Under Pressure at Work? What can You Learn from the All Blacks Team to Ensure Performance?
I recently watched a documentary on the career of Richie McCaw who, in many people’s opinion, is the greatest rugby player in history. Having been born in New Zealand, it’s difficult to escape having a passion for sport generally, not just rugby. As GM of UK based personal development organization Seven Institute, I have a natural interest in how performance in sport can help us at work and in our own personal lives. In particular, I am fascinated by the psychological aspect of maintaining high performance in the presence of stress. I had grown up watching McCaw’s career, but it was not until I watched the documentary Chasing Great, that it dawned on me what an inspiration he is and how his story could help us all perform better under pressure.
It was little over an hour since the New Zealand All Blacks had exited the 2007 Rugby world cup with a shock defeat to France in the quarter final. I remember watching McCaw sat at the press conference, clearly in a state of shock about what had just happened. His team were heavily favored to win the tournament and, only ten months earlier, had beaten this French side in Paris by 47-3, but something happened that was unexpected. The All Blacks simply fell apart. A team known for its accuracy, precision and ruthless ability to destroy the opposition suddenly found themselves making the most basic of errors. The players looked overwhelmed, flustered, and confused. As all Kiwis will tell you, this was not the first time it had happened. For them it was matter of déjà vu from the two previous world cups. Little did we know this was the beginning of a magnificent tale.
Facing Pressure in Life
So what had happened? The New Zealand public certainly wanted to know; they had already labelled the team as chokers. Choking can be defined as a sportsperson or team failing to win a competition for which they already have a large lead or for which they are highly favoured to win. The truth was, they did choke. They were not the first chokers; there have been many examples down the years, none greater than Greg Norman’s failure in the final round of the 1996 Golf Masters. Norman, who finished his pro career with a phenomenal 90 titles worldwide and was world number one for an amazing 331 weeks, lead by 6 shots going into the final round, after dominating the three previous rounds. He ended up losing by 5 strokes, an unheard of 11 stroke swing to eventual winner Nick Faldo. Norman’s meltdown has been used in many studies performed by sports psychologists and sports physiologists who have tried to explain what happens to the mind under pressure.
While we may not be world class athletes, we all feel pressure in certain circumstances: job interviews, presentations, first dates, important deadlines, and our general performance at work. How we handle this pressure often means the difference between success and failure in our personal lives and in our careers. How do we perform at our best in these pressure moments? Do some people simply handle pressure better than others? Can we learn to deal with pressure better? A person with a fixed mind-set would believe they either have the ability or not, but this is a form of learned helplessness. Thankfully for New Zealand supporters, Richie McCaw had a different kind of mind-set. He has what is known as a growth mind-set, where a person believes they have the ability to continuously learn, to improve, and to change what has happened previously
An Education in Pressure Psychology
Pressure occurs when we view a situation as important, or we perceive something as a threat. We might, for example, be in an interview for a job we really want, or hope to do well in the presentation we are about to give. We see failure as a threat to our happiness or to our self-esteem. We start to experience a number of physical responses, like an increased heart rate, perspiration, shallow breathing, shaking, stomach butterflies, or even nausea. Failing under pressure is physical, but it’s triggered by an emotional and mental reaction to the pressure. We feel anxious about the situation and start to scrutinise the minor details of our performance; things that would come naturally in a non-pressured environment feel difficult all of a sudden. Instead of being focused on the task at hand, our mind starts to become engaged with wondering thoughts: ‘what if I fail’, ‘what if I forget’, ‘what if I drop the ball’, ‘what will people think about me’? Our emotional brain (Amygdala) is triggered which releases cortisol, noradrenalin, and adrenalin into our bodies. This extreme response to pressure is known as the fight or flight response and is designed to help us in times of danger, to heighten our senses and prepare the body to literally fight or run. When this response is triggered in a non-life threatening situation, like a presentation or world cup rugby game, it can hinder our ability to think clearly, use coordination, or communicate effectively. Pressure affects our body and our mind, and, if not managed, can have a big impact on our performance.
