Pressure Performance: Do You Have the X Factor?


DownloadedFileA couple days ago I was in Canada talking with a group of Olympic coaches. Late into the night, after a Molson or two, the conversation turned to the question of performance under pressure. One coach (a former Olympic mogul skier, as it happened) put it something like this:

You’re standing on the top of the mountain at the starting gate, clock counting down. Twenty thousand people are screaming, millions more are watching on television. I don’t care how much you train. Some people can come through in that moment, and some people cannot. 

In other words, is there an X factor? Do high-pressure performers – Michael Jordan, Shaun White — heck, let’s throw in Winston Churchill and Stonewall Jackson — have an uncanny natural ability to shine in crucial moments when the rest of us fall apart?

I think this is an important question, mostly because we rely on the X Factor all the time to explain success. It’s the Sasquatch of high performance — a powerful, shadowy entity that explains everything. Is it real? And if so, how do we get more of it?

Here’s what I think:

  • 1. At the very top levels, studies show that clutch performers are a persuasive mirage (here and here). Performance under pressure tracks extremely closely with the rest of performance — great performers remain great, average performers remain average. After all, these people rise to the top level precisely because they have the ability to deliver under pressure. The clutchness we perceive is a function of good old luck and our intense desire to believe in it.
  • 2. At lower levels (where most of us live), performing under pressure is essentially about emotional control — as Kipling put it, of keeping your head when all about you are losing theirs. And that is where intensive practice seems to make a difference (for an example, check out this article on teaching emotional control in school).
  • 3. In my experience, top performers make a habit of pre-creating pressure situations in vivid detail, so that when the time comes, they’re ready.

For example, many concert musicians use performance practice. They simulate the precise conditions (same formal clothes, same chair, sometimes even the same auditorium) and run through their program exactly as if it’s opening night. Many sports teams routinely rehearse the last moments of games, piping in crowd noise, and increase tempo beyond what they might see in a game. Special Forces soldiers spend virtually all of their training inside a pre-created, live-ammo, high-pressure world — not to break them, but rather to accustom them to it.

So the question isn’t, Do you have the magical X Factor?

The question is, How do you specifically train for high-pressure moments?

That’s not to say that everyone would succeed equally — after all, luck and emotional temperament do matter. But with smart training, you can make them matter a lot less.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your stories of the ways you accomplish this kind of training in your life, or in the lives of the people you teach.

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20 Responses to “Pressure Performance: Do You Have the X Factor?”

  1. Jack Moran says:

    I coach rugby 7’s. The average time the ball is in play in a game of 7’s is 30 seconds. So after 30 seconds the team in possession has either scored or made a mistake. If the focus of our practice is attack I will play a 20 second set and the attack must have scored in this 20 seconds or the ball is turned over to the other team. Equally if the focus is defence we will play 40 second sets, thus forcing the defence to work beyond what they would have to under game pressure to prevent the opposition from scoring. I believe I can go further in pressurising my players by increasing or using a wider range of constraints. I am a big believer in the power of constraints following reading some of your work and having been coached under the power of constraints myself. I am about to read INgenius: a crash course on creativity, can’t wait.

  2. djcoyle says:

    Thanks, Jack — that’s great stuff, and doubly so because it’s so simple. Reminds me of how great basketball and football coaches (Wooden and Chip Kelly come to mind) build practices to that their speed and tempo exceeds what players encounter in a game.

  3. Frank says:

    I would agree with you. In addition to “performance rehearsal” experience adds a great deal to our ability to perform in tense stressful situations. Thus, I believe that one should use the three R’s Review, Reflect, Revise. Using the opportunity to review the situation, reflect on what went well and or poorly and then taking the time to revise your actions so that when you are faced with a similar set of circumstances your performance / action is what you actually intend. Failing to actually engage in this type of process makes it very difficult get the X Factor.

  4. Philip Simmonds says:

    Implicit trained athletes,cope better under pressure.

  5. Jack Moran says:

    Thanks alot appreciate the feedback

  6. Before becoming a lawyer, for seventeen-years I was a firefighter or medic, serving on two different fire departments. My fire department training on both departments included this component: when learning a new technique that would be used in real-world pressure situations, once the drill started, strangers came out of hiding to grab me and scream at me that we were in the wrong house and I needed to go save the baby in that other house. The first time this happened was when I was a “probie” and my task was to stay with the engine and make sure the pump was operating. A crew had already taken a hose into the house and were depending on me to keep that water flowing. I verify that the screaming, grabbing strangers — men and women, with one woman doing a very good job of appearing sincere as she pulled at me and repeatedly screamed “go save my baby” — added pressure to the training. I have always presumed that all departments do this.

