I’ve studied how pressure affects performance, and the best way to manage it, for more than 20 years. I've interviewed elite athletes, Navy SEALs, entrepreneurs, ER doctors and nurses, hedge fund managers, air traffic controllers, and others who perform their best in pressure moments more often than not. These individuals do not "rise to the occasion," as conventional thinking instructs; rather they do their best by depressurizing—lessening the pressure of the moment.
Here are 14 things these pressure-less people do to optimize performance:
1. They apply a positive mindset.
Pressure-less individuals perceive their pressure moments—situations in which they have something at stake and the outcome is dependent on their performance—using words like opportunity, challenge, and fun. This allows them to approach the moment with confidence instead of trepidation.
2. They believe they get second chances.
Pressure-less people believe that no matter how important the presentation, sales call, audition, game or match, other opportunities will come their way. Because they believe this, they can relax and avoid "do or die" thinking that intensifies pressure feelings.
3. They are control freaks.
Pressure-less people stay focused on what they can control in the moment. This allows them to avoid distracting and worrisome thoughts that distort their thinking and disrupt their performance.
4. They practice a mindset of excellence.
Pressure-less people realize it heightens pressure to always try to be Number One or to beat the competition. They know it is unrealistic to think you can always be Top Dog. Instead, their mindset is to focus on developing their own excellence. Being their personal best is more important than beating others, so competitive pressures are lessened.
5. They use positive imagination.
Pressure-less individuals consciously imagine themselves in all sorts of successful situations. Scoring a winning touchdown, being a Hollywood star, curing cancer, contributing to world peace—these might border on fantasy but they serve the function of creating positive feelings and emotions, like confidence and enthusiasm, two enemies of pressure.
6. They share pressure feelings.
To make sure they don’t burst from pressure, pressure-less people disclose their feelings of pressure with others. They have learned, unlike those that bottle up their feelings, that sharing stressful feelings helps alleviate them and, more often than not, helps generate solutions to tackle the pressures they are facing.
7. They avoid distraction.
Whether it’s taking a test, interviewing for a job, making a putt, or making a critical decision, pressure-less people stay focused on the task. Rather than become anxious about the outcome of a negative performance, they stay in the moment so their memory, attention, and judgment are not comprised. They do this in a variety of ways, such as tuning into their senses and remembering that their mission is to do their best.
8. They walk like a champ.
Pressure-less people already know what science now touts as neurological fact: Your posture and gait affect how you feel. Pressure-less people have some Marine in them—they stand up straight and walk with a confident swagger.
9. They celebrate micro successes.
Pressure-less people boost their confidence by recognizing their small successes and by doing so, fuel their enthusiasm and belief that they will accomplish their goal—two factors that reduce feelings of pressure and keep them motivated. They implement this strategy by being process-oriented, not outcome oriented. For example, according to their logic, a success is a good interview; continually having good interviews will eventually land a job.
10. They regulate their arousal.
Pressure-less people keep themselves calm so they never panic in a pressure moment, not even when an unexpected glitch occurs. Consciously tuning to their breathing in the moment and practicing disciplines such as relaxation training, yoga, and meditation on a weekly—if not daily—basis provides them with the skill of keeping their heart from zooming and butterflies out of their stomach.
11. They prepare for the worse.
Pressure-less people can think on their feet because they are in the habit of anticipating possible glitches that might occur. They solve these glitches before they arise and mentally rehearse scenarios to practice their execution, paying particular attention to the consequences of their response and how they will continue to respond. If and when the glitch occurs, the pressure-less person still feels in control and is able to attend to task completion.
12. They flashback their successes.
Pressure-less people experience less pressure because they know they have been successful in similar situations. In a pressure moment, they frequently flashback on a specific time they performed well under pressure. That visual image, and the positive thoughts it evokes, surges confidence within them and relaxes them, too.
13. They affirm their worth.
Pressure-less people experience less pressure because they feel they have value even if they fail in the moment. This feeling prevents them from being “overly attached” to the outcome—a pressure intensifier. Pressure-less people frequently remind themselves of their positive attributes that are independent of their job. Doing so prevents them from defining their worth in how they perform. Pressure-less people frequently remind their children that they are great kids and that they are proud of them independent of how well they perform in school or other activities. Their kids feel less pressure, too.
14. They march to their own beat.
Pressure-less people use their own values and interests to navigate their lives. They are more concerned with living up to their own expectations and following their own dreamsthan trying to please others, a source of pressure for most.