Improving your performance under pressure

Ceri Evans, Perform Under Pressure, HarperCollins, Auckland, 2019 

With the 2019 Japan Rugby World Cup underway all eyes are, as expected, on the New Zealand All Blacks – winner of the previous two tournaments and, according to some, the most successful sporting team of all time. 

It’s with these expectations that I turned to their team shrink – Dr Ceri Evans – for some thoughts and perspective on performance and self-improvement. Evans, a psychiatrist and former New Zealand soccer captain, has just released Perform Under Pressurewhich draws on his guidance to teams and individuals across a range of disciplines. 

The first point that emerges is what is meant by ‘performance’ – an accessible activity not for a select few but, in fact, open to all of us. As I wrote in Winners Don’t Cheat, success is less about podium moments but more “like what someone said of prosperity – it’s not a line drawn somewhere just above the million-dollar mark but involves choosing your own destiny and living out your potential in your own way.” 

“Turning up on time is a performance moment,” adds Evans. “No gold medals are at stake here, but being punctual is personally significant…  while for others it’s not particularly important.” We all know our performance moments but, for many of us, pressure usually invites judgement. And we fear judgement because it means expectations, scrutiny and consequences”. 

So how do we perform better under pressure? 

There are a few starting points, and Evans has many strategies and mental models, but it appears fundamental is creating a good mental pathway. “The single biggest mental weapon we have is our attention,” he writes. “The brain science shows us that if we focus our attention consistently and specifically, that mental pathway is strengthened. And if we ignore less helpful pathways, those pathways gradually become less efficient and… are replaced.”

The key distinction Evans makes is between our ‘red’ and ‘blue’ minds. Our BLUE mind is the one in charge of completing tasks (and making lists), while our RED mind is focused on things that produce pleasure. The RED mind is often faster which is why, when we need to get things done and perform, the BLUE mind tends to be out-foxed. One in five of us, for example, are master procrastinators – putting off performance for another time. 

But driving better performance from ourselves is not about defeating the RED mind but simply finding a good balance. “How we manage that marital relationship,” notes Evans, “will go a long way to determining how far we travel towards our potential.” 

To drive performance, especially in jarring situations, we especially want to avoid freezing. Or focusing on things outside of our control. To get out of this funk, notes Evans, we need to adopt an ‘aware-clear-task’ or ACT approach. “No matter how big the moment of pressure,” he says, “we are well served by an ACT approach because it leads to specific actions that create movement.” 

So performing means being able to act in tight situations. But Evans also notes the importance of ‘microperformances’ – bursts of activity with a keen focus on achieving something difficult. “Using microperformances to complete an uncomfortable item on our ‘to do’ list once a day will transform our personal performance,” he notes. “The mental release of resolving emotional blocks will unlock our potential far more than ticking a single item off a list would suggest. The result is that we feel better and perform better.” 

I’ve found one effective technique, especially when having a big task in front of me, is to break it down into actionable sub-steps (what Evans calls ‘reframing’). Even thinking about a challenge in this way will help to plant in your subconscious different attack methods (‘releasing’). And when a sub-set task is completed, while not eliminating the entire task itself, does provide some sense of accomplishment to keep persisting (‘feeling better, performing better’). 

To be clear – there’s no harm in creating a list to get things done. But a list must be leveraged to drive performance rather than superficially ticking things off. 

Stretching one’s self, like so many other performance tips, seems so common sense. But many of us rarely do it. “When I ask any group of apparently performance-focused people,” notes Evans, “no one says they have ever managed to complete the uncomfortable task on their to do list every day for a week. Ever.” Here I’m reminded of the American political scientist Charles Murray’s advice to young professionals “that very few people work as hard as they can, and the ones who do have it made.” 

Evans’ final takeaway is to ‘be deliberate’ which, he notes, “is the best way to break new ground”:

Clarify our context of pressure, so we know where we’ve already been. Define our reality to shake off the vague and overly generous view we often have our ourselves. Set out intent so we understand the limits of our personal exploration. 

Driving performance is clearly not easy, and is often camouflaged by many intangibles, especially when trading in the world of mental and not physical challenges. As Evans notes, “From business to sport, there is a strong bias towards the technical – things that are easy to grasp, see and count – at the expense of the mental, which is hard to grasp, more invisible than the visible, and frustrates those who want to quantify it.”

Performing under pressure is also less about ‘tips and tricks’ – something that Evans laments – but requires connecting with your mental pathway, balancing your RED and BLUE minds, taking action and hunting down your uncomfortable tasks. Performance, in other words, means a return to the personal and the human. In their physical traits and technical ability – in their ability to play rugby – the All Blacks have been peerless,” noted a 2016 article. “What they were missing, at least until 2010, was the ability to deal with being human.” 

Getting better performance out of ourselves many not win us the Rugby World Cup. But it will enable us to take on our own challenges and thrive.


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