Playing under pressure

We are mid-way through what is a stunning summer of sport with the Women’s Football World Cup just gone, the Cricket World Cup & Wimbledon finals and the Tour de France stretching out in front of us.  The cream of the crop when it comes to sporting talent, all of whom will be under different forms of pressure, individually or collectively to produce the goods and win.

None will be feeling it more than the England Netball team who start their World Cup campaign tomorrow in Liverpool. Whilst only 3rd in the world rankings, as Commonwealth gold-medallists and with the home advantage, the pressure on them to deliver will be immense.

Sporting analogies aside, perhaps our most common association with pressure is at work, where we are often not just under time pressure to complete certain tasks but face bigger decisions which, knowingly or unknowingly take their toll.   We see regular evidence of this with the leadership teams with whom we work, who lead large-scale, high-impacting change such as an organisational restructure, a new business strategy or cultural transformation.

How to thrive when the heat is on…. 

Yet, in these moments, whether it be a 60-minute match or a 60-day initiative, there are numerous strategies we can employ to handle ourselves in a pressured environment. The following four resonate with me:

Manage your own energy  –  pressure can bring out the best and worst behaviours in us all (think back to the Cameroon women’s football team’s rather disgraceful display a few weeks ago).  It’s important to manage our own individual energy, be aware of the moods/situations which draw us to the dark side (magnets) and consciously pull ourselves back to the positive side (anchors).

Play to team strengths  – the diversity of personalities and styles within a team should be used to your advantage – they’ll always be someone to pick up spirits, someone who can focus everyone’s attention etc.  Use the skillsets available: if it’s a detail task give it to the ‘Analysts’; if you need someone to evangelise and rally the troops, employ the ‘Promotors’ amongst you.  The watch-out here of course is to share the workload and ensure it’s not the same few who shoulder the burden each time.

Play the game, not the occasion  –  a sporting term but is equally pertinent to many a situation.  Whilst it’s important to keep an eye on the bigger prize, the overall strategy – a job that often falls to leaders, captains or managers – in pressured situations it’s important to ‘play’ what’s in front of you.  Jurgen Klopp, who let’s face it has had a fair amount of success, says “The challenge is to stay cool enough to handle the pressure in the moment so that you can succeed in the future”.

Embrace it – whilst pressured situations can expose our weaknesses, it can also bring out the best in us.  How often is it the case when, under pressure, we have to move a little quicker, gain clarity of vision, sharpen our practises and as a result, make life easier for ourselves or our teammates and ultimately get the job done.

I played a netball match last night with an inexperienced shooter and so found myself the target of an unhealthily disproportionate amount of attention from the opposition’s defence unit.  After a few minutes of indulging in my victim mindset (‘it’s not fair’), I found it immensely satisfying trying to outwit them.  Aided considerably by my team-mates, we stretched to a convincing win.

England Netball’s head coach Tracy Neville will have done all she can to set up the 12-woman strong squad for success.  The team itself is now responsible for managing themselves on the court in front of a roaring home-crowd and against a vengeful Australia & rejuvenated New Zealand opposition amongst others.

I will be one of those cheering them on and hoping that in the pressure moments they can make it count. After all, as Billie Jean King famously tells us “Pressure is a privilege, it only comes to those who earn it”.

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