How to Perform Well under Pressure

November 20, 2021

Ditch the tough talk, it won’t help. Instead cultivate your mental flexibility so you can handle whatever comes your way.

Whatever sphere you inhabit, whether you’re a pro or amateur athlete, businessperson, teacher, full-time parent or something else entirely, you’re bound to have felt the pressure of your own expectations and the expectations of others.

Almost everyone must cope with daunting situations, in which they don’t feel they have the skills needed to succeed and meet the weight of those expectations. I’m a sports psychologist and I help teach my clients mental techniques to deal with this kind of pressure. I’ve found the same practical techniques and principles that I teach to athletes are also invaluable to my clients from many walks of life, including business and theatre.

‘Mental toughness’ is the wrong approach

You might have noticed that, in contemporary Western working cultures, the way people are often expected to respond to pressure is by becoming mentally ‘stronger’ or ‘tougher’. This magical mental toughness will supposedly block the annoying nerves, and reduce the frustration and upset that come from feeling out of our depth.

‘Mental toughness’, and the ‘tough guy, special forces, battle-ready’ approach that it exemplifies, does make a great soundbite. The concept is widely adopted by athletes, adventurers, entrepreneurs and those in the military who talk about their journey to find it.

Companies pay thousands of pounds for keynote speeches to their staff explaining how to get it. The renowned American football coach Vince Lombardi summarised our cultural worship for the phrase when he said: ‘Mental toughness is Spartanism with its qualities of sacrifice and self-denial, also the qualities of dedication and fearlessness and love.’

In sports psychology, the concept of mental toughness combines the traits of confidence and determination with the feeling of being in control of your own destiny. It might sound appealing, but in my work I take a completely different approach. I’ve seen the harm that can be caused by over-idolising confidence, determination and control, along with self-denial, sacrifice and fearlessness.

This tough mindset might look strong and unbreakable from afar, but it actually prompts performers to bury their heads in the sand when faced by an intimidating challenge. Students of mental toughness are taught to ignore their worries and they will often self-sabotage. If you’ve fallen into this trap, you might recognise it in a speech you’ve put off practising, a paper you procrastinated over or a project sitting only half done – all with valid-sounding excuses, but also creating poor performance.

I’ve also seen how aspiring to mental toughness can trigger unhelpful and unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as self-imposed rigid rules, perfectionistic traits, a lack of self-compassion, and goals being attacked as threats rather than embraced like challenges. Entering any high-performance arena and seeing the encounter ahead of you as a threat is highly problematic because it means you are thinking with the avoidant, fear-driven parts of your brain, rather than the open-minded, approach-oriented parts. In a fearful state, you don’t think and respond creatively, you just follow patterns you have used before, usually following rigid rules, which means you cannot adapt well to new information or changes in your environment.

Consider a mentally tough bike rider who might be great at climbing a mountain, but prone to complete panic if they get a puncture or a spectator runs out into the road. Or a mentally tough actor who can handle the pressure of a live audience – right up till the moment of distraction from a mobile phone, at which point they forget their lines. Their mental toughness means they would survive the moment, but they wouldn’t be thriving in it or ready to adapt – their performance will suffer and their enjoyment will disappear.

The benefits of mental flexibility

The approach to coping with pressure that I teach is all about cultivating not mental toughness but mental flexibility, also known as ‘psychological flexibility’ (drawing partly on the principles of acceptance and commitment therapy or ACT, an approach in psychotherapy that has grown out of cognitive and behavioural therapy and blends it with insights from Buddhism and other perspectives).

Mental flexibility is vital for coping well with pressure because, if you want to perform brilliantly, you need the skills to handle whatever is thrown at you, especially the unexpected. In sport, this might be a last-minute course change or finding out a scout will be watching your match that night. On the stage, it could be the understudy having to step in during the interval. In office work, it could be a last-minute request to join the team for a new business pitch. Cultivating your mental flexibility will allow you to better manage these kinds of moments.

A great definition of the type of mental flexibility I’m talking about comes from the American clinical psychologist Steven Hayes, the co-founder of ACT, and his colleagues, in which they describe it as ‘the ability to contact the present moment more fully … and to change or persist when doing so serves valued ends’. The mention of ‘valued ends’ is important here.

When you are rigid (or psychologically inflexible), you persist in your actions even when they are no longer effective in helping you achieve what matters to you. With flexibility, by contrast, you can switch quickly between strategies based on the demands of each situation, and make decisions for how to act in line with your values (ie, ‘your heart’s deepest desires’, in the words of the ACT trainer and author Russ Harris).

Mental flexibility is associated with superior performance and better mental health. In 2006, Hayes and his colleagues published a meta-analysis of 32 studies involving 6,628 participants who had completed a measure of mental flexibility known as the ‘Acceptance and Action Questionnaire’.

Across the studies, people who scored higher in mental flexibility were less likely to have a psychiatric disorder and they had higher overall mental health. Among the participants with chronic pain, those who scored higher in psychological flexibility were able to function for longer periods of time, took fewer painkillers and needed fewer healthcare visits. In the workplace, higher scorers made fewer errors and held a higher status.

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