Performing Under Pressure

As leaders and people set out to do great things in the world, we all experience moments of great pressure. When we have to deliver the goods or suffer the consequences. When it's all on the line.

These days we face more and more of these situations on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis than ever before. Everything seems like it's do or die.

The authors wrote this book for a very important reason - to give us the ability to find untapped skills and strategies to help us perform up to our capabilities in every situation we find ourselves in.

Along the way, we'll bust a few myths - like the fact that nobody - including your personal business or sports heroes - performs better under pressure.

Sit back and join us for the next 12 minutes as we explore what it takes to perform at our best under pressure.

What Pressure Is And What It Does

There are three basic truths about pressure.

First, pressure interferes with the things we value most in life - our relationships, careers, parenting effectiveness, and our decision-making. Nothing escapes the wrath of pressure.

Second, the people who handle pressure better than others don't actually perform better under pressure - they simply manage to let the pressure decrease their performance less than others.

And third, in order to do our best under pressure, we need to leverage the natural pressure management tools we already have at our disposal to counteract the negative effects we experience.

These natural tools are our thoughts, physiological responses, body movements, voice, and senses. We'll explore all of these as we work our way through the summary.

But first, let's explore how and why pressure causes us to underperform.

There are three common attributes to pressure situations that cause us anxiety and fear, and thus perform below our best:

  • The outcome is important to us;
  • The outcome is uncertain; and
  • We feel responsible for and are being judged on, the outcome.

Here's how those things work together. The more important the outcome is to you, the more uncertain the outcome is the more responsible you feel for the results, and the more intense the pressure and likelihood you'll underperform.

What happens at the physiological level

When we are in those pressure moments, three factors determine our level of performance.

Our physical arousal (usually too high), our thoughts (usually not clear), and our behavior (usually not appropriate to the situation).

Think about the last time you felt an incredible amount of pressure. Your heart rate was probably racing, your thinking became cloudy and unclear, and you simply couldn't put the right actions together. Many people experience this type of reaction when they are public speaking.

Conversely, to perform well under pressure, we need to be able to regulate our physical arousal, think clearly, and execute the appropriate response for the situation.

The authors have found that the people who perform under pressure harness what they call the Four Horsemen: Confidence, Optimism, Tenacity, and Enthusiasm.

COTE Of Armor: Confidence

Confidence for most people means "that feeling we get when we believe that we can do what it takes to succeed." As the authors point out, this goes beyond thinking we can do it. It's a sense of conviction deep inside you.

It's not groundbreaking to say that having confidence that you can perform is critical to performing under pressure. However, the people who do it best practice building their confidence levels so that when the time comes, they have it.

Self-confidence is an antidote to the negative effects of pressure that can result in doubt, which causes distorted thinking, which causes high levels of physical arousal, which causes underperformance.

One of the keys to building your confidence is having the view that high-pressure situations are challenges to be overcome rather than crises to be confronted. This will cause you to work harder, longer, and with more enthusiasm, and thus make you much more likely to overcome the challenge.

There is no magic pill for instant confidence, but there are things you can do to consciously build it over time.

There are 2 big things you can do.

First, get a clear reading of your current ability level and your current level of confidence.

Confidence works on the Goldilocks principle - too much of it and we close ourselves off to learning and valuable feedback, and too little of it causes us to choke in pressure situations.

What we are shooting for is a higher level of confidence backed up by ability. That's because one of the easiest ways to become more confident is to experience yourself performing well. If you want to hit the jump shot with two seconds left on the clock with the game on the line, actually having done it before does wonders for your confidence.

Second, get your brain involved by using the latest in neuroscience.

The authors point out that leaders who perform closest to their best in high-pressure situations have higher levels of testosterone and lower levels of cortisol in their systems.

Testosterone makes us feel more confident and increases our level of motivation and willingness to take risks - all of which help us perform well under pressure.

Cortisol is a stress hormone and is responsible for the sweaty palms and racing heart you feel before giving an important presentation. Minimizing the amount you have in your system will help you perform better.

Here are a couple of things you can practice to increase your testosterone and minimize your cortisol levels.

  • Adopt the "high power pose" made popular by Amy Cuddy and her best-selling book Presence. When you have your arms open and you stand straight with your shoulders back, your testosterone levels go up by 25 percent and your cortisol levels go down by 25%. It's the closest thing you'll find to a silver bullet when you start to feel the pressure mounting.
  • Use visualization to turn on your brain. Neuroscience shows that when you mentally rehearse a physical action, you use the same parts of your brain that you use when you actually perform the behavior. This allows you to utilize what the authors call "the winner effect" without actually performing the action. Basically, studies have shown that when you experience what you perceive to be a victory (either in real life or through visualization), the probability that you will do it again successfully the next time goes up. Boom - instant increase in confidence from the luxury of your living room couch.

