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Book Summary: Performing Under Pressure – The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most

Are you one of those people who leaves things to the last minute? Are you convinced that deadline pressure actually makes you work better? You just might be mistaken.

Scientific evidence shows that while pressure may keep us from procrastinating, it nearly always impedes our creativity and makes us reach for the most conventional solutions. Pressure can even distort our thinking or make us freeze up altogether.

It turns out that the most successful people are those who have learned to perform well despite the world breathing down their necks. But how can you master the techniques needed to do the same? This book summary will help you to overcome pressure and make yourself a productive powerhouse.

Book Summary: Performing Under Pressure - The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most

In this summary of Performing Under Pressure by Hendrie Weisinger & J.P. Pawliw-Fry, you’ll discover

  • what your ability to deal with pressure tells you about your love life;
  • why saying “I need a car” can make you unhealthy; and
  • how a “COTE” of armor can help you to deal with pressure.

“In a stressful situation, reduction is the goal. In a pressure moment, success is the goal. Thinking that you have to be successful all the time means you are under pressure all the time.”

How does pressure affect your performance?

“In a pressure moment, your heart rate starts to zoom (and) your thinking is apt to become rigid and distorted.”

Everyone is negatively affected by pressure. No one can perform their best under pressure, not even so-called ‘clutch performers’ like superstar athletes LeBron James and Tom Brady.

“People who handle pressure better than others do not ‘rise to the occasion’ or perform statistically better than they do in non-pressure situations. If you are a sports fan, you’ve been fed a myth by the media that some athletes are ‘clutch’ performers who do better under pressure. Or maybe you’ve heard that some people at work do more creative work, are more productive, work better as a team, or add more value to a client under pressure. But it’s not true.”

“In our multiyear study of individuals under pressure who were able to perform in the top 10 percent of the twelve thousand people we studied, and who statistically received more promotions that advanced their careers, we found that each of them was doing the same thing as basketball star LeBron James or New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady: allowing themselves to be affected less by pressure than those around them.”

Performing Under Pressure (2015) offers a guide to building confidence and overcoming high-pressure situations to achieve your loftiest goals. You’ll discover why it’s difficult to perform when the stakes are high and learn practical strategies to help you conquer performance stress.


Boost your ability to deal with pressure by understanding it and working to counter it. Authors Hendrie Weisinger and J.P. Pawliw-Fry explain the difference between pressure and stress and offer “pressure solutions” to help you when you must perform. However, they note, people who manage pressure more successfully don’t necessarily also perform better under pressure. But they do have the mental tools, self-confidence and ability to relax that fuels maximum performance at all times. Amid the authors’ good examples and applicable suggestions, they offer reassurance that you can muster your internal assets – “confidence, optimism, tenacity and enthusiasm” (COTE) – to strengthen your ego and combat pressure. We recommend this entertaining, useful book to anyone under pressure.


  • Pressure can upset whatever part of your life you consider most valuable.
  • You face pressure when you have only one chance to accomplish something significant.
  • People who manage pressure well still don’t necessarily perform better under pressure.
  • Practice under pressure, so when the actual event happens, you won’t experience stress.
  • Pause in a stressful situation to think about how you can respond better over time.
  • Stress and pressure played separate roles in human evolution. Reaction to pressure could even indicate which individuals would survive.
  • If you have more than one opportunity to get something right, you should feel less stress about it.
  • Focus on what you can control. When you worry about what you can’t control, you increase the pressure you feel.
  • Use your posture to boost the hormones in your brain and add to your confidence.
  • A couple’s ability to manage pressure is pivotal to their survival of their relationship.

3 Ways to be Less Affected by Pressure

This is exciting!

When psychologist Adam Grant told students to get excited when they felt nervous, they delivered speeches that were rated seventeen percent more persuasive and fifteen percent more confident than students who were told to calm down.

In another experiment, when students were told to get excited before a big exam they scored twenty-two percent higher than students who were instructed to stay calm.

The next time you feel pressure, interpret your anxiety as excitement. Tell yourself “I’m excited for the upcoming challenge.”

“Before you go into a high-pressure situation, convince yourself it is a challenge or an opportunity…Think of your tasks and responsibilities as daily challenges to strut your stuff. If you are a project manager, tell your team, ‘I challenge you to make this your best work ever.’ A sales manager might tell his sales force, ‘Here’s the challenge—let’s see if we are up to it.’ Or ‘Hey, it’s great that we get opportunities like this to show how good we are!’”

This is just like…

“Track sprinters have more false starts when told their time is important and will be recorded as opposed to being discarded and used for training purposes.”

Research shows that sales reps who are told to simply ‘shoot the breeze’ when presenting a new product make significantly less mistakes than sales reps who are told their product presentation is ‘very important.’

The next time you feel pressure, downplay the situation by equating it to something familiar, easy, and less important.

For example, when you feel nervous before a big exam, tell yourself “it’s just like a practice test.”

I’m in control.

“When you focus on ‘uncontrollables,’ you intensify the pressure; it boosts your anxiety to the point of disturbing your physiology, creating distracting thoughts that undermine your confidence.”

The next time you feel pressure focus entirely on what you can control.

Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Greg Maddux judged his performances by how many pitches left his hand the way he intended (whether the batter hit his pitch was irrelevant). Before delivering a speech, I fixate on my breathing, posture, and how I’m going to deliver my opening sentence. In high pressure situations, professional golfers focus on executing their pre-shot routine (a series of actions taken before they hit the golf ball).

