How to perform better when under pressure
I read Rick Peterson and Judd Hoekstra’s book “Crunch Time” because I wanted to learn more about how to perform better under pressure. Mr Peterson and Mr Hoekstra give great advice illustrated with many stories from the world of baseball. In this essay I aim to distil the essence of the book while not teaching the readers about baseball.
Mr Peterson and Mr Hoekstra introduce the term reframing which they define as a “skill of consciously and intentionally thinking about a situation in a new or different way”. It is a skill because everyone can learn to do it, and nobody is born with it. The aim of reframing is to change the meaning one gives to a situation and thus enable them to react in different ways and achieve different results. Everyone has an assumption or belief that is the prevalent state of their mind and rarely pay attention to it, but once one does one might notice that the belief or assumption is surrounded with negative self-talk. Reframing gives one a choice to look and identify for different and better thoughts that are most likely to lead one to taking better actions and achieving better outcomes. This is especially important in challenging situations where the outcome is important. If one engages in negative self-talk in such a situation then it will be perceived as a threat and most likely reacted in a way that the outcome will be negative. Mr Peterson and Mr Hoekstra explain that when a situation is viewed as a threat then one feels that they have no control over the situation, one has anxiety, fear and doubt on their mind, and one focuses on avoiding failure and its consequences. But when the same situation is seen as an opportunity then one feels that they are in control, is confident and focused on the success that they feel is close. So, if one can think of pressured or stressful situations as opportunities, then one can perform much better during those. It is the perceived threat that makes one perform worse than usual. Mr Peterson and Mr Hoekstra explain further that when a situation is perceived as a threat the fight, flight or freeze reflex can be activated making it even harder to perform well in. There are always two ways one can respond to pressure, either to act on your threat reflex or choose to reframe the situation as an opportunity.
Mr Peterson and Mr Hoekstra introduce six ways to reframe which are reframing from trying harder to trying easier, from tension to laughter, from anxiety to taking control, from doubt to confidence, from failure to learning moment and from prepared to overprepared. All these ways to reframe build towards the ability to more naturally see challenging pressure situations as opportunities. Reframing also gives one the opportunity to choose their reaction and actions in a situation thus removing the knee-jerk reaction they might have otherwise.
When one is in a pressure situation many assume that it is better to work harder to exit the situation with the best possible outcome. Mr Peterson and Mr Hoekstra argue that it is not because best performances are usually almost effortless and happen when one reaches flow state. If one believes that their best is not enough and that they must keep trying harder to produce better results, then pressure situations are easily perceived as threatening. A sales situation for example, is not made better by thinking that one must close this sale because this sale is the one and only chance they will have. Thinking in that way causes too much pressure on one which can result in acting in desperate ways and that way driving the customers away. According to Yerkes-Dodson law of the relationship between arousal and performance, arousal can only help performance up to a certain point before it becomes too much and performance declines. Not enough arousal causes boredom and diminished interest, and too much creates feelings of anxiety and threat (Fig 1.). In between those two lies the best performance and flow state.
Figure 1. The Yerkes-Dodson Law: the relationship between arousal and performance. (©Peterson, R. & Hoekstra, J. 2016.)
Mr Peterson and Mr Hoekstra continue to explain that the more complex and harder the task is, the lower the arousal level needs to be to reach best performance. Arousal relates to effort levels because the harder one tries the higher arousal level raises. The solution to keeping the arousal level at optimal range is to try easier. Try easier means that one takes out tension from the task at hand and replaces it with level of effort that takes them into that best performance, or flow state, and allows them to perform in a relaxed state. How would this be visible in the above-mentioned sales situation is that the sales representative would be calmer and more relaxed, there would be no whiff of desperation and they would be attentive to the customer. It is hard to be attentive when your mind is full of worries and it shows in customer service.
From tension to laughter
Reframing from tension to laughter is an interesting topic because humour can be found even in the darkest of places. Humans use humour to cope with pressure situations because laughing out loud stops the body’s stress reaction, helps to put things into perspective, strengthens relationships and improves creativity and problem-solving. Most people stifle their sense of humour in workplaces, even though they find leaders who use humour as being in control of things and capable. Mr Peterson and Mr Hoekstra give an example of how Winston Churchill joked about Italy joining the Nazis in World War II by saying “The Italians have announced they will fight on the Nazis’ side. I think it’s only fair. We had to put up with them last time.”. The point of this example is that humour can momentarily reduce the perceived threat of a situation, generates a sense of control and provides a perspective that allows people to see a dire situation with some degree of amusement. They also mention that one does not need to be funny to enjoy humour.
I personally have noticed that laughter does release tension and lower stress and am glad that we joke around a lot in my team. When I was working at my most pressured job in a hotel lobby as a receptionist there was a lot of dark humour flying in the backroom. To the customers we seemed relaxed and professional but behind closed door everyone could show their personality and sense of humour more. It helped me to cope with 8 to 12-hour workdays.
