Preparation isn’t everything all the time. Sometimes it’s just not enough: even the most well-trained, well-rehearsed person in the world can fumble in a high-pressure environment.
It’s why stellar Olympians crash on the race day, gifted actors mess up irretrievably during critical auditions or forget their lines in live plays, and why eloquent and talented employees end up botching important presentations or job interviews.
Understandably, it’s the most frustrating thing in the world; you’ve trained, practiced, and anticipated this moment for weeks, maybe even months or years. Yet everything’s over in the span of a few seconds—you start off on the wrong footing, panic, and never recover.
Or perhaps everything’s going fine in the first few minutes, but then the minute you start to worry about getting a negative outcome, you panic, and again, you make a blunder.
It might seem like everything’s entirely up to chance. Yet there are three very common reasons why people crack under pressure, regardless of preparedness. Understanding each of them is the key towards learning how to perform in every situation, high-pressure or not.
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It’s completely natural (human, even) to want to project a good image of yourself to others. Just knowing that you have an audience watching as you work on a particular task can have either a detrimental or phenomenal effect on your performance.
According to the psychological theory of social facilitation, when push comes to shove, having an audience present (or even just imagining that you’re being watched) generally makes simple tasks easier to perform and execute.
When the task is complex, though, having an audience is far likelier to impede your performance, especially if you haven’t prepared sufficiently for it, or if you’re not used to the discomfort of feeling scrutinised.
It’s simple: if you know the task you’re working on is hard enough on it’s own, you’re already anxious about failing to complete it or perform up to standard at it. Adding an audience into the mix (even if it may be a supportive crowd) amplifies this anxiety; you end up feeling too psychologically stressed and self-conscious to perform well.
The objective of preparing and training is to make sure that you know your routine; you’ve mastered your techniques and your content, know exactly what to do at which times and how to do it, and are basically able to give a seamless performance.
In other words, the point is for you to go on autopilot mode, where your performance is second-nature to you and almost thoughtless. There’s just one catch: the key to activating your autopilot mode is to let yourself go with the flow—allowing your body and mind to function based on muscle memory and mental schemas it’s learned from sheer repetition during training.
When you start imagining negative outcomes right before go-time, though, it sends you down the slippery slope of overthinking.
Instead of easing calmly into autopilot mode, your brain starts to get into overdrive. You start over-analysing particular aspects of your performance or wondering if you remember those few particularly difficult lines.
Once that happens, you get mentally fixated on the minutiae of your performance, which sparks hyper-self-consciousness. The moment you overthink things this way, your mind shifts out of autopilot mode, which greatly heightens the possibility of cracking under pressure.
Perspective is everything. Being under a lot of pressure can be incredibly stressful, but this itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Yes, it may make your mind and body react in certain ways; your palms get sweaty, your heartbeat starts racing, and your mind goes into high-octane mode.
Understanding that these mental and physical reactions are normal—and even necessary—to precipitate high performance is vital.
Research has found, for instance, that when students were reminded that it’s perfectly normal to feel nervous right before sitting for a major exam, they tended to perform much better than those who were primed to think that their nerves signalled impending doom.