The authors recommend performing the following exercise:

  1. Visualize the high-pressure moment; think about the things you can control, and imagine those going well.
  2. Now think about the things you can’t control. Visualize your performance going astray.
  3. Bring your mind back into focus on what you can control, and visualize yourself getting back on track.

“Very few think about how to handle pressure moments better—until it’s too late. Few have strategies grounded in the latest science of the brain or in psychology.”

Focus on the now to conquer stress. Focus on success to conquer feelings of pressure.

Think about taking an important exam. Are you afraid, eager? Do your palms sweat, or nerves twitch?

The sensations you felt in that moment are typical of high-pressure situations. Unfortunately, pressure and stress can hamper your performance when it’s most essential that you succeed.

Pressure moments can affect performance in everything, from your day job to your relationships.

Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile’s research into creativity in the workplace discovered that pressure negatively affects both creativity and productivity. Although some workers felt more creative when under pressure, the fact of the matter is that while they were certainly completing tasks, their performance was actually on a much lower creative level.

Pressure affects more than work. The secret to a successful relationship isn’t chemistry between partners but a pair’s ability to interact in pressure moments.

For example, couples who criticize each other, saying things like “You’re too selfish,” put a tremendous amount of pressure on a relationship. As a result, the partnership suffers as each individual inevitably feels dissatisfied with the other.

Stress, on the other hand, occurs in different scenarios.

While it’s common to experience pressure in situations where success is crucial, like during a college entrance exam, we tend to experience stress in situations with too many demands and too few resources, such as a work day with lots of back-to-back meetings.

But what’s the connection between pressure and stress?

Stress affects us just like pressure by decreasing our creativity. But stress is a different phenomenon and therefore begs a different solution than does pressure.

The trick to dealing with stressful situations is reduction. For instance, focusing on only what you’re doing right now will help you manage stress.

But in a pressure situation, you should focus on the final result, whether it means safely landing a helicopter or winning a basketball game. In short, this means in pressure moments you should focus on success and adapt your behavior to constantly advance.

Pressure can reduce your ability to perform in an instant, just through the way you think.

Have you ever started a presentation with the idea that every word you said would be perfect? Of course – we all put pressure on ourselves to do so. But it’s essentially counterproductive.


Because doing so leads to a specific type of failure caused by pressure, called choking. Here’s how it works.

Pressure tends to mess with your performance system, things such as physical arousal, thoughts and behavior. Disturbing any one of these can undermine your whole system.

For instance, say you’re giving a speech and can feel the pressure building up: your heart races, your mind goes blank and you can barely read the words in front of you. You’re choking!

Pressure can also affect your memory. For example, in pressure moments you tend to actively monitor your own performance, thereby consuming your brain’s resources.

What happens when you do this?

Your procedural memory, a crucial function that helps you perform complex tasks without thinking, is blocked. Imagine that a friend has been rehearsing for a piano recital for weeks. But when she gets on stage, she starts paying close attention to her every move and all of a sudden, can’t recall a single note.

In other words, she chokes. But how does this happen at all?

A simple thing, such as your perspective on a situation could trigger pressure – and even lead to depression. Here’s how this works.

Your cognitive appraisals, which determine how you see the world, are affected by pressure leading to a phenomenon known as cognitive distortions, an effect so strong that it can produce anxiety and depression.

For instance, thinking that you “need” something, like a new car, puts pressure on yourself and risks making you ill. To control a distorted reality, it’s essential to take control of your words.

Therefore, instead of thinking “I need a car,” think “I want a car.” The pressure of the sentence, and of the situation overall, will be immediately reduced.

Handle pressure situations with the right strategies. A good rule of thumb

So we know that pressure is bad, but how can you deal with it?

There are simple ways to minimize pressure and reduce your worries.

For instance, an easy strategy to adopt is to not take things too seriously. This works by reducing pressure and therefore your fear of failure.

Imagine you’re heading to an important interview and really feeling the pressure. Your friend asks you, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and tells you to relax.

While you probably have the urge to snap at her, she might have a point. Because being able to see your situation as normal reduces the pressure you’ve built and leaves you free to do your best.

After all, worrying too much about failure can be a distraction from what you have to do. So make it your goal to keep your head clear and focused.

But how do you do this?

Instead of worrying about what the interviewer might ask you, focus on what you need to do to shine. Do plenty of research and rehearse what you’re going to say.

Another trick to dealing with pressure works by helping you remember your values amid high-stakes scenarios. Here’s how it works.

In pressure moments, you can be so eager to do what’s expected of you that you forget your personal values. To ensure this doesn’t happen, you should prepare for such moments by listing your values in order of relative importance.

For example, success might be very important to you, but fairness more so. Say your boss expects you to strike a deal with a new company, but over the course of negotiations you discover that the agreement would require you to underpay your employees to meet the company’s rock-bottom price expectations.

Since you know that fairness is more important to you than success, it will be that much easier to avoid that pressure to accept the company’s unfair conditions.

Confidence and optimism are the first key attributes to handling and defeating pressure.

To do your best when it counts, it’s essential to develop attributes that help you thrive in pressure moments.

Consider these qualities your “COTE” of armor: Confidence, Optimism, Tenacity and Enthusiasm.

Confidence is key to keep you pressing ahead when the going gets tough.

As your self-confidence increases, your anxiety reduces and it becomes easier to perform well under pressure. In fact, several studies have demonstrated that people with higher confidence perform better, work harder, persist longer and even consider themselves smarter and more attractive than their peers.

