Performing Under Pressure
If you’ve been in a presentation where you get hit with an unexpected question, you’ll know that staying composed in the face of pressure is not easy. When all eyes are on you, it’s important that you’re able to remain unfazed and deliver your best. Lisa Sthalekar, Former Captain of the Australian International Womens’ Cricket Team, is all too familiar with pressure situations. She shows you how to stay one step ahead of pressure, with her arsenal of tips and strategies that will help you bid those jitters goodbye.
GAIN ACTIONABLE INSIGHTS TO:
- Practical strategies to help you cope with pressure situations immediately
- Why it’s okay to pause for a few minutes before answering an unexpected question
- How you can channel mindfulness without actually stopping all that you’re doing and trying to meditate
WHEN THE HEAT IS ON
We’ve all been there. You’re in a situation where all eyes are on you, and you’re expected to perform. Your heart rate rises, your palms get sweaty, you feel breathless. When your body has taken over, you’re not in the right frame of mind to make the best decisions. How do you prevent yourself from getting to that point? There are a few strategies that you can develop, and with practice you’ll get better at handling anything work or life throws at you.
YOU CAN NEVER BE TOO PREPARED
The difference between being prepared and unprepared is like night and day. If you’ve not prepared, you will start panicking and not have the mechanisms to help you cope. On the other hand, if you’ve put in the hours to prepare for a pressure situation, you’ll be in a good place to break the situation down and focus on what is important.
In cricket (and in life), we tend to think about the past or the future, but really, when the ball is bowled, we should just react. We need to harness what we’ve learned, the information we have at hand, and know exactly what we want to achieve, and react accordingly.
The main strategy you can use is to build a solid “default” routine. In cricket, when I’m batting my first ball, my routine should be exactly the same as when I need to hit a 4 on the last ball. The pressure should not affect your routine. You’re just reacting to various situations in a standard way, regardless of how relaxed or pressurising the situation is.
So if you translate this to the workplace, you should be preparing for a team briefing and a major sponsorship pitch in exactly the same way. Your routine up until you start talking should be the same. Why is this important? It’s your way of telling your body that you’ve done this before and this isn’t a new or more difficult experience. From boardroom to a weekly check in, run your routine through your mind. Remind yourself of what you want to talk about, what you want to achieve, and the tools that are going to help you achieve it. This can be a routine that you can practice even just before going to bed!
In cricket, we try to make our training sessions a lot more challenging than the actual match. We put ourselves in uncomfortable and difficult situations. If you’re up for a public speaking gig, and you’re uncomfortable speaking in front of people you don’t know, start by speaking in front of a few people and then gradually building up to larger groups of people. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. The bottom line is that you need to seek out situations that challenge you, and put yourself clearly out of your comfort zone. That way, when you need to perform at your ultimate, you can safely fall back on your routine and say “I’ve been there, and done that.”
Let’s say you’re preparing to pitch to a sponsor, think about practicing with people who can give you constructive feedback. Set up a mock pitch session and ask your friends, family, or colleagues to ask you challenging questions with everyone watching you. It might not feel comfortable, but you’ll be better prepared for your presentation with your sponsors. Not only that, having a few rounds of preparation will build up your confidence so you’ll feel that you can move mountains by the time your big day comes along.
THE VALUE OF SLOWING DOWN
When the clock strikes stress, you’ve got to step away from the situation before you let your emotions get the better of you. Of course, this is much easier said than done. Let’s say it’s the Cricket World Cup, and India is 5 for 140. MS Dhoni – India’s star player – comes in at 5. He will take his time to take centre, top of the field, and only when he’s ready will he face the first ball. Until he’s ready, the game doesn’t start, so to speak.
Let’s now take this to the corporate space. You’re in the middle of a presentation and someone asks you a difficult question. Your instinct will tell you to rush through your response and just get it over with, but it certainly won’t give you the best outcome. In such situations, there’s no harm in taking a deep breath, grabbing a drink of water, and taking some time to gather your thoughts. Don’t be uncomfortable with the silence.