  7. The bestselling business author Harvey Mackay recently reviewed Bob Knight’s new book, The Power of Negative Thinking, and told this story…

    “A coach is always teaching. He talks about free-throw shooting, which was typically a strength of a Bob Knight-coached team. He says many players struggle making free throws when the game is on the line. One of the reasons is the pressure.

    He explains that it’s really tough to simulate game conditions like that, so he would stop practice and pick a player to shoot two free throws. If he made both of them, they would go on with practice or practice would be over, but if he missed, it meant more running. This exercise helped players focus more at crunch time.”

    Here’s the link to the review…

  8. djcoyle says:

    Wow, Robert — thanks for sharing that. And I’m sure I’m not the only citizen to say, I’m glad you trained that way.

    Reminds me of a story I heard recently from a doctor friend. He was training a group of med students about trauma procedures, and midway through the lecture someone bursts into the room and shouts that there’s been a bus crash down the street. The class races there to find a very convincing enactment of a crash, complete with fake blood and victims. While they probably realized it was all a fake set up by the teachers (as you did), it was still incredibly useful experience. Fake moments can create real responses.

  9. Gregg says:

    When I was shooting Skeet I would use very tight patterned choke tubes when practicing. It made myself refine my accuracy to a very tight scope. Then during competition I used the open patterned chokes. It allowed for the most room for the compensation for nerves during competition.

    I have read of great basketball players who trained for years with basket’s that were specially made smaller than regulation, so the in the games, the hoop’s would seem so large they couldn’t miss.
    Both things work…

  10. Doc says:

    Some excellent posts on an important topic. I would just add that you have to learn somehow to lose the ego, replace that void with additional confidence and perform like you don’t give a flip what anyone else thinks.

  11. Robnonstop says:

    Dr. Alan D Watkins: What happens to top performers under pressure?
    Part 1
    Part 2

  12. As a sports psychologist consultant with the group of Olympic coaches in question (, I have come to conclusion after some 30 years of observing elite performers in sport and other fields of expertise, that in order to perform under pressure one must truly believe in their ability to deliver in that situation.

    Put another way, even when equipped to deliver in the physical, technical and tactical sense, that one only performs to the level they profoundly believe they deserve to achieve. Hence as one climbs the ladder of success one must also increase their BELIEF in their ability to score.

    For example, the ski racer that believed he deserved to be top ten only, rarely reached the podium, even if he had the various capacities required to do so.

    So, how do you grow belief in yourself? The 2 techniques Dan presented – emotional control and pre-creating pressure situations – are effective ways to increase belief in oneself. I would add a third one: the ability to gain confidence from learning in general rather than just from positive experience, like winning.

    Belief in oneself is anchored in the way you acquire and grow your skills. People who focus their energy on improving their technical, physical, psychological and emotional skills AND are able to reflect and grasp the knowledge gained through this process, enhance their belief in themselves and the probability to perform under pressure.

    So, for me the process is as follows: clarify what skills you must improve, be purposeful in developing these skills, then reflect on the knowledge and proficiency you’ve gained thru this process which in turn will increase one’s belief in self.

  13. TS says:

    In coaching the rule of thumb is the younger the athlete the more practice time should be spent on developing fundamentals. The older the athlete the more practice time should be spent on developing competitiveness/performing under pressure.

  14. Danny Southwick says:

    I really like this post. I think that you’re really attacking the “final frontier” of the fixed mindset on this one. I recently heard Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith debating about whether or not a certain player had a “clutch gene.” It always makes me smile when coaches, talent evaluators, and journalists turn geneticists. The whole idea is ridiculous isn’t it?

    I have played quarterback my whole life and at nearly every level- from High School, to college, to a “glass of water” with the Oakland Raiders, to the Arena football league. I battled with the idea that there was a “clutch gene” for a long time and wondered whether I had it. The thought was a major hindrance to both my focus and my progress. It’s classic fixed mindset thinking. Honestly, reading your book was a big eye opener for me.

    My personal opinion is that, yes, performance in the clutch is overanalyzed. Players tend to perform at their basic level of competence. I also believe that practicing under pressure circumstances prepares you for pressure situations (Sian Beilock’s book “Choke” goes into great detail about this). I even think that visualizing the emotional situation and practicing emotional control helps.

