When Jonny Wilkinson was at his peak as England’s rugby union fly half, he was a world class kicker. But to me, one aspect of his kicking game set him apart from other players. The more pressure on a kick, the more likely he seemed to nail it. How did he keep so cool, so focused, when the stakes were so high?
Wilkinson’s kicking coach, Dave Alred, reveals some of those secrets in The Pressure Principle. Alred’s coaching CV includes England’s 2003 World Cup winning side, the British and Irish Lions, top class golfers, the English Cricket Board and business clients. In addition, he holds a PhD in Performing Under Pressure from Loughborough University, adding academic rigour to his practical experience.
We all have to perform under pressure at some point, whether in sport, at work or in social situations. The Pressure Principle presents a comprehensive eight-part model for handling pressure and using it to perform more effectively. And while it draws heavily on Alred’s sports coaching experience, it also derives insight from training techniques for the Royal Marines, fighter pilots – even dolphins.
My rugby-playing days are regrettably long-gone, and I wish I’d had this book back then. Nowadays, high pressure for me means large group presentations and job interviews, but the principles are just as easily applied. They can also help you get the most out of others – whether your team members, your colleagues or your children.
These were my top five learnings.
1. Reinterpret anxiety as excitement
Anxiety is an inevitable part of performing, characterised by the feeling of butterflies in your stomach. But fighting it is counterproductive. Instead, Alred suggests re-interpreting anxious feelings as excitement. This helps you to get those butterflies ‘flying in formation’.
2. Focus on your posture
When we’re anxious, our body tends to unconsciously fold in on itself, making us small and hunched. But if we focus on maintaining a strong, proud ‘command’ posture – in line with Amy Cuddy’s advice on power posing in her popular TED talk and book – then this helps ensure a flow of powerful, positive feelings.
3. Use positive affirmations
You can harness the power of language by creative affirmations that help to put you in a positive, can-do mindset. As inspiration, Alred shares fascinating affirmations he’s created for a range of sports stars, from golfer Luke Donald to international rugby players. He also shares guidance for creating your own. In my view, this alone is worth the price of the book. Here’s an example of one Alred created for a professional golfer:
Tall in execution and singularly ruthless in mind – feeling excited/nervous, maybe uncomfortable – it’s great – it’s your field for a great performance – a BIG performance.
4. Get comfortable in the ugly zone
Learning any new skill involves time in the ‘ugly zone’: that place where failure is frequent, and often discouraging. As children, Alred says, we do this naturally. We try something out and when it doesn’t work we try it again. We have little concept of ‘failure’.
That changes when we get older. To progress, we need to get comfortable with that sense of failure once again. But as time in the ugly zone is so exhausting, he suggests making training short and frequent so you don’t get discouraged.
5. Catch someone doing something right
Alred uses his observations of dolphin trainers for another key lesson: when coaching others, praise them when they do something correctly, rather than pointing out what they do wrong. It’s an observation consistent with management guru Ken Blanchard’s exhortation to ‘catch people doing something right’ in his business classic The One Minute Manager.
It’s a similar story when thinking about your own performance. Choose a couple of positive words and focus only on those elements. This helps to eliminate negative internal chatter.
It’s a fascinating and useful book, and one I’ll refer to frequently. You can apply the principles to any high pressure situation in which you want to perform better. But it’s no easy fix. Like anything, most of the principles require practice and experimentation. That means getting getting comfortable in the ‘ugly zone’, and continually refining your approach as you learn.