It’s easy to increase your own confidence simply by striking a high-power pose.

Begin by physically opening your body, lifting your arms up, standing straight and pulling your shoulders back. Stand like this for a couple of minutes. This confidence-building posture is enough to lower your stress hormones and boost your testosterone, giving you more courage!

Like confidence, optimism will help you move forward despite pressure.

If you look at things positively and have good expectations for the future, you’ll be more likely to do things that are uncomfortable now, like taking risks or working hard.

Debra is a young woman who, after a terrible car accident, suffered from multiple fractures and months and months of a difficult, painful recovery.

Yet Debra was still grateful to be alive each and every day. Her positive attitude was so powerful it gave her the strength to keep working and got her back on her feet.

How can you develop an optimistic attitude?

Try starting your days by appreciating every little thing around you. Things like a cozy bed, fresh air and your loving family. By cherishing the small things, you’ll learn to see the positive side in every situation.

Now that you know about confidence and optimism, it’s time to complete your “COTE” of armor with tenacity and enthusiasm.

Tenacity and enthusiasm complete your “COTE” of armor. Pressure doesn’t stand a chance!

Confidence and optimism are great for getting you moving when things get tough, but to keep moving forward despite constant pressure, you’ll also need tenacity.

Tenacity comes into play when there is a goal for which you want to strive.

Because when you’re working to achieve something you want, you’ll put up with challenges and frustrations you’d never otherwise tolerate.

For example, say you’re scared of speaking in public, but want to inspire your classmates to care about animal rights. You’d likely be willing to stomach the fear of delivering a speech that would make them all give up their ham sandwiches!

Tenacity can get you to do things you wouldn’t otherwise think yourself capable, but enthusiasm will help you stay passionate and creative in spite of pressure.

Enthusiasm gives you energy to keep working and doing your best. It can be like a virus in that it is quickly catching, positively affecting those around you.

Even in situations where pressure has almost killed your creativity, enthusiasm can kick it back into gear!

For instance, when under pressure to produce results, it’s common to narrow your scope and work toward any solution. But if you’re passionate about what you’re doing, you’re likely to broaden your mind in search of something truly original.

So the next time you face a high-pressure moment, such as giving a speech before the board of directors, be sure to act enthusiastically so you will feel enthusiastic. If you need an enthusiasm boost try laughing, recall a positive memory or listen to upbeat music.


Studying Relationships

Psychologist John Gottman has spent a lifetime studying relationships. He believes he can forecast with 93.6% certainty which married couples he works with will divorce. Through the Gottman Institute, he and his wife, psychologist Julie Gottman, teach couples how to deal with each other in pressure-filled situations. A couple’s ability to manage pressure is pivotal to the survival of their marriage.

“Think “of pressure moments as stressful moments in which the consequences or results matter.”

Pressure can upset whatever you consider most valuable in your life: your links to other people, your work, how well you function as a partner or parent, and your ability to make decisions based on a clear sense of right and wrong. People naturally desire love, admiration and acceptance. When they fear censure in a situation rife with pressure, they can feel diminished, lacking, shy and discredited. When stress damages their links to other people, they experience “social pain” that feels akin to a physical injury.

“We each get multiple chances over and over again in life. Keep this in mind, and you will find your life less pressured.”

Even people who manage pressure more successfully don’t necessarily perform better when they’re under pressure than when they’re not. You may feel pressure when you must give a performance that can determine a significant outcome. If you perform well, you move closer to your goal. If you fail, it could set you back. At such times, realize that you can access your natural assets to counter the negative effects of pressure.

“Because our brains are hardwired to attend to important tasks first, and because importance intensifies pressure, encountering pressure…is inevitable, as we all have important tasks.”

Draw on your “confidence, optimism, tenacity and enthusiasm.” Practice under pressure, so when the actual event happens, you won’t experience as much stress. The etymology of “enthusiasm” comes from two Greek words: en or “in” and theos or “god.” Increasing your enthusiasm boosts your involvement and the attention you bring to a task.

“Get used to the feelings of pressure, so that you are able to perform at a high level in spite of pressure.”

In barbaric times, success meant living to fight another day. Today, doing well in an interview can advance your career. Given time, you may be able to think of several ways to respond to a stressful situation. But as the situation unfolds, you may have only one chance to get something significant accomplished. You may feel you must succeed in the face of great pressure.

Differentiating Stress and Pressure

Stress and pressure played distinctly separate parts in human evolution. Early humans’ fight for survival included combating wild animals, securing food and taking care of children. The time and effort they had to put into meeting those challenges generated stress.

“Without hard work, without tenacity, your chances of performing well under pressure are not high.”

Pressure weeds out who will survive and who won’t. The human body responds to stress by preparing for the excess demands that stress creates. If you confront a wild animal, you experience more than stress. You must evade the beast or fight it off – or die.

Today, most pressured situations don’t carry a threat of death. Even so, you might still feel your life depends on the outcome of a pressured situation, a thought that could adversely affect your performance.

What Situations Create Pressure

The design of the human brain makes people pay more attention to matters they consider most important. You feel more pressure when you have to accomplish something significant. Since you almost always have important tasks to accomplish, you will inevitably confront pressure.

“One of the more subtle ways pressure influences our brains and behavior is by altering our thinking and distorting how we see events.”

You may feel under pressure before an event, not because of the event itself, but because of how you are trying to make sense of it. If you can change how you view stressful events, you can change how you perform during them.

