Executive Education

Under Pressure? 4 Steps to Win the Mental Battle

The Mental Battle

We all want to be our best when it matters most. But when pressure mounts, we often get in our own way and perform far below our true ability. We see the high-pressure situation as a threat, an instinct that comes from a primitive part of our brains we call the Caveman, and we choke. As a major league pitching coach for the Oakland A’s and other teams, Rick Peterson developed an approach to silencing the Caveman — freeing yourself to see pressure as an opportunity, and to focus and perform. You can win this battle for the control of your mind and reactions — through a powerful technique called reframing.

Reframing means consciously and intentionally thinking about a situation in a new or different way. This, in turn, allows us to shift the meaning we attach to the situation, the actions we take, and the results we achieve.

Fight, Flight, or Freeze

It starts by tackling that Caveman. Everyone, man or woman, has a reflexive, instinctive Caveman living in the brain stem and cerebellum, the brain’s threat center. The Caveman’s goal is simple: to survive. It is constantly on patrol, looking for danger. When faced with a threat, its instant reaction is fight, flight, or freeze.

This instinct kept us alive in prehistoric times, and thanks to natural selection, it’s still with us tens of thousands of years later. But in modern times most of the threats we face aren’t physical, they’re psychological. That fight, flight, or freeze reflex sets us up for failure:

— It fixates on what could go wrong and is consumed by fear, worry, and doubt.

— It quickly forms an opinion based on feelings, not facts, then seeks information that supports its opinion.

— It lacks perspective, exaggerating the importance of a situation.

— It fails to see options, thinking in terms of absolutes, do-or-die.

— It exaggerates the likelihood of a poor outcome.

— It exaggerates the consequences of failure.

— It is insecure and highly concerned with others’ judgment.

— It personalizes failure.

How to know if those thoughts are coming from your Caveman? They’re emotional, irrational and negative. Some familiar examples:

Why am I doing this? What if this goes wrong? What if I make a bad decision?

Is there any way for me to get out of this?

This is my most important deal ever. I’ll never get another opportunity like this again. If I screw this up, it’ll be devastating.

I’m terrible under pressure. Everyone is watching me. They will think I’m an idiot. My teammates will be so disappointed in me.

You wouldn’t hang out with people who talk to you the way you talk to yourself. So why do you talk to yourself this way? Understand that these instinctual, primal reactions to pressure are not coming from you. They’re coming from your Caveman. This is a key distinction: While your Caveman lives in your brain, it’s not really you. You need to recognize this in order to stop beating yourself up for having these thoughts and emotions.

Here’s how to silence the Caveman, reframe a threat into an opportunity, and be your best — in just 4 steps:

  1. Pause and recognize your Caveman’s story.

You cannot stop the reflexive reaction to a pressure situation by the Caveman. But you can stop the Caveman from acting on this reflexive reaction.

Pay attention to your reflexive self-talk—the story your Caveman is telling you. Ask yourself, “Do I want to think, feel, or act this way?

  1. Activate your Conscious Thinker; challenge your Caveman’s story.

Even though our Caveman presents its reflexive thinking as a command, in reality it is not a command. It’s merely an offer to your Conscious Thinker to act in a certain way — and you do not have to think that way.

In any moment, we can activate our own Conscious Thinker — that part of our brain that enables us to choose our thoughts. While the Caveman’s goal is to survive, the Conscious Thinker’s goal is to thrive. The Conscious Thinker allows you to: 

  • See pressure as an opportunity to demonstrate your skills.
  • Feel confident that you can do your best
  • Stay focused only on the factors that you can control
  • Perform for yourself, not for others.
  • Feel self-esteem based on your sense of self-worth, not others’ opinions.
  • Seek the facts before reaching a conclusion.
  • See the big picture and keep the situation in perspective.
  • Have an objective view of the likelihood of a given outcome
  • Know you can deal with the consequences, whatever the outcome is
  • Learn from an outcome that is less than ideal.

Question the most seemingly unassailable beliefs and assumptions. Ask yourself:

  • “What assumptions am I making in this situation?”
  • “What’s driving these assumptions—fact, fiction, or opinion?”
  • “What am I afraid of?”
  1. Reframe the pressure by exploring different, rational stories.

Reframe the pressure from threat to opportunity in order to override your Caveman’s reflexive reaction to pressure, and consciously shift to a different, performance-enhancing response.

Your brain is like a computer: It doesn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie. It just responds to what you fill it with. Identify at least two different ways of viewing the situation. Ask yourself questions such as,

  • “What would I tell my kids to do in this situation?”
  • “What would I do if I weren’t afraid?”

If you are stuck and can’t come up with alternatives on your own, ask those around you to share how they view the situation.

  1. Choose and act on your best new story.

Choose the story that most increases your sense of control, confidence, and vision of success. Now you’ve successfully reframed the pressure from a perceived threat to an opportunity. That’s how you win the battle for your mind!

This article is adapted from the recently released Crunch Time: How to Be Your Best When It Matters Most by Rick Peterson and Judd Hoekstra.

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Judd Hoekstra
Judd Hoekstra is a leadership and human performance author, consultant and speaker. He serves as a Vice President at The Ken Blanchard Companies, a premier leadership training and coaching company. He is also a coauthor of the bestselling Leading at a Higher Level as well as Who Killed Change? He received his bachelor's from Cornell University, where he played hockey and baseball. He also graduated from the Advanced Business Management Program at Kellogg School of Management.