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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