The details of high-pressure situations can vary, but they share three features that can cause anxiety and fear and undermine your performance. First, you see the situation’s result as vitally important. Second, you have no insight into what the result may be. Third, you feel accountable for the results and think others will evaluate your success or failure based on your performance.


In popular use since 1950, the word “choked” means starting to perform and then faltering so badly you deliver a substandard performance. When you “choke,” you deliver “worse than your typical performance…substantially below your capability.”

“Optimists are more deeply engaged in their work because they have positive expectations about the future, and they work hard to make that success happen.”

The choking response involves two different parts of the brain – “working memory” and “procedural memory.” When you first learn something, like how to play a musical instrument, you use your working memory system. As you master the instrument and playing becomes automatic, your brain uses procedural memory.

“Confident people extract three to five times more information from the same opportunity to learn as the average person.”

When worrying restricts your working memory capacity, you may choke during tasks that require thinking. This can happen despite extensive practice when – instead of performing automatically – you focus on your performance. Try to control your anxieties so they don’t interfere with your working memory and get in the way of your procedural memory.

Handling Pressure

Consider 22 more strategies for tackling pressure:

  1. “Befriend the moment” – Most people see pressured situations as life-and-death struggles that can rob them of their confidence and hinder their ability to remember, pay attention and evaluate their situation correctly. But those people who can see stressful episodes as opportunities – and even enjoyable – tend to perform at their normal levels.
  2. “Multiple opportunities” – If you think you have more than one opportunity to get something right, you feel less on edge. Before any situation involving pressure, persuade yourself that you will have several more chances to do it right.
  3. “Downsize the importance” – If you perceive an event as significant, you increase the pressure you feel. Take it easy, and you will do a lot better.
  4. “Focus on the mission” – Concentrating on the task at hand significantly reduces your sense of pressure. If you don’t pay attention to winning or losing in a game, you increase your chances of success.
  5. “Anticipate, anticipate, anticipate” – Play the “what-if pressure game.” Think of what can go wrong in any critical situation. Preparing for these eventualities can reduce the pressure you may face if they come up.
  6. “Recognize that you are worthy” – Reaffirm your awareness of your talent. Self-esteem buttresses your identity and keeps challenges from overwhelming you.
  7. “Recall you at your best” – If you lose faith in yourself amid a crisis, increase your confidence by remembering times when you’ve succeeded under similar pressure.
  8. “Use your positive GPS system” – People have an inbuilt capacity for being positive. Negative experiences can destroy this and cause pessimism. When you face a critical situation, you may be scared and anxious. To counter the pressure, focus on thinking that you will succeed.
  9. “Here and now” – In 1952, when psychologist Fritz Perls introduced Gestalt therapy to the United States, he advocated that people “stay in the moment.” Perls instructed his patients to focus on what they learned through their senses. When you face a difficult situation, focus on the present to keep feelings of pressure at bay.
  10. “Be a control freak” – Focus on things that you control. When you worry about things you don’t or can’t control, you increase the amount of pressure you feel.
  11. “Carry a pressure-tune” – Listen to music until just before you have to perform.
  12. “Use an anchor” – People often perform badly because they think too much. Use a “holistic” word or image to remind you about what you need to do when you perform.
  13. “Pressure yourself” – Practice under pressure so that when difficult events occur, pressure has little impact.
  14. “When you’re in a squeeze, ‘squeeze’” – When you learn and practice new skills, you use your left frontal lobe to make them more automatic. Trigger your unconscious skills by squeezing a soft ball with your left hand before the event, and you’ll do better.
  15. “Write pressure off” – The working memory capacity, situated in the prefrontal cortex, helps people deal with the data they need to handle the challenges at hand. Worrying takes over working memory capacity and undermines performance. To free up your working memory capacity, write out your concerns.
  16. “Put away self-consciousness” – Boosting your awareness of your learning processes while studying a new skill can reduce the jitters you feel when you perform. Videotape your performance, or do your act in front of friends.
  17. “Meditate” – Calming meditation techniques can help your brain in its thinking and feeling functions and can improve how you act.
  18. “Be obsessive and compulsive” – Like a lot of athletes and performers, develop a brief physical relaxation sequence you do quietly and by yourself before an event.
  19. “Speed kills” – Slow down. Reacting too quickly can hinder your abilities.
  20. “Breathe naturally” – When you’re under pressure, you could find it hard to breathe normally. Help yourself feel calmer by breathing slowly from your diaphragm.
  21. “Your first advantage” – If you have the choice, go first in a competition. Then you won’t worry about the people who perform before you.
  22. “Sharing pressure” – Next time you face a critical situation, share your feelings with other people to help reduce your sense of pressure.

Constructing a “COTE of Armor”

The four attributes of people who “consistently do their best when they are in pressure moments” form the acronym COTE: “confidence, optimism, tenacity and enthusiasm.” Confidence influences almost every aspect of your life. People feel a drastic contrast between the thought that they can do something compared to the real sense of being sure about it.

“In this way, [confident people] end up with a more realistic viewpoint – best defined as meaning that they see things as they really are.”

Evaluate your current level of confidence and build on it. If you feel too confident, you might not see yourself clearly. If you disparage yourself, you could hamper your working memory and fail to do your best. To affect the brain hormones that can boost confidence, stand erect in an open, unrestrained posture. This elevates testosterone levels and reduces the stress hormone cortisol.

“Nobel Prize–winner Daniel Kahneman’s work has shown that given a choice between risky outcomes, human beings are twice as averse to losses as they are attracted to comparable gains.”