In a job interview as well, you can always say “Can I have a few minutes to think about this?” and take some time to think about how you want to answer the question. This way, you’re less likely to give contrived responses and are priming yourself for success by taking the space to speak authentically.
Slowing things down to compose yourself will take a great deal of courage, but it will allow you to respond from a place of calm.
STAY IN THE MOMENT
Most of our brains are running at hundreds of miles per hour, fast and furious. We’re constantly thinking of the next thing that needs to get done or the various tasks that require our attention, or even dwelling on something that has happened in the past. In stressful situations, you want to be able to stay in the moment and put a pause on your brain in order to respond optimally.
What is an activity that helps you calm your mind and draws you fully into the present moment?
For a colleague of mine, a highly skilled sports lawyer, that activity is watching murder mysteries and documentaries. When she’s engrossed in the thrill of her show, she is fully drawn in and her mind doesn’t wander to the various other things she needs to do. For many people, meditation is a way to focus on their breathing and stay in the moment. I hum a little tune that reminds me to remain calm and present. Some people say a word that calms them down and reminds them to be present in the moment. Do whatever works best for you.
The idea is to use such activities to train your brain to stay in the moment when needed. Not in the past or the future, but in the now.
If you’re able to do this in regular situations, when you are put in pressure situations, you’ll find that you respond better effortlessly. You are less likely to bring up preconceived ideas that might cloud your sense of judgement. It takes a bit of practice to get in the habit of staying in the moment, but it will help you navigate pressure with ease.
FAIL LIKE A PRO
Hands up if you fear failure. We’re taught to believe that we should never fail. Let’s be real though, at some point or another, we’re all bound to fail (and sometimes more spectacularly than others). To use a cricket analogy, no matter how excellent a batsman is, he is guaranteed to get out. So cosy up to the fact that you will probably fail at some point, and really get comfortable with that thought.
One of my coaches used to say “you haven’t failed unless you make the same mistake twice.” That is, if you make a mistake and learn from it, that shouldn’t even be considered a failure in the first place. It’s exactly what you’re supposed to do.
While having a list of goals and milestones you want to hit in life is great, try not to get too bothered if you’re not able to achieve what you want in a certain amount of time. There also may be times where you’ve done what you set out to do, but still don’t achieve the outcome you anticipated. For example, as a cricket bowler, let’s say I set out to bowl such that I hit the top off the stumps. I execute that, but the batsman was smarter and moved around to the leg to hit a four. I achieved what I wanted, but didn’t get the results I hoped for.
Try not to let your failures get to you. Look at situations for what they are: neither overly critically, nor with rose-tinted glasses.
ASSESS AND REASSESS
Assessing and reassessing are key ways to turn failures into learning opportunities. You need to make those minor adjustments to deal with pressure. To use the earlier example, the batsman’s move has given you insight into his technique, allowing you to consider other approaches such as bowling flat. Once you’ve figured that out, you bowl the ball and try again. If it's a poor ball and he hits it for a 4 then you go back and reevaluate your strategy. What you’re doing is assessing and reassessing on the fly.
The other side of that is being kind to yourself, and knowing that sometimes people might just do something better. That's okay. They're allowed to, every now and again. If you start taking yourself too seriously, you’ll simply take on added pressure which won’t help you.
In cricket, there’s always the chance that anything can happen. You might confidently say that India is going to win the match. But in walks West Indies, and their star player Chris Gayle hits a lot of sixes. Your predictions are thrown out the window, so to speak.
Whether it is in sports or in business, you can prepare all you want and build a solid playbook, but you never know when you’ll be hit by a curveball. You might have planned your meeting down to the tee, even preparing how you phrase your rebuttals or responses to potential questions that you might be asked. But what if someone asks you a question you could never have anticipated? Anything can happen “on the field”. The good news is that if you’ve prepared well, you’ll have a good bank of responses you can draw from.
A lot of how you deal with this type of pressure is also having the ability to shift your approach and be a little fluid. If things go awry in a business meeting, how do you coax the interaction back onto comfortable territory? Sometimes, people who do things “by the book” might struggle with being more dynamic, as they tend to like things to follow due protocol. Hit them with something unexpected and they might get stuck or flustered.
