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Turning Pressure into Poise

Recently, I talked about the thinking errors that can increase the gap between our hard work and our desired outcomes. Today, it’s all about what happens when you do all this hard work, don’t get what you want, and now the pressure’s on to get it right next time. But if that doesn’t happen…up goes the pressure…and down goes performance…again.

This is the athlete who says when I get close to winning, I do not seem to be able to close it out. All that hard work goes to waste. Why is this happening? How can I be the one who wins? It is frustrating to work so hard and be close and then waste it all.

Winning. Of course, we want it. It is the point of competitive sport, after all.

The challenge here is to uncouple our desire and effort from the outcome. It is through that desire, that wanting, that we put pressure on ourselves—defined here as any factors that increase the importance of performing well on a particular occasion.

As the importance of an event outcome grows, so does its threat factor, triggering specific brain and body reactions that are often the opposite of the conditions required for excellent physical performance. We get anxious and our muscles tighten, just when we need the opposite.

The trick? To reduce the threat and get back to the elements of performance.

The figure below illustrates the relationships between pressure, focus on outcome versus focus on execution.

Starting with the upper LH quadrant: Focusing on outcomes is difficult to do even in times of low pressure when we might be prone to flicking back and forth between what we are doing and how we are doing relative to the outcome. Am I winning?? We may be more prone to allowing our focus to drift to our opponents since they stand between us and the desired outcomes.

Upper RH quadrant: when we are all about execution, low-pressure environments allow us to (maybe) try things we might not otherwise experiment with. We are still focused on executing but can be more open and curious.

Lower LH quadrant: The tough combo of a desire to win coupled with the implied threat if we don’t (the hallmark of high pressure) rarely if ever leads to the outcomes we want. Anxiety and overwhelm never enhance performance…but are perfectly understandable responses to pressure!

Lower RH quadrant: This is where a practiced focus on execution can really pay off. We have planned, trained, and prepared our focus and behaviour. Winning is never a guarantee, but we have upped our chances.

Focusing and valuing execution over the outcome is key. How do we make this happen?

Make execution, not the outcome, the job. This is not just a bumper sticker slogan. We have to believe it. And practice focusing on it. This means adopting an impeccable focus on execution in training and in how we think about our performances. It means wholeheartedly celebrating excellent execution when it happens, even if it doesn’t lead to winning.

This serves a double purpose - we can be happier more often. While winning is elusive, we have way more influence over our own good execution. Execution also a proven gateway to better performances, making winning more likely.

You can execute without winning. But it’s impossible to win without execution.

Lighten up on the outcome. This means adopting a more laid-back approach, which can be hard at first and goes against your logic...and how many athletes see their competitive reality. Of course, the outcome is everything! does piling on the pressure in this way help you?

Think about outcomes and winning differently. You want it rather than needing it. Check-in on any of your unhelpful attitudes about winning over losing…and challenging them. Like, I haven’t won in so long, I’m due. [Who says?] Or, everyone is expecting me to win. How can I let them down? [Really? Have you asked everyone?]

Unhook your hard work from any expectation that it should lead to a win. By lightening up in this way, these strategies help lower pressure and threat, increasing the chances for better performance.

Relax. If we want to come at this from a physiological perspective, belly breathing can help transition our bodies from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest.” Progressive relaxation techniques can also help to offset tension. It’s literally impossible for our bodies to be tense AND relaxed at the same time.

None of this is easy. If you want some help in reforming the unhelpful pressure you put on yourself, I can assist with that.

Get in touch here.


P.S. My book has been published!

When Grit is not Enough is about what you can do when your usual "go hard" mantra is no longer working. As the tagline says, this is a book about how to rework your mindset and purpose for easier effort in hard times.

Order your copy here.

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