Over the longer term, build up your protection against pressure. Start with the fundamental trait of courage. Use visualization to see yourself as successful and to lessen your feelings of anxiety before an event. When you visualize an activity, your brain operates in much the same way as if you’ve actually done it.

“As cortisol levels rise, and exposure to the hormone becomes chronic, we increasingly recall…difficult moments…when things didn’t turn out well.”

Looking as well as you can also makes you feel more confident, as does acknowledging your accountability for your outcomes. When you experience even a small victory, you are more likely to win again in the future. When you win, your brain restructures itself based on what it experiences – using a process called “neuroplasticity” to rewire itself.

“That single element – pressure…is a more accurate predictor than financial and social compatibility, ‘chemistry,’ or any number of other commonly held relationship keystones. It’s all about pressure.”

What you expect to happen can affect your emotions and actions. When you confront a pressure-filled situation, you could feel a mix of exhilaration, enthusiasm, nervousness and dismay. If you expect things to work out, you feel excited and optimistic. But, if you are habitually negative, you could feel anxious and dismayed.

“Finding ways to cultivate and increase enthusiasm helps us because, at the level of the brain, it increases our working memory, which allows us to take in more information in the moment.”

Optimism helps manage negative apprehensions and allows you to function closer to your optimum capacity. You can change your mental practices and how you think. For instance, use hopeful words and phrases. Replace negative self-denigrating thoughts such as “I can’t” – which suggest that things can’t change – with optimistic words and phrases.

Leveraging Persistence

Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, researched 190 students who qualified for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. She found that those individuals who succeeded demonstrated “tenacity” in pursuit of activities that helped them boost their capability. Do four things every day to burnish your COTE of armor against pressure. Affirm yourself, strive for positivity, do your best and rejoice in what you achieve.


The key message in this book:

Pressure affects the human brain, changing the way you think and behave often in the worst moments. To improve your performance under pressure, it’s necessary to learn the right strategies to become more confident, optimistic, tenacious and enthusiastic – and thus successful!

Actionable advice:

Focus on an object to keep your thoughts in the present.

Focusing on the present moment is a great way to conquer high-pressure situations. You can increase your general presence of mind by choosing any object, picking a spot on that object and focusing on that spot. As you focus, pay attention to your breathing and how it feels as you breathe in and out.

About the author

Hendrie Weisinger, PhD, a best-selling author and a pressure management pioneer, has more than 30 years of experience in organizational effectiveness and has taught at Wharton, UCLA, NYU, Cornell, Penn State, and MIT. International performance coach J.P. Pawliw-Fry has worked with Microsoft, Unilever, Allstate and the Orlando Magic. He heads the Institute for Health and Human Potential (IHHP), a research firm that trains leaders.

Hendrie Weisinger is a psychologist and pioneer in the field of pressure management as well as a bestselling author.

HENDRIE WEISINGER, Ph.D., is a world-renowned psychologist and pioneer in the field of pressure management, as well as the author of a number of bestselling books. He has consulted with and developed programs for dozens of Fortune 500 companies and government agencies, and has taught in Executive Education and Executive MBA programs at Wharton, UCLA, NYU, Cornell, Penn State, and MIT.

J.P. Pawliw-Fry is a performance coach who advises Olympic athletes and business executives. He is the president of the Institute for Health and Human Potential, a global research and learning company that trains organizations and leaders to best perform under pressure.

J.P. PAWLIW-FRY is an international performance coach and advisor to Olympic athletes and senior business executives. Among his clients are Marriott, Unilever, Allstate and the Orlando Magic. Formerly he taught executive education at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management. He is president of the Institute for Health and Human Potential (IHHP), a research firm that trains and coaches leaders and organizations to perform more effectively under pressure.


Psychology, Communication Skills, Productivity, Management, Leadership, Business Decision Making, Problem Solving, Stress Management Self-Help

Table of Contents

Introduction 1
Part 1
1 The Power of Pressure 13
2 The Stress of Pressure 33
3 The Nature of Pressure 45
4 The Anatomy of Choking 56
5 How Pressure Affects Our Thinking 71
6 Pressure Traps 80
7 The Third Variable 96
Part 2
Pressure Solutions 109
Part 3
Building Your COTE of Armor 155
COTE of Armor’s Origin 158
Confidence 160
Optimism 196
Tenacity 223
Enthusiasm 248
Appendix A 275
Appendix B 280
Acknowledgments 283
Endnotes 289
Bibliography 295
Index 302


Nobody performs better under pressure. Regardless of the task, pressure ruthlessly diminishes our judgment, decision-making, attention, dexterity, and performance in every professional and personal arena. In Performing Under Pressure, Drs. Hendrie Weisinger and J.P. Pawliw-Fry introduce us to the concept of pressure management, offering empirically tested short term and long term solutions to help us overcome the debilitating effects of pressure.

Performing Under Pressure tackles the greatest obstacle to personal success, whether in a sales presentation, at home, on the golf course, interviewing for a job, or performing onstage at Carnegie Hall. Despite sports mythology, no one “rises to the occasion” under pressure and does better than they do in practice. The reality is pressure makes us do worse, and sometimes leads us to fail utterly. But there are things we can do to diminish its effects on our performance.

Performing Under Pressure draws on research from over 12,000 people, and features the latest research from neuroscience and from the frontline experiences of Fortune 500 employees and managers, Navy SEALS, Olympic and other elite athletes, and others. It offers 22 specific strategies each of us can use to reduce pressure in our personal and professional lives and allow us to better excel in whatever we do.

Whether you’re a corporate manager, a basketball player, or a student preparing for the SAT, Performing Under Pressure will help you to do your best when it matters most.


“You’ll want to incorporate the tips, tools and advice into your life.” — Success Magazine

“This book is a wonderful mix of empirical studies and firsthand accounts that show how pressure impacts our personal and professional lives.” –Forbes

“An unusually sharp account of work and performing under pressure.” –Financial Times

“Thoughtful and well argued…useful distinction between pressure and stress.” –Los Angeles Times

“Outstanding read! A tremendous guide to handling everyday pressure we all face.” –Don La Greca, ESPN New York Talk Show Host

“Performing Under Pressure offers 22 practical solutions that can help you perform better in a true pressure situation, as well as helping you develop the confidence, optimism, tenacity, and enthusiasm that allow you to do your best on a daily basis.” –Amy Morin, author 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do

“Today’s executive must muster, harness, and manage energy effectively — avoiding the debilitating effects of pressure. Dr. Weisinger provides sensible, evidence-based tools and techniques for doing just that. Following his guide will allow enhanced leadership performance as well as happier personal lives.” –Dr. Victor Tabbush, Professor Emeritus, The Anderson School at UCLA

“All too often, we choke or crumble under pressure. This book reveals how we can develop nerves of steel.” — Adam Grant, Wharton professor and New York Times bestselling author of Give and Take

“In this excellent book, Dr. Weisinger looks deeper into the mental systems of performance better than I’ve ever read before…. Every other examination of the topic seems a surface analysis compared to this work. If you want to go to the next level get this book, read it and keep it handy.” — Kevin Elko, Ph.D. Consultant for the University of Alabama Football team and author of The Pep Talk

“A tremendous tool. Hendrie helps us understand pressure and it’s consequences, then provides a clear cut strategy to help reduce it in our daily lives.” –Keith Allain, Coach, Yale Hockey Team, 2013 NCAA Champions

“In this priceless new book, Dr. Weisinger has woven together memorable examples from the world of sports and entertainment, scientific research, pragmatic advice and a deep understanding of how to do our best when it matters most, whatever the circumstances. I hope you will read it before your next job interview, sales pitch, performance review, or stakeholders’ meeting ….” — Mark Anderson, President, ExecuNet

“Performing Under Pressure addresses the issues and skill-building that I consider to be the most important in our lives…. By using the principles in this book, readers will understand that the advice and encouragement I have given rock stars 10 minutes before opening live at Madison Square Garden, to leading actors who wonder if they can deliver when the director says “action,” are remarkably similar to the advice I have given to help couples find the courage and poise to live up to the challenges of parenthood, along with the guidance I have imparted to couples ten minutes before their wedding. Handling the pressure of critical moments truly determines a great deal of the life success that each of us can achieve.” –Ronald M. Podell, MD, Author, Contagious Emotions, Founder and Medical Director of the Center for Bio-Behavioral Science in Los Angeles

“Performing Under Pressure hit so many high notes I immediately ordered it for my daughters (one in law school, one a lawyer) and my mother (beloved Nana to the “Baker’s Dozen” and more). A must read for every individual and especially those graced with the honor of educating children in the twenty-first century.” — Mama Marlaine, Founder Parenting 2.0 Creator, The Life Skills Report Card

“Performing Under Pressure is that rare specimen in the self-help field: a fascinating, research-based, counter-intuitive, and eminently useful book. I was surprised by something in every chapter, and guided to simple steps that are proven to increase confidence, optimism, tenacity, and enthusiasm. My coaching clients and I were benefiting before I had gotten halfway through.” — Howard Jacobson, PhD, Contributing author of Proteinaholic and host of the Plant Yourself Podcast

“Performing Under Pressure is an incredible resource that is changing the way we think about leadership development in the highly-pressurized context of business school. For our students to flourish at Michigan Ross and sustain their leadership performance after graduation, they must be able to distinguish between stress and pressure and manage both. Short- and long-term pressure solutions, like those described in the book, are becoming more and more essential for our students and alumni as they operate in today’s complex and dynamic world. Hendrie and JP have created a terrific handbook that makes a world of research in this area accessible and actionable.” — Brian T. Flanagan, Managing Director of the Sanger Leadership Center, University of Michigan Ross School of Business

“A great insight for anyone wanting to learn how to perform well when the heat is on. A string evidence base adds to the appeal of the many useful (and practical) messages underlying performance. I would highly recommend!” –Dr. Veronica Burke, Programme Director at Cranfield University School of Management

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Chapter 1

The Power of Pressure

Have you ever thought about how you handle pressure in your marriage? You would be wise to. Of all the things that make marriages difficult, the inability to manage pressure tops the list.

The “Love Lab” sits near Yesler Terrace in Central Seattle, Washington, between Seattle University and Swedish Cherry Hill Medical Center, on East Jefferson Street. Officially, it is known as the Relationship Research Institute, and the nondescript white brick building is home to two of the leading experts on relationships in the world: Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Julie Gottman. The institute’s nickname suggests a bohemian enterprise, but it is anything but that.

A professor emeritus at the University of Washington, John Gottman has spent a lifetime studying more than three thousand couples in research and four thousand more couples in intervention and treatment. He is the author of 190 published academic articles and author or coauthor of 40 books, including the New York Times bestseller The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. As a team, the Drs. Gottman have worked with approximately eight thousand couples in workshop and therapy settings.

Of their many empirical findings, none is more amazing than this one statistic: They can predict, with 93.6 percent accuracy, which couples will divorce. To put that number in context, the odds of making a chance prediction with 90 percent accuracy are 1 to .0000000000000000001.

How do they do it? Armed with decades of clinical research and data, Dr. John Gottman examines how couples interact when under pressure. That single element—pressure—whether managed or succumbed to in a difficult conversation, is a more accurate predictor than financial and social compatibility, “chemistry,” or any number of other commonly held relationship keystones. It’s all about pressure.

In his research, the psychologist recognized that many variables thought to be important for a successful marital relationship are not in fact predictive of whether couples stay together. What he looked at instead was how couples interact when they feel the heat or experience the pressure that comes with discussing a contentious issue. He found that couples who can’t navigate their way through the pressure experience crack and divorce.

John Gottman’s scientific methodology is rigorous. Couples are hooked up to state-of-the-art apparatuses so physiological responses—heart rate, galvanic skin conductance—can be measured and connected to how the couple is acting and how they’re responding to each other. Are they relaxed? Psychologically aroused? On edge? At the same time, trained observers record and code their behavior or body language, facial expressions, voice inflection—all of which is later connected to their dialogue and physical reactions. “Do the partners look at each other when speaking to each other, smile, or frown? . . . Do they lean into each other or lean away? Are they open and expansive or closed and contracted? How long does it take for their voices to sound angry?” It is a lot of data and it is analyzed meticulously.

Dr. Gottman’s data-heavy approach has been incorporated into the work of thousands of therapists, and has changed the course of countless relationships. He has challenged traditional marriage counseling techniques. He has suggested that some of the techniques that therapists routinely use simply do not make much of a difference in a marriage, and may even be counterproductive. For instance, the idea of “active listening,” where partners are encouraged to use “I statements” and play back what their partner is feeling in a conversation. For many years this has been the bedrock of marriage counseling. Yet according to Gottman’s data, it makes virtually no difference in the success of a relationship or in therapy.

According to Gottman, “If your partner is saying, ‘You’re terrible,’ according to active listening, you are supposed to be able to empathize and be understanding. We found in our research that hardly anybody does that, even in great marriages. When somebody attacks them, they attack right back.”

Gottman says, “Well, it kind of makes sense. Let’s say my wife is really angry with me because I repeatedly haven’t balanced the checkbook and the checks bounce. I keep saying: ‘I’m sorry, and I’ll try not to do it again.’ So finally she gets angry and confronts me in a therapy session. What would it accomplish if I say: ‘I hear what you’re saying, you’re really angry with me, and I can understand why you’re angry with me because I’m not balancing the checkbook.’ That’s not going to make her feel any better; I still haven’t balanced the damned checkbook!”

His lab identified negative behavior patterns that can take couples down the path to divorce. One is negative criticism, stating your complaints as a defect in your partner’s personality: “You always talk about yourself. You are so selfish.” Another negative behavior is contempt: statements that come from a relative position of superiority. Contempt is the greatest single predictor of divorce. For example, telling your partner, “You’re an idiot.” A third is defensiveness: making excuses for one’s behavior or accusing your partner—“You always blame me, I am always the bad guy.” Defensiveness is used to ward off a perceived attack. The last is stonewalling and emotional withdrawal, such as when the listener intentionally ignores the speaker, fails to provide the usual nonverbal signals that the listener is “tracking” the speaker, or simply doesn’t respond to what the speaker is communicating.

What Dr. Gottman was able to determine is that success is less about the “chemistry” that exists between a couple and has more to do with how they manage their own internal chemistry as they interact under the pressure of threatening conversations.

The more a couple/individual cannot handle pressure, the more “physiologically aroused, mentally rigid, and impulsive they become during a conflict. This state of affairs increases the likelihood they will engage in destructive communication patterns that inevitably decrease marital satisfaction and increase marital dissatisfaction.” Dr. Gottman found that happily married couples handle the pressure of conflict more effectively and are able to make conversational repair attempts even in the middle of an argument.

At heart, what the Love Lab has found is that if you want your marriage to be long and enjoyable, you need to learn to handle pressure—and hope your partner can handle it too.

Truths About Pressure

There are three basic and powerful truths about pressure. They are powerful because they influence our life every day, often in ways that we are not aware of, and almost always to our detriment.

The first is that pressure disrupts what we value most: our relationships, our careers, our parenting effectiveness, and our core ethical and moral decision-making. The consequences of pressure can break a marriage, derail a career, and cause children to pull away from their parents or feel the need to cheat to meet their parents’ expectations. And it can compromise our very integrity.

The second truth is that people who handle pressure better than others do not “rise to the occasion” or perform statistically better than they do in non-pressure situations. If you are a sports fan, you’ve been fed a myth by the media that some athletes are “clutch” performers who do better under pressure. Or maybe you’ve heard that some people at work do more creative work, are more productive, work better as a team, or add more value to a client under pressure. But it’s not true. Moreover, perpetuating this fiction only exacerbates poor performance under pressure.

The third truth, confirmed by our study of more than twelve thousand people and conducted over a ten-year period, is that you simply need to leverage the natural pressure management tools each of us already possesses to counteract pressure’s injurious effects. When it comes to handling pressure, most individuals fail to leverage these tools, and thus handicap themselves.

These insights regarding pressure have specific applications in organizations of all kinds because individuals and teams react to pressure in predictable ways. Being aware of these truths in your daily activities will help you achieve your best possible performance when you need it the most. More important, it will allow you to remove the damaging effects that pressure creates for you. Let’s look at a few examples of people under pressure both within organizations and outside of organizations to see why they react as they do, and to better understand the circumstances that amplify the negative effects of pressure.

The Sabotaging Force of Pressure

Heidi K. Gardner is an assistant professor of Business Administration in the Organizational Behavior Unit at Harvard, where she studies how pressure impacts team dynamics. Professor Gardner’s research suggests that teams like to think they do their best work when the stakes are highest—when the company’s future or their own future rests on the outcome. But that is not what happens. In extensive studies of teams at professional service firms, Professor Gardner saw the same pattern repeat itself: Teams become increasingly caught up with the risks of failure, rather than with the requirements of excellence. As a result, they revert to safe, standard approaches, instead of offering original solutions tailored to clients’ needs.

She found that when teams face significant performance pressure, they tend to defer to high-status members, at the expense of using expert team members. This would be analogous to a team of physicians ignoring the expertise of the best surgeon in the group and deferring to another doctor who is not a specialist in the field but he or she is senior on the staff.

Gardner labels this phenomenon the performance pressure paradox. Here’s how it develops: As pressure mounts, team members drive toward consensus in ways that shut out vital information. Without realizing it, they give more weight to shared knowledge and dismiss specialized expertise, such as insights into the client’s technologies, culture, and aspirations. The more generically inclined the team becomes, the more mediocre the solutions they offer.

The effects of pressure show up not just in our marriages and work; they also influence the choices we make, at all ages.

Vinay Mayar was the 2010 valedictorian of Stuyvesant High School, widely regarded as the best of the nine elite New York City public high schools that select students based on a highly competitive Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT). The school is a regular feeder to the most prestigious colleges and universities in America.

In his valedictorian commencement speech, Mayar, who now attends MIT, talked about the pressure at school. He referred to his classmates as “a volatile mix of strong-minded people armed in opposition against one other.” He listed what his friends said epitomized the Stuyvesant experience: “copying homework in the hallway while walking to class”; “sneaking in and out of school during free periods”; and “widespread Facebook cheating.” Only a few months earlier, Stuyvesant had been the scene of one of the most notorious acts of cheating to take place at a high school; it involved more than one hundred “excellent” students in a ring of deception. But Stuyvesant is not alone. Cheating scandals are hardly rare at elite, pressure-cooker high schools and colleges.

Just months from graduation from Leland High School, an acclaimed public school in San Jose, California, nine seniors were accused of taking part in a cheating ring. One student was said to have broken into at least two classrooms to steal test information before winter exams. A top-notch junior from Panther Creek High School in Cary, North Carolina, was busted for distributing a test to four classmates. Some twenty students from Great Neck, Roslyn, and other Long Island Gold Coast towns were arrested in an SAT cheating ring. In 2012, more than a hundred students were caught cheating in the same Harvard class in US Government.

Why do smart kids cheat? On the surface, it doesn’t make sense. They are bright enough to get ahead honestly. We now understand enough about brain science to lay some of the blame on biology. Current research shows that the parts of the brain responsible for impulse control (measured in the lateral prefrontal cortex) may not completely develop until early adulthood, while the parts that boost sensation-seeking (the ventral striatum and the orbitofrontal cortex) start growing just after puberty begins. Teenagers may cheat (or do drugs or drive too fast) partly because their sense of the thrill outweighs their sense of the risk.

The phenomenon is magnified when peers—friends—are present, which may help explain why teens often cheat in groups. A 2010 Temple University study found that when playing a driving video game, teenagers were more likely to take big risks and even crash when their friends were watching than they were when playing the game alone.

But a more plausible explanation put forth by educators and psychologists (and Vinay Mayar, the Stuyvesant valedictorian) is that cheating is caused by pressure. Sally Rubenstone, a Massachusetts-based senior advisor with College Confidential, puts it this way: “The pressure these kids feel to do well on the tests makes kids feel cheating is necessary.” Gabe Kaplan, principal of Great Neck North High School, concurs: “With intensity to do well on tests comes pressure to cheat.”

Every day, kids are susceptible to peer pressure, which often makes our children engage in activities that later come back to haunt them. Drug use is one, bullying another. One can also add irresponsible adolescent sexual activity, and the most tragic consequence of teen pressure: suicide. The message is clear: Our kids might be smart, but pressure can cause them to use bad judgment and do foolish things.

Most of us think of pressure as situation-specific: the bottom of the ninth, taking the SATs, or giving a presentation in front of management. Yet the reality is that pressure is a daily force that infiltrates our everyday activities and builds up to the moment when everything is on the line.

Nancy Medoff, a senior director of Global Sales for Marriott International, describes what we mean. She calls it The Challenge:

“Technology increases the expectation that we need to be on 24/7, everyone expects a response NOW, and we are all moving at the speed of light. This creates a constant feeling that I am falling behind. Then there are ‘pressure spikes’ where something new gets added to your plate. For example, this year Marriott added a well-known Caribbean resort to its Autograph collection. It’s an amazing property, so almost overnight, customers were calling wanting to know more about it, availability for groups—and we need to be the experts and handle the new workload on top of what we are already doing.

“When the pressure spikes like this, I start feeling like I’m not getting enough done and I feel overwhelmed. If I am not managing the pressure, then I start responding to e-mails right away, being more reactive, and I can have an impact on people I don’t want to have. It affects my leadership and the performance of my team.

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