Performing Under Pressure: the science of doing your best when it matters most by Hendrie Weisinger and J. P. Pawliw Fry is an exhaustive guide to performing under pressure in any circumstance, from sinking a free-throw to nailing a business proposal to serving with the Navy SEALS. Weisinger is a psychologist and JP is a performance coach, and both are experts about handling pressure. Performing Under Pressure is an excellent and fascinating book, combining just the right balance of physiological studies, real stories, and concrete application.
Three Things I Learned From Part I (the introductory section)
1. No one performs better under pressure. No one. The science is overwhelming in every field, including and especially sports. Michael Jordan didn’t play better under pressure. Reggie “Mr. October” Jackson didn’t play better under pressure. Throughout his career, Michael Jordan (and most other star athletes) played slightly worse under pressure. AND THAT”S THE GOAL. The goal isn’t to perform better than average under pressure, the goal is to perform as close to normal as possible under pressure.
2. A lot of times we feel under pressure when we aren’t truly under pressure. The authors do a great job defining when you are or aren’t under pressure and giving tips for how to preform when you feel like you’re under pressure but you actually aren’t. The rest of the book deals with how to perform when you’re actually under pressure. This was one of the most important parts of the book, since I have a significant tendency to psych myself out and believe that I am in a high pressure situation when the actual stakes are much lower than I think/feel.
3. Many motivational techniques actually create poorer performance, because they create pressure. (Again, NO ONE preforms better under pressure.) Under pressure, people generally think they do well because they meet deadlines, but the work done is poorer and less creative then the work they would have done if not under pressure. Creativity and innovation are always the first victims of pressure. When under pressure, people try and just do something rather than doing quality work. But most importantly, pressure causes people to defer to authority, turning to managers instead of experts, or to dump the ball to Kobe/LeBron instead of recognizing better options to score. In offices, the first reasonable idea will become the final idea, instead of a longer and more fruitful creative process.
Recently, I reviewed The Matheny Manifesto, where Mike Matheny argues against cheering for players during at bat. He caught a lot of flak for banning parents for cheering for students before or during an at bat. (You could cheer after the at bat was over.) His reasoning was that it puts too much stress on kids and hinders performance. Performing Under Pressure overwhelmingly supports Matheny’s system, and provides a massive amount of scientific evidence to prove it.
22 Tricks and 4 Character Traits
The bulk of the book is spent giving practical tools on how to preform under pressure. They give 22 “Pressure Solutions” that are more short-term techniques to reduce the negative effect of pressure on performance. Some of my favorites:
#1- Befriend the Moment- Think of pressure moments as a fun challenge or as an opportunity.
#2- Multiple Opportunities- Remind yourself that this is one of many opportunities.
#4- Focus on the Mission
#5- Anticipate, Anticipate, Anticipate- Expect the unexpected and practice/role play through pressure moments (i.e. practice your presentation as if you were suddenly asked to give your 20 minute presentation as a 5 minute pitch, or that your powerpoint wouldn’t load, etc.)
#7- Here and Now- “Tune into your senses.” Take a moment to notice your environment, what you smell, see, and feel. This can help you focus on the immediate moment instead of worrying about the future.
#12- Use an Anchor- “Come up with one word or image to broadly describe the best way to preform what you do.” Practice this activity while focusing your mind on that one word or image. Then think about that one word or image as you do the activity. Athletes that do this during their golf swing or free throws preform significantly better than athletes who think about specific mechanics while under pressure.
#22- Sharing Pressure- Communicate your feelings of being under pressure.
But even though the Weisinger and JP give 22 tricks but only 4 character traits, they spend three times as much space talking about the character traits. Ultimately, who we are is more important than having a few wise techniques. The four basic character traits they identify are : Confidence, Optimism, Tenacity, and Enthusiasm. The authors give a ton of advice on how to grow in these areas, as well as their usual array of psychological studies and personal testimonies to back it up.
I loved Performing Under Pressure. It was an entertaining read, even at almost 300 pages. I’ve come away with a much better understanding of how I personally perform under pressure, including a list of things I am already doing well and a list of very specific things I can do or change in order to preform better.
I received a free copy of Performing Under Pressure from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.