“We discover our character through
decisions under pressure.”

–  Dan Millman

In 1982 Billy Joel released an album entitled, The Nylon Curtain, which contained the hit single, Pressure.  Feel free to listen while you read. 

The past few days have given me the opportunity to enjoy one of my passions – golf, as I played in a three day tournament with a number of others who share the same love for the game.  Inherent in these events is a situation that repeats itself time and time again, a player is faced with a critical putt.  Depending where you are in the match the pressure can be daunting.  On Saturday, a friend and competitor, Mark repeatedly demonstrated how to handle that pressure by draining shots that seemed difficult at best. He simply walked up to the ball, saw the line, took a practice stroke and then hit the ball with confidence.  Each time I watched as it followed the line and dropped into the hole.  How we react to the pressure of a critical putt is dictated, not by our time on the practice green, but by our mind, and that reaction to pressure is not limited to our time on the golf course.

Amy Morin is a contributor to  In a recent post she interviews Martin Turner, author of What Business Can Learn from Sport Psychology: Ten Lessons for Peak Professional Performance.   Turner, who is an expert in human performance has taken the knowledge he’s gained from studying athletes’ performance and figured out how business leaders can apply similar skills to high pressure situations.  He shares, “Two people with very similar skills and training can perform drastically different when faced with high pressure situations.  The key difference between those who get the gold medal and those who don’t is between the ears.”  He believes that in both sports and business, it is those who use their mind as a valuable weapon that beat out the competition when performing under pressure. So how is this skill developed?

Responding to pressure or stress is a feat of evolution.  Our ancestors faced real dangers – like animals that considered humans to be part of the dinner menu.  In these situations heart rates increased, muscles tensed, palms became sweaty, and they could even feel nauseous.  Today our daily stress is more psychological in nature, and even though a lion isn’t chasing us, we can still experience these physiological responses.

Turner maintains that the manner in which we initially respond to stress will determine whether we thrive or crumble.  Some will respond in a manner that helps and subsequently facilitates their performance, known as the challenge state.  On the other hand, we will have those who are initially threatened by the pressure or stress (threat state), and find their performance hindered.  A challenge state reflects a positive mental approach to pressure situations that translates to physiological changes including increased heart rate and decreased blood vessel constriction.  This results in an increased delivery of glucose and oxygen to the brain facilitating focus, decision-making, and performance.  Those who don’t enter into a challenge state find themselves threatened.  During the threat state the heart rate again increases, but the blood vessels constrict, limiting delivery of oxygen and glucose to the brain and compromising peak performance because of our inability to focus and make critical decisions.

So how can we thrive under pressure?  What are the strategies that will lead to peak performance in high pressure situations?  In sports, business, and our personal lives, high pressure situations place many demands on us that require a challenge state response.  When one is under pressure, meeting those demands begins with the most important aspect of peak performance – mental preparation. According to Turner, “To get into a challenge state, the key is to increase levels of self confidence, perceptions of control and focus on success.”  This is accomplished through the use of the following resources that can enhance our performance:

  • Imagery – Use imagery or visualization in a positive manner.  Visualize yourself performing well.  Make it realistic.  Include the sights, signs and smells.  Visualizing a successful performance instills confidence in your ability to perform at your very best.
  • Self-Talk – The conversations you have with yourself up to and during your performance will influence your behavior.  Hear yourself succeeding.  According to Turner many athletes he has interviewed use three key phrases; “Be strong!”, “Focus on winning!”, “Give everything!”.  These phrases or one like them, tailored to your challenges can help you stay focused and stave off negative thoughts of failure.
  • Pre-Performance Routines – How you spend your time prior to the big performance will influence your chances of success.  Creating a routine that gets your head in the game will help you prepare and will set the stage for success.

Like so many other things in our life, we have a choice in how we respond to challenging situations.  Whether it be in our personal or professional life, our response to a pressure situation will not only set the stage for the outcome, but also serves to create perceptions relative to our ability to deal with a challenge.  We can be viewed as one who is cool, calm, collected and results-focused, or one who is a short-fused, tense, and focused on the obstacles. The choice is yours, but I like the word of a fellow golfer, Tiger Woods, “Under pressure, you can win with your mind!”  Have a great week and, 

Embrace the Challenge!