You face situations where pressure can impact your ability to perform well. This pressure can be physical (e.g., running away from a bear chasing you) or psychological (e.g., giving an important presentation with a promotion on the line) and is present in almost all situations requiring action. Some individuals thrive under pressure due to increased motivation, while others experience significant deficits in cognitive performance. You may have experienced both outcomes under pressure: hence, it’s useful to think about performance under pressure as a spectrum, rather than a binary outcome. Understanding the interaction between motivational and stress systems is crucial for performance under pressure.
Scientists studied monkeys who had to perform a challenging reach task accurately to get a drink. The monkeys did better when the reward drink was medium or large compared to small, showing the positive influence of pressure on performance. However, when the reward was very big (exceptionally large and rare to clearly the “jackpot”), the monkeys did worse, much like how humans “choke under pressure” when the potential payoff is especially large, even those who usually work well under pressure.
How does this happen? In their more recent study of neural activity in the Motor Cortex (the part of the brain responsible for planning and execution of tasks) in monkeys in varying levels of reward, the authors find that “when a Jackpot is proffered, neural activity does not attain the optimal preparation state for a well-executed movement.” In other words, there’s a notable “collapse in neural information” that corresponds to “choking” under pressure.
Based on these findings, even if you normally perform well under pressure, here are three steps to avoid choking as the stakes get high:
1. Take your eyes off the prize
Focusing on the prize can better your performance up to a certain reward threshold. Once the potential reward becomes exceptionally high, focus instead on the step-by-step execution of the task. Reframe the reward in a way that reduces its perceived importance (e.g., instead of “this promotion will make or break my career and is the best opportunity ever to come across,” think “this will be a great step-up in pay and experience”), just enough to sustain your motivation without collapsing your performance.
2. Simulate a high-stakes practice environment
Coach Bob Bowman, who trained Michael Phelps, once broke the swimmer’s goggles during training, creating challenging situations during practice. Not only did this build resilience (as evidenced by most trainees leaving the coach due to the intensity), but also prepared the swimmer for the worst-case, most stressful scenarios. Michael Phelps recounts the time when his goggles filled with water in the 2008 Beijing Olympics: “I am blind for 175 meters. I revert back to what I did in training and counted by strokes… So I reverted back to that, and I was ready for that because I was mentally prepared for it.” He won the gold medal and even set the world record.
Prepare and practice for the most complex, difficult situations by visualizing all possible scenarios: questions that would stump you, a non-responsive audience, delays in counterparties, and mishandling of sensitive information. This will help you “revert back” when you are faced with exceptional challenges or rewards.
3. Create room to decompress
In a study published in Science, researchers found that college students who wrote about their anxieties before taking a math exam showed a 5% improvement on a second test taken under stressful conditions, while those who did not write saw their scores drop by 12% under simulated stress conditions (e.g., being told that their partner would be let down if they failed). The authors comment that “Writing about their worries allows the students to reexamine the testing situation and reappraise it. This frees memory resources and increases the ability to focus.”
If you are facing psychological pressure, it’s probable that it will persist for an extended duration in most personal or professional situations. Over time your emotions, such as anxiety can build, which can worsen your performance. Find ways to express them.
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