Performing Under Pressure

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I used to be a choker. As a young sports person, I was great while training. On game day, often I’d turn to custard. In the lead up to competition, I would begin to feel like rubber; dry mouth, hairs raised on the back of my legs and numerous nervous trips to the bathroom. When the moment of performance would arrive, my body had lost its twitchy edge and would feel leaden, as if just climbing out of bed.

At the time, I couldn’t find a remedy. I knew it was all mental, but I couldn’t seem to shake the anxiety. After you choke the first time, you then must deal with your internal critic telling you that you’re a choker. So bad compounds into worse.

It took me many years and failures to work out what the problem was. It was my relationship to future uncertainty that was the source of my anxiety.

My mind was particularly good at imagining scenarios where things could go wrong. Building risk management strategies in your head and preparing for all possible negative scenarios requires a significant amount of energy – until your nervous system can no longer cope. To your internal warning systems, the threat becomes material enough to be actionable, leading to all the classic physiological responses to physical threat. Remain in this state of mind for long enough and your physical and mental resources go into retreat, which is where your limbs go to rubber and your focus narrows, preventing you from running fast or thinking clearly on your feet.

Whether you’re a sports person, or in a work environment requiring high-performance, transforming anxiety into something productive can have a significant impact on outcomes and your enjoyment in delivering them.

So how do you deal with it?

For this article, we’ll assume that you’ve done the work and you’re technically, physically, and intellectually prepared for the performance task at hand. No amount of mental preparation can get you over the line if you’re unprepared.

Now let’s imagine that you are full of nervous energy which is beginning to get the better of you. Your focus is too far into the future and you’re beginning to ruminate on all the possible things that can go wrong.

Work on bringing your focus back to the here and now.

What tools can you use to help your mind back into the present?

Physical anchors

Try using some anchoring techniques. Focusing on physical sensations such as feeling the breeze on your arms or wiggling your toes in your shoes can help bring you to a present focus. Try breathing exercises. Three slow and deep breaths into your diaphragm can give you similar outcomes.

Often these anchors are already present during past moments where you have performed well. It might be a simple routine you perform subconsciously before you do something well. Think Raphael Nadal before he serves a big point. What is he doing with his hands? You focus on the anchor, and not on your anxiety around performance.

Mental anchors

Personally, I like to go a little deeper where I can elicit a strong experience of gratitude. I have some verbal mantras (mental anchors) that ground me to where I am and what I’m doing. When I’m truly in the moment, the past and the future disappear. My anxiety about the future is often informed by my past, so if I can quieten them both and sit in this moment, then gratitude and the joy of the experience itself bubbles to the surface.

Training your mind

In my self-care program, I introduce a range of exercises and tools that help to quieten the negative self-talk that we often bring to high pressure situations. You can try my self-compassion module for free if you’re curious.

In my experience, it requires training and consistency to quieten the mind on demand. The benefits to performance are obvious, but reconnecting with the joy of the experience itself is even better.


Photo by Adam Khasbulatov: