The Myth of Performing Well Under Pressure

No one does their best work under pressure. Not that top athlete whose name just popped into your head or that annoying person at school or work who always left things to the last minute and said that’s when they do their best work. It’s not. And, if you think you’re the exception, you’re not.

The research is clear. Under pressure, your performance—and everyone else’s—gets worse. Any athlete you thought of who picks up their game under pressure actually has a worse success rate under pressure than when they are relaxed. Whether it’s shooting a basketball, giving a presentation, or taking an exam, we all do better when there’s no pressure to perform.

Emotional intelligence expert and The New York Times bestselling author of Pressure, J.P. Pawliw-Fry, understands the consequences of pressure. When we’re under pressure, our skills are reduced due to our physiological reactions. Blood flows away from our brain and muscles impairing memory, narrowing focus, and sapping energy. Basically, we, can’t think, feel weak and get tunnel vision.

The myth of performing best under pressure persists because the best performers can still function–most of the time–under pressure. Despite the stress on their systems, they don’t completely collapse. They don’t perform their best, however, just less bad than the rest of us. 

So how can you perform better under pressure? Pawliw-Fry says these are the three behaviors you can work on.

Receive criticism without getting defensive

Did you ever hear a negative piece of feedback then freak out and go into a negative spiral of doom? Say, someone finds a flaw in your work, performance, etc. and that piece of information takes over your thoughts so you can’t think or focus on anything else? It totally throws off your game so you perform even worse.

Top performers are more resistant to the death spiral of negative feedback because they have learned to view feedback as a way to get better. This is why top athletes can shrug off the missed shot, broken play, or turnover. They look at that turn of events as feedback of how NOT to do things—then try again.

Admit a mistake

Similar to handling feedback is being able to admit a mistake. It’s difficult to improve your abilities when you’re in denial. However, admitting a mistake is the first step to getting better. If you can admit a mistake, then you can learn to shrug one off under a moment of pressure.

An added bonus: people who admit their errors are seen as more trustworthy and build trust with their co-workers. 

Have difficult conversations

Finally, the people who perform better under pressure also have the courage to have difficult conversations. Not only can these people receive criticism and admit their own errors, but they can also tell others when they aren’t doing well.

Giving feedback is difficult for both givers and receivers. Often, we hesitate saying the worst news because we see people squirming in their seats and looking uncomfortable. We fall short in saying the tough words. Those people who can move forward when things get uncomfortable are better prepared for handling pressure situations.

An added bonus: these people who can have difficult conversations build respect from their team because they say what needs to be said.

So if you want to perform better under pressure, try working on these three areas. Learn to receive feedback, admit errors, and have difficult conversations.

Kyle Crocco is the Content Marketing Coordinator at BigSpeak Speakers Bureau, a graduate of UC Santa Barbara, and the lead singer of Duh Professors. He regularly publishes business book reviews and thought articles on MediumBusiness 2 Community, and Born 2 Invest.