time.’

Break some of your own rules

Overly rigid thinking and routines can all increase feelings of pressure. Increasing your mental flexibility is the antidote, and one way to do that is by deliberately challenging your usual way of doing things. This sounds super-simple, but if you like rigid routines and have come to rely upon them, you will find it difficult.

To complete this exercise, then every day for the next week, aim to do something you never normally do. It can be trivial – maybe washing up straight after dinner rather than leaving it until morning, or trying a completely different route home from work. Then the next week, aim every day to stop doing something you always do (maybe stop wearing your watch if you usually do, or avoid making the bed first thing if your usual routine is to make it each morning). The activity should not be anything dramatic or harmful, but something that makes you just a little uncomfortable. Breaking your own rules in this way will teach your brain that you are able to escape routine and that you can be agile. You will learn that, even when you don’t follow your usual routines, all is usually OK in your world.

Hopefully, this newfound mental flexibility will carry across the next time you are dealing with a high-pressured situation in life – for instance, rather than falling back on methods or strategies that aren’t working any longer, you’ll be more willing to try out alternative solutions, or you’ll interpret the potential outcomes of the situation with a more open mind. For instance, say you’re studying for a qualification and your routine is to submit papers as late as possible so you have the maximum amount of time to make the paper perfect. With flexibility you might realise the paper doesn’t have to be perfect – it just has to pass – and if you submit it earlier, when it is ‘good enough’ you will have extra time to start the next paper, or relax, or do something that enhances your wellbeing. You are still performing well under pressure, but you help yourself to reduce the pressure by flexing away from the rigid routine.

Identify and remember your values

The final and most fundamental step to performing well under pressure is to know why the performance matters in the first place – this is where your values come into play. Here it’s important to make a distinction between values and goals. Your goals are your long-term aims, whereas your values apply in every waking moment. For instance, you might have a goal to become the highest goal-scorer in your soccer team, but your soccer-related values might be to always try your hardest, to always strive to improve and to be a good team-mate. When you are very clear on your values, you gain two major benefits – you can spot when they could be violated (and so likely to trigger your emotionally driven threat systems), and you can also use them as a measure for how to respond when you feel under pressure, so that you stay consistent with them.

To identify your values, there are sheets of suggestions and exercises you can find online (for instance, Russ Harris provides his complete range of worksheets here), but I’ve found that another fun way to identify a key value is to scroll through the photos you have taken on your phone. Is there a theme, an element that is captured over and over again: success, family, beauty, community, spirituality? Once you’ve identified a key value, spend some time thinking about how you can make more decisions in your life in line with that value. If you’re feeling under pressure in a particular domain of your life, such as in a team sport, performing at work, or in family life at home, perhaps you could think of how the value you’ve identified pertains to that context. Keeping the value at the front of your mind when you’re under pressure – and those distracting bus passengers pop up! – will ensure your destination stays programmed into your satnav and you stay on track.

To give you a concrete example away from sport, imagine you’ve started volunteering for a local wildlife charity and the manager suddenly asks you to give a short talk about the charity to a group of visitors. Again, you might think the solution is to be tough and brave, but this would be to create a threat out of the situation. Instead, revisit your values – perhaps you care deeply about nature or you’re passionate about cultivating a sense of local community – with these at the forefront of your mind, you’re more likely to see the situation as an opportunity (challenging for sure, but not a threat), feel more relaxed and find it easier to think on your feet.

Key points – How to perform well under pressure

  1. ‘Mental toughness’ is the wrong approach. It’s a popular coping style but it can backfire by causing you to see challenges as threats.
  2. Develop your ‘mental flexibility’ instead. This way, you’ll be better able to think on your feet and cope with the unexpected.
  3. Separate yourself from your thoughts. We all have difficult thoughts, but when you learn to notice and accept but not respond, you stay more in control.
  4. Practise labelling your feelings more accurately. To avoid becoming overwhelmed by negative emotions, focus on improving your emotional literacy and you’ll see this opens the way to more creative solutions.
  5. Replace forms of self-talk that increase the pressure. Avoid telling yourself that you should do this or you must do that, and instead adopt more gentle and open language that is about opportunity and noticing.
  6. Break some of your own rules. Switch things up in everyday life so that you find it easier to be flexible when you’re under pressure.
  7. Identify and remember your values. Understanding your values and what truly matters to you means that, whatever life throws your way, you can become adept at moving in the direction you choose.

Learn more

When flexibility trumps toughness

One way to motivate yourself to develop more flexible thinking is to see how others who are considered ‘tough’ have moved towards ‘flexibility’ in order to improve their performance under pressure.

In working regularly with high-performing teenage girls who excel in sport, school and music, I see they often struggle with a fear of failure. When you have done well in pretty much everything in the first 15 years of your life, the fear of doing something wrong, and what that might mean about you, looms large. The fear pushes these girls to create rules and routines in order to maintain control. This helps them feel protected against failure, but it also brings with it stress, anxiety and the inability to try new things, to take a risk or to be creative. Our teenage years are all about trying on different characteristics, ideas and activities for size – and if you are too frozen with fear to try anything different, you could miss out on finding things you love. With more flexibility, you can explore your teenage years very differently. For these girls, learning to become more flexible means they have to accept they might fail at something, but doing so aware that it is for a greater good – a life where they can explore widely and perform at a high level because they are prepared to try new and different things.

Another group I’ve seen really benefit from more flexible thinking in order to perform under pressure is injured athletes. Whether they are professionals earning their living through sport or amateurs playing in the local cricket league, injury is the setback many of them dread. Research in this area has found that athletes scoring high in mental toughness have higher pain thresholds and are more likely to play through injury. While helpful to their momentary performance, it risks their long-term sporting endeavours. With more flexible thinking, I’ve witnessed how these injured athletes start to see a bigger picture; not focused on a single match, but a whole career. They acknowledge that pain is not to be ignored and is actually valuable information. This gives them a wider range of options to consider, such as embracing cross-training or new sports, and gives them more effective coping mechanisms that are in line with their values.

Links & books

‘The Struggle Switch’ (2015) by the acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) trainer Russ Harris is a great YouTube video to help you understand why it is healthier to be flexible than try to struggle through the tricky times with toughness.

To learn many more of the ACT skills included in this Guide, I recommend the book ACTivate Your Life (2015) by the clinical psychologists and trainers Joe Oliver, Jon Hill and Eric Morris.

You could try using apps such as Headspace or Calm to get more attuned at noticing, but not responding to, your unhelpful thoughts.

To further help you start to practise and understand some of the techniques in this Guide, you could watch the ‘Passengers on the Bus’ (2013) YouTube video by Joe Oliver and ‘The Unwelcome Party Guest’ (2011) video, also by Oliver – both are great. If you add to this an ‘Emotional Wheel’ (a Google search brings up lots of nice versions), you will find some easily printable sheets listing more than 100 emotion words to help you increase your emotional vocabulary.

Harris’s book The Happiness Trap (2007) is the one I see most often recommended by psychologists to understand how to incorporate more acceptance, commitment and flexibility into your life.

Finally, if listening is more your thing, my new audiobook (on Audible) is called The Ten Pillars of Success (2021). In it, I offer many tips and activities to develop a more mentally flexible approach to performing under pressure.

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17 November 2021