    For me, the most important piece of the puzzle is this: LEARNING TO FOCUS ON THE PROCESS AND NOT THE OUTCOME (I believe that you’ve posted about this idea before). Its sports psychology 101. It’s what Cziksentmihalyi gets at in his concept of “flow.” It means to be engaged totally in the challenge of the present. This happens when we are engaged for the sake of mastery and challenge as opposed to playing for a trophy, approval, recognition, or any other outcome. There are some great books about this like “The Inner Game of Tennis” by Timothy Gallwey and “Mind Body Mastery” by Dan Millman. When we do this, we are relatively free of the baggage that can hold so many of us back.

    One story that illustrates this really well… I had the opportunity to talk to Steve Young about performing in the clutch. He told me that he learned a lot from Joe Montana in that area. He said that, early in his career, when the 49ers were losing, Steve would look over at Joe and see almost no expression on his face. Feeling that Joe needed to get “fired up,” Steve would go over to him and say that he needed to rally his troops- he needed to ‘pump them up.’ Joe would respond, “No, we just need to make sure that we execute this next series. I’ve got to read (a certain defender), and take what they give us. We’re fine.” Joe was totally focused on the process, not the outcome. Steve told me that as he got older, he would bring himself back into the moment by “looking at the safeties” before every play. Notice he didn’t say that he got himself back into gear by “speaking positively” or “pumping himself up.” A lot of the hype around that kind of thinking is garbage. It’s important to be positive, but your thinking needs to be focused on the process.

    One last point- watch the NFL Network’s “America’s Game” feature on the Steelers most recent championship (when they beat the Cardinals). Ben Roethlisberger led a masterful drive to win Super Bowl. Before this game, Ben held the inglorious reputation of playing the worst game of any quarterback to win a Super Bowl (see Steelers vs. Seahawks Super Bowl). It could have been argued that he did not possess the “clutch gene.” Well, either his DNA did a substantial mutation before the game with the Cardinals, or he just learned to handle those moments better. Here is, roughly, what he said about the game winning drive:

    “You dream about being in these big situations from the time that you are a little kid. You want to have the opportunity to drive your team down the field for the win with time running out. Yet, when it was happening, I almost forgot that it was the Super Bowl. For a moment, it just felt like I was in practice working our 2-minute drill.” We all saw the results- a masterful drive capped off by one of the greatest throws and catches in NFL history. Ben was relaxed because he was just focusing on executing his responsibility and nothing else. I once read that Johnny Unitas approached the game the same way that a plumber approaches fixing pipes. No fanfare, no pressure, just a keen focus on the task at hand. I believe that all of us can learn how to think this way. It’s just a matter of changing our priorities from extrinsic rewards to intrinsic rewards.

  15. Robert says:

    What you do is to make the pressure “mean” your performance goes up.
    The more pressure the better you do.
    That allows you to focus what to do no matter what happens around you.
    If you dont have that and can do that, you learn to do it.
    I taught an average triathlon athlete to be olympic material that way.

    Its all self fullfilling prophecies anyhow.

  16. Skye says:

    I’ve spent a lot of time working on imporving my performance under pressure after failing to perform anywhere near my noraml level reapeatedly in important pressure situatuins. The book that has allowed me to overcoem this and perfrom when in important moments is Overachievement by John Elliot, I’d reccomend it to anyone who want to perfrom better when it counts!

  17. Candice says:

    Fascinating post and comments. As a teacher of Emotional Mastery I believe the ability to relax into the pressure and be present/engaged without being tense or trying hard can be taught. I agree with Richard your core belief about yourself will also impact on what happens at crunch time. You cannot exceed what is a deeply held belief be that conscious or subconscious. This recent Ted talk about stress brings the point home our beliefs in this instance ‘about stress or pressure’ impact how our bodies respond to it You can get stressed about pressure or you can feel it and it opens you up. This will hugely impact the ability to approach performance in the pressure moments differently.

  18. Anwesh says:

    I read the very same thing in a book called psycho cybernetics. I play tennis and often struggle in crucial situations due to choking.

  19. Sarah Chase says:

    I would suggest everyone read Stillpower by Garett Kramer. I believe this book should be required reading for every athlete. Every one can achieve high levels of performance, their thoughts just get in the way of that. Everyone can have the “x factor.” Players tend to get in their own way, nothing else. There is no such thing as pressure. We create our own experiences from the inside out, not the outside in.

  20. Danny Southwick says:

    Candice… Just watched that TED talk. Thank you. That was incredible.

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