COTE Of Armor: Optimism

Optimism has plenty of proven benefits over pessimism. You'll be in better physical and mental health, have a better marriage, get better grades in school, and have a much higher level of resilience. And every profession other than the law, optimists outperform their pessimistic peers by a long shot.

As the authors point out, optimism has two parts. Expectations - which is how we think the future will go, explanations - which is how we explain the way a past event went.


If we expect good things to happen to us in the future (as optimists do), we feel less anxiety and dread at the moment and are willing to work harder in order to accomplish our goals.

Our expectations come from many places, including other people. Being aware of this is important.


When we look back on our successes and setbacks, we tend to come up with explanations about why things happened the way they did. If our explanation is optimistic - even in the face of obstacles - we continue to persevere and not give up as we face more pressure in the future.

There are two factors at play here - permanence and pervasiveness.

Optimists believe that good times will persist and that bad times are temporary. So, they try harder in difficult times, and their good times help them believe that they can repeat the success in the future. This is permanence.

Optimists don't let setbacks in one area of their life to impact another. For instance, if you lost a tennis match, a pessimist might conclude that they have bad hand-eye coordination and will do bad in every task requiring hand-eye coordination. Optimists would conclude that they lost this one specific tennis match. This is pervasiveness.

With all of that being said, it's important to have a balanced sense of optimism. You can swing too far both ways. Ensure that you surround yourself with people who can help you develop a realistic optimism that will allow you to perform under pressure, but not take irrational and unnecessary risks.

COTE Of Armor: Tenacity The authors suggest that tenacity is critical to our success and that we can best understand it by considering it to be a strand of DNA that includes the following "chromosomes" - Goals, Focus, Hope, and Coping.


Tenacity requires working towards a goal, and voluntary exertion. Students working towards good grades, athletes working towards winning the game, and a patient working towards walking again are all good examples. If you have a goal and are voluntarily working towards it, you've got the first chromosome of tenacity covered.


Focus means many things, but in this context, it means the ability to place your attention on whatever helps you achieve a goal and to ignore what doesn't. This requires us to also demonstrate self-control to take the actions that our focus demands of us.


Hope is what keeps our focus alive when other people throw in the towel. There are plenty of scientifically proven benefits to being hopeful. Hopeful people are generally happier, cope better with physical pain, excel in school, and perform better in sports. One of the best things you can do to create more hope in your life is to work on identifying the necessary routes to achieve your goals. The authors cleverly flip the saying "where there's a will there's a way" into "where there's a way there's a will" to explain this chromosome.


If you are working on something worth achieving, eventually you'll run into obstacles that block your efforts. There are two main ways you can cope - by managing your emotions, or by focusing on solving the problem. In the highest pressure situations, a combination of both is required.

Here are a few steps you can use to train yourself to become more tenacious:

  • Energize yourself by establishing meaningful goals;
  • Practice focusing (meditation is a good way to do this);
  • Always look for additional pathways, and
  • Reframe obstacles into opportunities.

COTE Of Armor: Enthusiasm

There are some basic truths about enthusiasm.

  • It's an affective state - you feel energized or excited.
  • It's a state of heightened arousal. You are likely breathing faster and your heart rate increases.
  • It's accompanied by positive thoughts.
  • It's a behavior - you rarely sit still while you feel it.
  • Some responses are universal across cultures - smiling and clapping for instance.
  • Finally, and most importantly, it communicates excitement, engagement and positivity to the people around you.

There have been plenty of studies that show that the level of enthusiasm present in team dynamics accounts for improved results - especially in high-pressure situations.

Here's how enthusiasm works. It increases our working memory (what we can hold in our minds at any one time), which allows us to take in more information at the moment. It allows us to see more connections between things and more possible combinations of ideas, which leads to greater creativity, which leads to more pathways for action, which leads to more hope, and ultimately better decision-making about what path to take.

It's extremely powerful. And here's the best news - enthusiasm isn't something that happens to you, it's something you can create. Simply by doing the things that you would do if you were enthusiastic - clapping your hands, raising your hands in the air, etc. - you'll generate the state of enthusiasm.

Here are some things you can do to create a state of enthusiasm:

  • Before the pressure situations, engage in enjoyable activities;
  • Move. Walk, dance anything you can to get the blood circulating;
  • Play music that inspires you - preferably with a high tempo to get you moving;
  • Speak with enthusiasm - use inflection liberally, and speak forcefully;
  • Laugh and smile;
  • Recall positive events from your past;
  • Clap your hands.

Utilizing some or all of those strategies will put you in a state of enthusiasm, and you'll be much more likely to perform near your best in pressure-packed situations.


So there you have it - everything you need in order to start performing near your best under pressure.

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