My greatest fear as a volleyball player was missing my serve to lose the game. My second greatest fear was just thinking about missing my serve to lose the game. It was so bad that even 3 rotations before I was in the serving position, I would look at the score and calculate the odds of having to serve with the game on the line.
This fear was not only debilitating in the points before the serve, but it caused me to perform considerably worse once my time to serve came – regardless of whether the match was on the line.
I never addressed this fear and ultimately I paid the price when it mattered most; in my final year of university at the national championship quarter-final.
It came down to the final points on the game, I had a chance to use my serve as a benefit to our team, and all I could think about was not screwing up. I shortened my arm swing, didn’t properly contact the ball, and hit it right into the net.
The opposing team’s server went back and ripped two aces to win the game.
He was clutch, I choked.
The Greatest Athlete Under Pressure
When you think of “clutch athletes”, who comes to mind?
Maybe Lebron, Tiger, Crosby?
And probably at the top of your list. Michael Jordan.
Now before Jordan became the “crying face” meme, he was actually considered one the greatest basketball players of all time.
For those of you who still know MJ for his athletic abilities, there is a good chance you’re aware that he has made some incredible game winning shots and heart thumping buzzer beaters.
But what often gets overlooked are his misses.
And not just simple misses in meaningless games. I’m talking about NBA Finals misses; series ending misses; season-ending misses, and game-tying misses.
Just check out the video below and see for yourself:
Click HERE if you don’t see a video.
If you follow sports, there’s a good chance you’ve heard this quote:
I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed. –Michael Jordan
It’s a great quote and one that we can all learn from. Yet, I don’t think enough of us actually live it out or even fully believe it. Or we’ve just heard it so many times, that it doesn’t really mean anything.
Now I cannot deny that Michael Jordan has hit some “clutch” shots and he has certainly performed well in pressure moments.
But did he actually perform better under pressure? Did he have something none of us can ever hope to achieve? And are there certain people who are statistically better in pressure moments?
The simple answer. NO
The “clutch” Illusion
In a study which analyzed NBA games played between 2003 to 2006, including playoffs. Researchers identified every free throw that was taken during a high-pressure moment (free throws where there was 1 minute or less left in the game and the teams were separated by only 5 points).
What they found was rather simple, yet extremely eye opening. When they took the season average free throw percentages from all of the “low-pressure” moments and compared it to the “high-pressure” moments, there was a significant difference.
The low-pressure free throw percentage was 76%. Meanwhile, the high-pressure free throw percentage dropped all the way to 69%.
These are the results for some of the best basketball players on the planet. Some whom we would consider to be extremely clutch under pressure. And although this study does not point out the specific athletes that perform better than others – it does illustrate one very important point.
Everyone performs worse under pressure. Michael Jordan included.
And when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense.
In pressure moments, our heart rate rises, our cortisol levels increase, and our overall physiology changes. It’s a natural occurrence that we cannot fully control.
No one is exempt from pressure, and everyone feels it.
To put it simply, there are 3 factors in the human performance system:
- physical arousal
Each of these factors influence one another. To perform effectively, you need to be able to leverage and regulate all of them.
And this all starts with our thoughts and our perception of pressure.
When we look at the “clutch” performers more closely, we begin to realize it’s not that they somehow literally have nerves of steal or ice in their veins. Instead, they just have a whole different view of pressure moments. Which makes their strongest muscle, the squishy one between their ears.
What separates the statistically stronger performers from the poor performers is actually quite simple:
The weak performer sees the pressure moment as a crisis. They feel anxious, nervous, and they worry about how it will make them look, who they might disappoint, or all the horrendous outcomes if they mess up. They doubt their abilities.
On the other hand, the strong performer sees this moment as an opportunity. They get excited, they focus on things going well and how they have a chance to help their team succeed. They are confident in their preparation. And quite simply, they are optimistic.
When we understand that our response to pressure is entirely up to us, it becomes far easier to control.
And here’s the best part, our body feels the same either way. When we get anxious or nervous we start to feel the typical jitters, sweaty palms, or butterflies – it’s different for every person. Our brains go on high alert and our physical arousal has changed.
Ironically, when we look at “excitement”, our brain and body feel the exact same way.
The only difference is how we choose to perceive what is happening.
Excitement = Opportunity
Anxiety/Fear = Crisis
The situation is the same regardless, but how we see it is entirely up to us.
The Hardest Part
Now saying all of this is easy. But how do you put it into practice?
The simplest advice I can give is this. Improve your ability to focus. More specifically, concentrate your attention towards what is right in front of you and what matters most.
Like a cell phone, our brains have a limited amount of processing memory and when there are too many thoughts going through our head, our ability to effectively perform certain tasks is diminished.
So, how do we perform better? Close some of the unnecessary apps.
And how do we get better at clearing unwanted thoughts and turning our focus onto what matters? We practice.
The list of resources, tactics, and tools for dealing with pressure is quite extensive. But I think these three basic daily practices are a good place to start (I’ve also included a few specific resources for each one — just to get you started):
1) Practice mindfulness
Some people call it meditation, others call it mindfulness. But at the end of the day, being mindful develops our ability to maintain our attention on what we want to be focused, but also aware of our body experience and what’s going on around us. Through a mindfulness practice, we are not only becoming more effective at completing tasks, but we’re also getting better at figuring out which distractions to leave out of our mind and which thoughts to keep around.
By understanding how our thoughts and physical arousal work together, we can begin to predict when certain behaviors may arise. In other words, we can sense a pressure moment and turn our reactions into excitement before it becomes anxiety.
Resources on Mindfulness
2) Practice with Intention
It’s easy to go through the motions when it comes to training and preparing for a performance. But when we actually reflect, study ourselves, and think about how we react to certain scenarios, circumstances, and actions – we gain a better understanding of which reactions are appropriate and which can be altered. By studying ourselves we also begin to notice which actions help us perform better, which cause us to reach peak performance, and which cause us to get “into the zone”, also known as flow.
Books: Performing Under Pressure –
3) Practice Optimism
Regardless of the obstacles we face, the circumstances remain the same. What is happening cannot be altered, and we have to come to terms with the fact that it is out of our control. But by understanding the limitations of our control and choosing to take a step back from the moment, we can decide how we want to perceive it. In this light, we can see the game-winning free throw as an opportunity, not a crisis. With this mentality the obstacles become challenges.
So practice daily gratitude, appreciate the little things, embrace challenges, and always tell yourself “I am excited, not nervous”. In time, your body will adjust accordingly.
Videos: Stoic Philosophy in 5 Minutes
Articles: You’re Excited, Not Nervous
In closing I will leave you with a simple yet profound excerpt from The Book of Joy:
Acceptance—whether we believe in God or not—allows us to move into the fullness of joy. It allows us to engage with life on its own terms rather than rail against the fact that life is not as we would wish. It allows us not to struggle against the day-to-day current. The Dalai Lama had told us that stress and anxiety come from our expectations of how life should be. When we are able to accept that life is how it is, not as we think it should be, we are able to ease the ride, to go from that bumpy axle (dukkha), with all its suffering, stress, anxiety, and dissatisfaction, to the smooth axle (sukha), with its greater ease, comfort, and happiness.