Taking back control from anxiety
Taking back control from anxiety by reframing one’s thinking is a powerful tool because people often get stuck in focusing on things that are out of their control, focus on the outcome rather than the process, get overwhelmed by difficulty of the task, commit to doing too much, have too high expectation due to using wrong measuring values, and exaggerate the importance of the situation. According to Mr Peterson and Mr Hoekstra people often set lofty goals that are intimidating and paralyzing instead of setting SMART goals that are under their control. They advise people to use chunking to break down large goals into bite-sized pieces. The smaller goals are easier to achieve building confidence and the feeling of being in control. One should also consider the way they measure their performance because using the wrong measuring stick can cause anxiety. Mr Peterson and Mr Hoekstra recommend measuring one’s performance against the average of their performance. If one performs better than their average, then they should feel good about it and be proud. It is unrealistic to assume that one can always outperform their best performance all the time. Prospecting for clients for example is not better when the volume goes up but when the quality of interaction does. Let’s imagine that one does prospecting for six hours a week and their worst case would be zero new clients a week and best case could be eight a week. The average could then be four. In that case should the person feel bad if they manage to gain five new clients in a week instead of eight? According to Mr Peterson and Mr Hoekstra, they should not because they are outperforming their average. To take back control from anxiety one should always focus on either performing at their average level or outperforming it.
From doubt to confidence
How come people doubt themselves so often? Mr Peterson and Mr Hoekstra answer this question by explaining that people often base their confidence on their most recent performance and thus feel that the next one will either go well or badly. It can also lead to a cycle of bad performance because performance fluctuates and can be affected by outside sources. To reframe from aforementioned thinking Mr Peterson and Mr Hoekstra recommend one to focus on their skills that they have acquired during the preparation for the performance and to relive your best past performances. I personally like to prepare for things until I feel that I know the subject well enough that I can perform to my own satisfaction. Part of my preparation is thinking back on good experiences and visualising how I want this one to go. To me the benefit of doing all that prep work is that drains my energy less and I don’t need to worry.
Mr Peterson and Mr Hoekstra give advice for a situation where one feels pressure, doubtful and worried. Their advice is to list one’s strengths and then list their fears and worries with specific actions that they can take to address them. What this means is that first one thinks of all the good things they bring to the situation to build their confidence up, then they begin listing things that cause them to worry and be stressed with actions that will help correct those. Doing this will show one that they are not only capable of handling the situation but have strengths going into it.
From failure to learning opportunity
It is an important skill to learn to reframe failures to learning opportunities because fear of failure will stop people from sharing their learnings from those situations and force them to avoid failure at all cost. People who see failures as lessons generally rebound from them faster because they take the learnings and adjust their thoughts, actions and skills accordingly. But to be able to find learnings from failure one needs to be able to see feedback as a positive tool instead of an attack on their personality. This ties into having a fixed or growth mindset. With fixed mindset one cannot become better which makes feedback an attack and failures something one should avoid. This is contrasted by growth mindset where one’s abilities are not rigid, they are fluid and can be improved upon, feedback is important for growth and failures teach them what they need to improve or change. All the above combined with optimistic attitude give the best outcome because optimists see failure as temporary, limited to a certain situation, and not permanent, pervasive or personal. They also gain a big boost of confidence from successes. Pessimists on the other hand do not get a boost from success but failures damage their confidence. They often see reasons why bad things happened as permanent, personal and involves all of their life, for example they will never know how to do something, they are too stupid, one thing went wrong so everything will go wrong in their life. Unfortunately, they often see reasons for why good things happen as temporary and brought on by outside influence, for example they got lucky. Mr Peterson and Mr Hoekstra recommend combining optimism with growth mindset and learn to receive feedback positively. According to them a combined attitude allows one to see undesirable events as unlucky situations that are temporary setbacks for one of many goals bringing good feedback and an opportunity for growth and change of approach.
I personally am an optimist and always see undesirable events in a way that does not erode my self-confidence. Sometimes failures can get me down, but it is always temporary. I have a habit of replaying failures in my mind and analysing them until I reach a point that I have extracted all learning out of it that I can. Then I discuss the failure and my findings with others to find even more different perspectives. I want to learn all there is to learn from a failure, not to never fail again, but to grow as a person.
From prepared to overprepared
The last way to reframe one’s thinking is changing from prepared to overprepared. According to Mr Peterson and Mr Hoekstra overpreparing gives one a boost of confidence which allows one to try easy, to feel more relaxed when performing as one is ready for all scenarios and to have a deep level of understanding of the what they are doing. They clarify this further by explaining that talent does not equal performance because one needs practice to perform at their best.
As a summary, it is better to see life through the lens of opportunity as one will feel better, think better and produce better results. It is important to learn to move from threat to opportunity on demand so that one can do it at crunch time where one’s best matters the most. One needs to practice reframing techniques so that they become easier and more natural to use because they are a skill that one can become a master of.
I found this book interesting to read because I seem to do most of the reframing techniques already. I just never knew what to call them. To me these techniques make sense as they can preserve my inner self because when I was younger, I had a habit of thinking pessimistically and had doubts and anxiety. All that led me to have negative self-talk and my inner self feeling bad. All the negativity led me to make poor choices that made me reflect on myself, my choices and my failures. I was able to grow as a person and can now perform closer to my best when I am under pressure.