Assessing and reassessing also means that you’re embodying the notion of fluidity. You don’t necessarily have to change the core of your message. Just assess your audience to get a sense of how you’d adjust your delivery to cater to them. At my speaking engagements, I essentially am packaging my content in different ways to suit VVIPs or an 8th Grade class. A lot of knowing what will “stick” with various audiences also comes down to experience.
HANDLING PRESSURE AS A TEAM
Pressure doesn’t always happen on an individual level. What happens when your team is not delivering, or if you’re up against an unexpected challenge? If you’re leading a team, you should be setting yourself up to successfully manage pressure situations without letting it affect your team too much.
TAP INTO EXPERIENCE AND DIVERSITY
Teams that are best equipped to handle pressure are the ones that have a balanced mix of youth and experience. What the more experienced people bring to the table is their expertise and wisdom. Your younger people will bring exuberance, excitement, and innovative thinking which will drive the group forward. Together, these two mindsets can set teams up to function well under pressure.
Finding a balance in different perspectives extends to gender as well. Women and men think differently. While delivering live commentary for a cricket match – a pressure situation – I’ve found that women tend to spot things that men don’t, and vice versa. When you’re in a pressure situation, it is valuable to have a variety of perspectives to be able to tap into. Make sure your team has a good variety of backgrounds, ages, cultures, genders, ethnicities, and religions.
As a leader, you’ve got to master the art of taking stress in your stride. Just like a duck in water, you have to appear calm even if you’re flailing your feet under the surface just to stay afloat. If you’re in a leadership role, make sure you’re able to maintain a demeanour of composure, because as soon as you start to panic, so will your team.
KEEP YOUR EMOTIONS IN CHECK
Keeping a calm demeanour involves being in control of your emotions. Nick Kyrgios is an Australian tennis player who is infamous for his bad temper, throwing his racket, swearing, yelling when things don’t go his way. On the other hand, there’s Ash Barty, Australia’s number one female tennis player. When she won the French Open, there wasn’t a big display of emotion, she just hung over the net and took it all in. Roger Federer had a bad temper in his earlier days, but now you simply cannot read his emotions.
Use the techniques from Chapter One to stay collected even when you’re under pressure. Slow down, and focus on the current moment. Don’t let the heat of the moment let you get carried away. When you show you’re calm under pressure, that throws off your opponent because you’re not behaving in a way they expected you to. If you don’t give people the negative reaction they want, you’ll find that they will let the issue drop.
Everybody loves Virat Kohli, and he’s the best batsman in the world right now. But he’s reactive. Then there’s M.S. Dhoni, who is unfazed in the face of pressure. The kind of respect he garners is entirely different. There’s something very charismatic about people who are able to keep their cool.
As a leader, keeping your cool will empower your team to feel supported when things don’t go according to plan. Imagine you're a young bowler, and you bowl a poor delivery gets whacked for six. You look over at your Captain and you see him fuming. His reaction puts additional pressure on you, as you’re now worried about disappointing or upsetting him further. Whereas if the Captain just looks at you with a smile and says “Welcome to International Cricket, let’s see what you’ve got,” then you’re likely to feel encouraged to do better without any added pressure.
STEPS TO TAKE IN 24 HOURS
1. Stay Calm
Don’t let yourself go into fight-or-flight mode. Stay in the moment, and try to see the situation for what it is instead of getting carried away by your emotions. You can try to have a word, tune or something that reminds you to be in the present moment and have your emotions under control.
2. Slow Things Down
Don’t feel as though you should rush through a pressure situation just to get it over with. Take a few minutes to breathe and think about what you want to say, and you’re more likely to respond in a way that’s true to yourself. Don’t be afraid of any awkward silence when you pause, it’s more important that you respond authentically.
3. Prepare In Advance
If you’ve done the work, you have nothing to fear. No matter what situation you’re thrown in, you’ll find that it’s only a slight modification to your existing routine. Giving yourself the time to prepare will set you up for success. How you respond to the little things will go a long way in how you respond to pressure situations.