While I won't be mistaken for LeBron James or Michael Jordan, I do share the commonality of being a basketball player and performing under pressure. There's a special type of mental strength needed to perform in high stake athletic competitions or presenting inside the boardroom.
Practicing your speech at home and shooting free throws inside an empty gym is one thing. But once the audiences arrive and the rehearsals are a thing of the past--sweaty palms, a rapidly beating heart, and excessive mental chatter can, unfortunately, arrive throwing a wrench into your performance.
Why do people shrink under pressure?
When you see someone fall short of expectations under pressure, you may be inclined to think that they weren't prepared enough. But, that's missing a huge piece of the puzzle. A large percentage of high performers don't perform well under pressure because their prefrontal cortex went into overdrive.
Think of your prefrontal cortex as the commander-in-chief in terms of helping you focus on the specific task at hand.
In a recent Harvard Business Review column, Barnard College president and cognitive scientist Sian Beilock explains that "During our normal every day practiced tasks--we're not paying attention to all the little details of what we are doing. Our prefrontal cortex is largely on autopilot."
However, in high stakes situations, it's a much different portrait.
Under these situations, Beilock states, "When the pressure is on, we often start focusing on the step-by-step details of our performance to try and ensure an optimal outcome and, as a result, we disrupt what would have otherwise been fluid and natural."
To keep yourself from suffering cognitive overload, here are some simple foundational habits to implement.
1. Prioritize sleep.
Whether it's remembering plays for the hardwood or key facts for the upcoming presentation, your brain is inundated with a plethora of facts along with other material from the day.
Quality sleep, specifically, the stage where you're dreaming is where everything meshes as if it's in a blender--helping you form commonalities and store inside your long term memory.
Peak performance starts the night before by committing to getting the highest quality sleep possible.
2. Reframe your reality and get your breathing under control.
Often times, I remind myself that the only reality existing is the one I'm perceiving. Before a speaking event, I feel my heartbeat speeding up, my breaths falling out of flow, my palms getting a little sweaty, and some internal dialogue making a guest appearance. In this situation, I use to fret and only make myself worse.
Now, I acknowledge everything going on, and remember I create my own reality by my perceptions. Therefore, instead of looking at this as a bad thing, I reframe everything into positives as indications that I truly care about what I'm teaching (plus it's normal to feel these experiences).
After reframing the situation, focus on getting your breathing pattern back into its normal rhythm. Calming your internal dialogue down along with controlling your breathing leads to less perceived stress and a more controlled heart rate which culminates in improving your chances of performing well in high stakes situations.
3. Visualize your desired result.
When you hear visualization, you may be tempted to roll your eyes. I don't blame you. I use to be skeptical as well until I met athletes and top performers who all mention this as a daily staple in their performance toolbox.
When Serena Williams was 9-years-old, her father was known to practice the visualization habit by whispering to her, "This is you at the U.S. Open" while hitting tennis balls. When visualizing your performance under the brightest of lights, get specific.
How do you feel? How are you moving? How does the audience react and respond? Be precise when visualizing.
When it comes to performing well under pressure, preparation is key, but even more important is controlling where your mind ventures to.