Learning How to Deal with Pressure
The first thing we have to embrace is a growth mind-set. Dealing with pressure can be a learnt behaviour. There is a skill-set we can embrace. This came naturally to Richie McCaw; driven by the pain of failure, McCaw set out to discover how he and his team could improve their mental response to pressure situations. Fast forward to the 2011 rugby world cup final in Auckland. The All Blacks lead against France by 8-7. Over the final ten minutes, the French are camped on the All Blacks line, threatening to score and win the game. This is pressure, huge pressure, heightened by a history of failure, you can feel the anxiety of the home crowd, sensing déjà vu. But while most of New Zealand is feeling the pressure, there are 15 players that seem unaffected, ever inspired by the pressure. The expected choke is being replaced by cool heads, organised defence, and composed aggression. In the thick of it all is Richie McCaw; he’s physically spent, but his mental presence is undeniable. The final whistle goes, New Zealand win and the crowd is more in shock than anything else. They had hoped for this, but they had not expected it. For the players, the game was won already. They had prepared for this moment and, when the pressure came, they knew how to deal with it. In fact, they were looking forward to it. In McCaw’s own words: “bring it on”.
Here are a few lessons from the All Blanks that can help us deal with moments of pressure in our own work environments and personal lives.
- Control the story you tell yourself. Watch the words you tell yourself and the thoughts you allow into your mind. Words are life and death; they create a self-fulfilling prophecy which can cement current negative beliefs or build new, more positive beliefs. Avoid statements like “I’m not good at this” or “I’m really worried about that”. Instead, make a conscious effort to say things like “I’m really excited about this event”, “I believe I can be really good at this”. Spend time visualising your perfect scenario, take a bit of time out to imagine what good would look like and repeat that picture over and over again in your mind. Your sub-conscious is not that clever; it generally believes without question what you tell it, through words or pictures, so make sure you’re feeding it the right stuff. Research would suggest most of the negative stories we tell ourselves are only real in our own mind; we are literally ‘making it up’. This is called cognitive distortion. My advice is this: if you’re going to create a distorted story, why not create a positive version! Fake it ‘til you make it.
- Relax. Identify when your body and mind start to go into a state of anxiety about an event: the racing heart, shallow breathing, wandering thoughts etc. Remember, these wandering thoughts are distracting you from what you should be thinking about: the task at hand. One way to help you do this is by first becoming very mindful of the present. Spend a minute concentrating on your breathing, really focus on it and nothing else, listen to the sound as you breathe in and then out again. Focus on the sky, watch the clouds or the how the trees are blown by the wind. Bring yourself back into the moment and slow your breathing down. Let go of those wandering thoughts, push them aside.
- Re-Focus on the task at hand. Now you’re in a more relaxed state, it’s time to revisit your task. What is it you’re trying to achieve? What is the most important thing you need to concentrate on? Your wandering mind is now still and focused on the task at hand, nothing else matters. To help you re-focus, try to plan ahead by identifying some key words or statements that let your mind know what’s important and what to think about. Under pressure, we tend to forget. For the All Blacks, this was often about quick reminders of technique or tactics that they needed to implement, like “Lightning fast ball” or “cross the gain line”. For pilots under pressure, it’s “aviate, navigate, communicate”. As a trainer, I use words like “confidence, connection, clarity”.
- Trust your preparation: We often spend time preparing for these high pressure events; we know they are important so we put in the time. Richie McCaw identified that the All Blacks were 100% physically prepared in 2007, choking was not a fitness or skill issue. In the same way, we know we have the ability to perform, but the pressure impacts our performance. One thing that has been identified as contributing to this decreased performance is that we stop trusting ourselves and the process. We start to overthink tasks that normally happen automatically. On the first tee of the final round of the Masters, Greg Norman, instead of hitting the ball straight down the fairway as he had done a thousand times before, started to overthink the process around what he needed to do, and pulled the ball into the woods. Not only do we need to stop thinking the wrong thoughts, sometimes we just need to stop thinking altogether and let our instinct take control. This is the reason you will never give a great presentation when you’re using pages of notes; the notes engage your brain, and you start thinking too much. Learn to back yourself, back your knowledge, and back your preparation. Find your flow.
Learning to perform under pressure is part of the journey toward being mature and complete. Think of those pressure moments as trials that can help you practice and develop these skills. Embrace your pressure moments, make them your friend. Bring it on!
2011 World Cup
2015 World Cup – McCaw became the first captain to retain the world cup and part of the first All Black team to win the world cup outside of New Zealand.