From writing exams to taking a game-winning shot, virtually everyone will be confronted by a pressure moment. But a
Canadian performance coach says there are strategies to put the squeeze on stress and thrive in tough challenges.
Toronto-based J.P. Pawliw-Fry teamed with renowned psychologist Hendrie Weisinger on the new book Performing Under Pressure .
Pawliw-Fry spends part of his time working with athletic organizations such as the NBA's Orlando Magic and executives from North America's top four professional sports leagues.
He also worked with now-retired Canadian beach volleyball teammates John Child and Mark Heese who won bronze at the 1996 Olympics. But the bulk of his work is with organizations, including Fortune 100 companies, the U.S. Army, Navy and CIA.
Performing Under Pressure involved a multiyear study of 12,000 people, including Fortune 500 executives, CEOs, Navy SEALs and Olympic athletes. It zeros in on the top 10 per cent to see why they could manage pressure more effectively.
The authors write a key differentiator was "an ability under pressure not to become defensive when criticized." They were also sensitive to physiological arousal "shifts," allowing them to do things such as breathe slower, which helps them process information more effectively.
"That top 10 per cent, they weren't perfect under pressure. (But) they were better able to minimize the effect of pressure on them," said Pawliw-Fry, co-founder of the Institute for Health and Human Potential.
The book outlines 22 pressure solutions designed to help reduce feelings of anxiety, stress, fear or embarrassment, avoid distraction and guide behaviour. Among them: downsizing the importance of the moment, recalling previous successes and focusing on what is within control.
Pawliw-Fry, a father of three, said a strategy students can use prior to taking a test is to write out how they're feeling.
"When we do that, it actually takes those kinds of thoughts and emotions and feelings out of what's known as our working memory – which is kind of a space above the eyes, behind the forehead – where we can hold onto four or five ideas, chunks of information … at any one time. That's where we do our thinking on a test.
"If that space is clouded up by worries, thoughts, emotions, there's no space to think."
It can be tough for athletes to close their eyes and take a breath in a pressure moment. In those circumstances, Pawliw-Fry said he'd recommend they use an anchor, thinking of one or more words that remind individuals of themselves at their best.
Pawliw-Fry also contends there's no such thing as a "clutch performance," saying researchers have yet to find data to show anyone who's better under pressure.
He points to basketball great Michael Jordan, who made the game-winning jumper for the Chicago Bulls in Game 6 the 1998 NBA Finals to clinch the championship. But statistically Jordan wasn't a better shooter at the end of the game over the course of his career, and hit just 15 of 35 shots in his final game as a Bull.
"What Michael Jordan did better though – and this is important – is he didn't let pressure affect him as much. So yes, it diminished him, but not as much as maybe other people who were diminished more."
Pawliw-Fry said it's also important for individuals to distinguish between stressful and pressure moments, which can feel similar but have distinct differences.
"If you don't deliver on a stressful moment – you're late picking up the kids, you've got to drop off your dry cleaning, you've got to get your taxes done … there probably won't be a material impact on your stress or survival. Yeah, it's a bit of a hassle, but you're probably going to be okay.
"A pressure moment is different. It can feel like a stressful moment in terms of what it does to us physiologically, but a pressure moment is when there actually will be a material impact on your success or survival.
"If we react to every stressful moment as if it's pressure, it really has a big outcome on our success. We use up all of our resources. And then when we come to a real pressure moment, there's nothing left."