How to Prepare to Perform Under Pressure

By: Martin Grunburg

In the last post I shared that the path to a “Zone” experience is via something known as habituation, and that the path to habituation is facilitated by following The 3 P’s: Planning, Preparing and Practicing.

If you or I take the time to Plan (see the vision and understand the desired outcome) and then Prepare (gather all the necessary information, knowledge, skills, expertise and tools), and finally Practice (at three levels of pressure: no/low pressure, moderate pressure and high/extra-high pressure), habituation occurs.

For this post, though it’s best to keep in mind the idea of practice at the “high/extra-high pressure” level.

Did you happen to watch the NFL Wildcard Playoffs a couple weeks ago (2016 season)? If so, then perhaps you caught Blair Walsh, kicker for the Minnesota Vikings and his unfortunate miss of a crucial field goal in the waning seconds of their home game resulting in a loss to the Seattle Seahawks, 10-9.

Here’s the missed kick via the NFL’s twitter feed.

Keep in mind that Walsh made all three of his earlier attempts (totaling all of Minnesota’s 9 points in the game). Unfortunately, the Vikings kicker missed a 27-yard kick that would have won the game. After the game coach Mike Zimmer said, “It’s a chip shot; he’s got to make it.”

Then, NBC color analyst, Cris Collinsworth, a great color commentator (a man who clearly understands the 3 P’s as it relates to his current profession), had this to say: “I’m telling you, sometimes that can psychologically get to a kicker,” he noted of the laces on the football as he watched the replay. Collinsworth was referring to the laces of the football that were facing the kicker’s foot and not rotated to a side, as the placeholder is expected to do. Collinsworth went on, “But I tell you, there’s no way to practice a three-foot putt to win the Masters, and there’s no way to practice the pressure of making a game-winning playoff field goal.”

Here’s the thing … Collinsworth is technically correct, and slightly incorrect.

Nothing – no amount of planning, preparing or practicing – will guarantee success. Having said that, the more of each of the 3 P’s that is accomplished, the greater likelihood of success.

We know that hindsight is 20/20, but if you’re the coach or kicker and you know that the laces have a fair chance of facing the kicker’s foot, altering the course of a playoff game (potentially ending your bid for a Super Bowl Championship), what sort of planning, preparing and practicing might you do?

As I wrote The Pressure Paradox, my research led me to a terrific planning and preparing strategy known as “the premortum.” Here’s an excellent Harvard Business Review article on it. The premortum is a strategy/process designed for the planner/organizer/manager, and even a performer, which assumes that the worst has already happened (failure of a project, roll-out, performance disaster, etc.), and then ask, “What happened? How could this have happened? What could’ve been done to prevent such an event?”

Do you not think that the coaches and/or the kicker could have foreseen the possibility of the laces being turned in? How do you think the kicker could’ve planned, prepared and practiced for such an event?

I want to be clear, I am not piling on Blair. In fact, I’m actually doing the opposite – we’re just trying to do what I suspect he is: Learn from the event to become better next time. Blair is one of the league’s best kickers and it was heartwarming to learn of a 1st grade class that wrote letters to him and showed their support (he later visited the class).

It looks like there are many great lessons here. If we know we can’t simulate the identical scenario and related pressure, can we not try to practice in extreme simulations where the performance might be even harder to pull off? Think about it: What if the kicker practiced in even colder conditions, was forced to kick longer distances under duress and more noise, or maybe in mud with the laces turned in, etc.? What if practicing at such a difficult level, where the performer is perhaps even handicapped (to make the act harder), would then make the actual performance under pressure seem less intense and maybe even, second nature? Habituated.

Strangely enough, the newest member to my Entrepreneur Organization Accelerator Group (a group that I coach) is the founder of Kickingworld; his name is Brent Grablachoff. Brent is a smart man and former collegiate kicker. His kicking camps are a great success all across the county, helping young people learn the mental and physical aspects of kicking. Brent and his staff teach the kids that kicking field goals is “80% mental and 20% physical.” And, as you might guess, we had a lot to talk about regarding Blair Walsh’s unfortunate kick. What I wanted to know was, what does he teach the kids about preparation and how does he try to help simulate the high-pressure kicks?

“Oh yes,” Brent explained. “We will actually gather a bunch of kids around the kicker as they practice; the other kids all get very close, inches away, and all of them are making noise – laughing, clapping, screaming – trying to distract the kicker. It’s a dramatic way to emphasize the importance of focus in pressure situations.”

Brent further commented, “A great distinction about the professional kickers is their short memories… they have a great ability to quickly forget about any misses and move on.”

Another fantastic lesson for us all.


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