Whether it’s sight-reading under pressure, nailing that big shift in an audition, or making an impossible shot to get all your classmates an A in organic chemistry , we all know from experience that performing up to our full abilities is infinitely more challenging when it feels like there’s something at stake.
But we’ve also learned from recent research (like here and here), that we don’t have to accept this. That being clutch under pressure is a skill we can get better at – by practicing under pressure.
Of course, that’s easier said than done, because it’s not like we have a “pressure” button we can push to instantly make our hands go cold and turn our brain into mush.
So what are we to do? What are the most effective ways of manufacturing pressure training situations in advance of a big performance or audition?
A team of researchers interviewed 11 Olympic/International-level coaches, representing a range of sports1, to find out how they integrated “pressure training” into their athletes’ preparation for competition.
There were differences among the coaches, but nevertheless, a few themes emerged. Specifically, two main strategies, each with three key elements.
Strategy #1: Demands of training
The coaches noted that competitions are usually more demanding – both mentally and physically – than anything an athlete would normally encounter in training, so one way of increasing pressure is to manipulate the difficulty of a training session.
They reported doing this in three ways:
Way #1: Task
This involves tweaking the drill, exercise, or skill itself to make things more challenging. Like playing with a friend who’s sight-reading the piano part and deliberately making it difficult for you to focus on playing the way you want.
Way #2: Performer
Another way to increase training demands is to manipulate your physical or psychological state. Like doing a run-through at midnight when you’re tired. Or right after eating a plate of dangerously spicy wings.
Way #3: Environment
The third strategy involves your surroundings. Like playing in an acoustically unflattering space. Or in a cold, hot, or poorly lit space.
Strategy #2: Consequences of training
The coaches’ other method for creating pressure involved using reward/punishment positive or negative consequences, based on performance. Which might sound kind of harsh, but as one coach mentioned, that is an unavoidable part of competition.
Here too, there were three main ways to create pressure:
Way #1: Forfeits
This is where you lose something you want, or must do something you don’t want to, if you fail to meet a certain level of performance. Pretty straightforward – but the coaches recommended being cautious with this, as it has the potential to backfire (as you can probably imagine).
Way #2: Reward
This strategy sounds a little more appealing, in that it involves winning something positive or desirable if you perform well – like being able to move on to the next page of a piece. Or be selected to perform in a master class for a visiting guest artist.
Way #3: Judgment
A third strategy involves performing in the presence of someone who is evaluating your performance. Like playing for peers, teachers, strangers or family members in studio classes, concerts, or even random drop-in performances on a friend in the practice room a few doors down.
Which one works best?
These all sound like they could be useful – but how helpful are they really? Which ones actually prepare us best for the pressure of a real audition or performance?
To find out, a couple of the researchers teamed up with a few others to conduct a study of elite international-level Netball players.
They put 15 athletes through a throwing accuracy drill2, in 4 different conditions.
In the demands condition, the athletes had to throw at targets in a randomized order, release the ball within 3 seconds, and hit the smaller 6×6 targets (task). They also wore goggles that blocked out vision in one of their eyes (performer), and had to deal with a distractingly loud beeping sound (environment).
In the consequences condition, the athletes had to perform the drill in front of 2-3 of their peers, as well as their head coach, who was evaluating them on their ability to handle pressure and stay focused on the task. Their performance was also videotaped, so that a well-known national coach could evaluate it at a later time (judgment).
Furthermore, whomever got the lowest scorer had to do a 1-minute presentation (perform a comedy sketch, talk about who they admired most on the team and why, talk about why their skills could make them the best in the world, or count backwards from 1013 by 17’s), on camera, which was uploaded to a popular social media site, and stayed there for 2 weeks (which is just pure awesomeness). In addition, they had to select one of their teammates who would also have to complete one of these four tasks (forfeits). Diabolically brilliant, no?
The winner, on the other hand, received £50, and immunity from the embarrassing video task (reward).
So what was more effective? Demands or consequences?
Based on self-reported measures of pressure, anxiety, confidence, and heart rate, facing consequences seemed to more consistently create the feeling of pressure among the athletes.
Manipulating training demands may still be a useful tactic, especially from a learning perspective, in that it forces you to learn how to do something that’s more difficult than what you’ll have to do on stage. But from a pressure perspective, it seems that being creative about consequences is the more effective tool when creating a pressure training program for yourself (or a student).
That being said, we don’t all experience the same amount of pressure from the same things. A situation that feels like pressure for one person, may feel totally stress-free for another. So it’s important to customize the tactics you use to create pressure, based on what you know creates that feeling of pressure for yourself.
And if you’re teaching, it may help to ask a student for their ideas in creating a list of meaningful stressors, based on what has made them feel pressure in the past. That’s actually what the researchers did in coming up with their creative stressors – these were the result of some collaborative brainstorming between the researchers, athletes, and coaches.
It’s also important to acknowledge that there are some things you just can’t simulate or replicate. But as some of the coaches in the first study suggested, this is actually ok! Because the goal isn’t to practice for 100% of all possible scenarios in as realistic a way as possible. But rather, to create an environment where you can practice “pressure management.” Identifying, testing out, and developing a set of skills that you can use when you find yourself in a real pressure situation, instead of being caught off guard and having to figure things out on the fly.
And ultimately, I think it’s important to make sure that pressure training be at least a little fun. Approached as an opportunity to brainstorm some creative consequences (and demands) – that put our pressure management skills to the test, not us (as we recently learned about here).
- Badminton, table tennis, rugby, taekwondo, diving, paralympic cycling, judo, cricket, and speed skating.
- The drill involved throwing 12 one-arm shoulder passes at 3 targets (each was a 12×12 inch square with smaller 6×6 square inside), on a wall 4 meters away.