Business Clutch Plays

How to avoid choking under pressure

It was bound to happen. A glitch that would turn a public presentation into a pressure cooker. I was about to give a very important live presentation, televised for rebroadcast. Despite numerous rehearsals and tests of the technology, there was always a chance that things could go south.

And, they did.

What does it take to rise to the occasion and perform gracefully under fire?

At the critical moment we’d rehearsed many times–when the tech guy hit the cue for the teleprompter to bring up my presentation–there were…crickets. None of the words appeared on the screen and I was left naked–without cues, without words. And I had a split-second choice to make. Would I rise to the pressure of the moment and carry on with confidence or would I choke?

I’ve watched lots of clutch moments over the years–people who were under the gun to make board presentations, handle safety emergencies, or confront political controversies. What I’ve observed is that leaders with great game seem to have common traits, some borrowed from the lessons of sports psychology, with an added dose of something I’ll call “Faulty Scoreboard Avoidance”. Here’s what business leaders can learn from the latest sports insights to avoid the choke.

SPORTS PSYCHOLOGY STARTS THE GAME, BUT DOESN’T ADDRESS THE PROBLEM OF THE FAULTY SCOREBOARD.

Jaimal Yogis recently wrote an interesting analysis of the science of sports psychology, which I’ve boiled down to 3 basic truths:

1. MAKE ADRENALINE YOUR FRIEND. Athletes do best when they can learn to translate adrenaline into positive messages instead of panicking. Use visualization, emWave devices—whatever it takes to feel the surge of adrenaline as an opportunity to succeed.

2. DON’T OVER-THINK COMMON SENSE. Athletes have to train their muscles to respond in the heat of the moment with a sense of relaxation to make sure they don’t over-think their decisions.

3. REHEARSE QUICK RECOVERY. Athletes have to rehearse the skill of quick recovery. Don’t dwell on negative images from the past. Imagine instead, your next move.

MAKE SURE YOU WATCH THE GAME, NOT THE FAULTY SCOREBOARD, TO GET THE REAL EDGE IN THE CLUTCH.

The problem is that the valuable lessons of sports psychology are not worth the turf they’re played on if you’re taking cues from incorrect information (like how many downs your team has.)

A classic clutch moment.

Which brings us to the final game in the 2012 AFC championship—a now-classic moment—when Billy Cundiff, the kicker for the Ravens, (as described in Yogis’ article) “watched the scoreboard to keep track of downs and where he should be in his prekick routine.” The problem was that the stadium scoreboard was wrong—it incorrectly showed a 3rd down instead of 4th down, so Billy Cundiff thought he had another down to get ready and had to race to the field unprepared.

Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out well for the Ravens. All of the positive psychology and resiliency didn’t work. Not when Cundiff read the scoreboard instead of watching the actual play of the game.

That’s the real lesson for business leaders that moves all of us beyond positive psychology and resiliency and nails the real secret to avoiding the choke. We have to learn to pay attention to the real game, to watch the real action (and not get lured into metrics that can lead us off our path.)

If we’re running a restaurant, hotel, airline, or car rental agency and we see that customers are unhappy, we need to ignore positive customer satisfaction scores and take action. If we see an increase in returns of our merchandise, it doesn’t matter if our ads are tracking well. If we’re in charge of a clinic and we notice long lines and lots of frustration when we walk through the waiting room, we need to ignore the metric that tells us we’re making money and we need to step in and make changes.

In times of pressure, when the heat is on, we need to do two things: 1. Get ourselves into a state of sports readiness and 2. Check the real score—not just what’s on the scoreboard, but what’s happening on the field. Then, onward to victory.

What are your secrets? How have you avoided choking when the pressure was on?

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