How to Cope with Pressure when the Stakes are high

Pressure does two things – bursts pipes and creates diamonds. Which one are you?”
― Brian Cook, The Thin Blue Line: Perception is Deception

Does pressure improve performance? This interesting question was raised by former San Francisco 49ers NFL coach Bill Walsh in his book “The score takes care of itself”. He suggests that in any situation in life “those who are able to perform best are those who are best able to remove tension, anxiety and fear from their minds”. As an example of elite performance during high pressure he replays a great story from his career as a coach. During Super Bowl XXIII his team had only 3 minutes to somehow take the ball the full length of the pitch and score a touchdown to win the Super Bowl trophy. There was zero room for error. Joe Montana, known as Mr Cool, was the quarter back directing traffic to somehow orchestrate the win. During the most intense period of the game while calling a play in the huddle he looked up and said to his teammates “isn’t that John Candy the comedian in the crowd?’ The story goes everyone turned and looked then turned back and got on with business. The 49ers went on to win with 34 seconds left. Joe’s actions, whether intentional or not, served to defuse the tension and fear of failure. His teammates were able to remain relaxed yet focused during the intensity of the moment. This story typifies Walsh’s comment about the importance of removing tension, anxiety and fear when the pressure is on to succeed.


Sports teach us valuable lessons on how to overcome the intensity of the moment to allow us to perform and thrive under pressure. Whether we are in the classroom or working in the business sector we can learn to develop robust psychological skills that will give us the edge in the moments that matter dictating success or failure. In both sports and business, people who are able to use their mind as a valuable weapon will beat out the competition when performing under pressure.

When we enter a stressful situation we will experience physiological triggered responses such as tension, anxiety and fear. We either see a pressure situation as a manageable challenge where our mental resources can meet the demand or alternatively, we become negatively threatened. We will struggle to make decisions, and lack control over our thoughts and emotions. Typically, there will be a tendency to overthink the situation and concern ourselves with the possibility of failure thereby limiting our performance potential. Our self-confidence in those key moments will be seriously undermined. Accordingly, we need to find mental strategies and skills that will allow us to control our physiological responses and remain focused on the task and not concern ourselves with the outcome.

Mastering mental preparation has been shown scientifically as a critical factor that can help us overcome the demands of pressure situations and perform at our best when needed most. Various techniques such as positive self-talk, pre-performance routines and slowing things down are all effective approaches that can combat the consequences of pressure. These skills are simple, but just like building a muscle it takes regular practice to master. Equally, there is no one size fits all. Guidance and support from a coach skilled in this area of expertise is critical to success. If you feel you would benefit from learning mental skills to help you cope with pressures in your life feel free to contact Coaching with Impact today. The 1st 30 minutes is FREE to discuss your needs.

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