The most pressure that I’ve ever experienced was working at a pizza shop on Super Bowl Sunday. I’ve managed shows with nationally touring bands, I’ve worked the NCAA finals, I’ve spoken on behalf of people with international reputations. But Super Bowl Sunday at a pizza shop is by far the most pressure I’ve had on me.
This may seem comical, but really it’s about how we define pressure. Lately, there has been a lot of discussion about how world class athletes respond to pressure. That conversation is consistently relevant in basketball because of the impact that a single player can have on a game. We’ve been hearing about it a lot as LeBron James and Steph Curry will once again face off for the NBA Championship.
As a business owner I’ve learned that pressure arrives in three forms: stakes, inexperience, and overwhelment. Stakes, meaning how much there is to be won – or lost. Inexperience, meaning that you simply haven’t done it before, so it’s difficult to anticipate what challenges are on the horizon. And overwhelment, meaning the size or volume of the task at hand seems unmanageable with no reprieve in sight. (IE: endless pizza and wing orders with a phalanx of angry customers peering in the restaurant). The common belief is that world class athletes are impervious to pressure. I’d argue that they aren’t impervious to it, but that they interpret it differently.
This conversation mostly focuses on their ability to deflate the mental awareness of stakes. But whether they’ve just arrived to training camp or it’s the closing seconds of game 7, these athletes know that they simply have to execute the challenge in front of them. It’s what made Mariano Rivera the best closer in baseball. It’s what made Tom Brady’s seemingly insurmountable comeback in Super Bowl 51 so incredible. And now, it’s what makes Steph Curry and LeBron James two of the most exciting athletes in any sport to watch. LeBron was needed for 48 minutes in game 7 and his 4th quarter was one of his strongest of the game. In a matter of minutes, Steph Curry consistently turns Q3 deficits into leads by finding a 3-point rhythm. It’s not because they are impervious to pressure. It’s because they know that regardless of how present it is, they still have to perform. Steph still has to drain threes for the Warriors to win. LeBron still has to dominate both sides of the game to succeed as the Cavs current roster is weak in supporting him. Emotion and circumstance related to the task at hand is irrelevant to them, or even better, converted into fuel. From day 1 of the NBA season, the goal is to win the basketball game that is in front of them, and they are committed to that bottom line.
Musicians combating stage fright report similar experiences. The easiest way for them to escape this fear is to focus on the meaning of the song that they are delivering in the first place. By channeling their mental energy into the meaning of their songs, they are better able to connect with the audience, and tend to perform better as a whole. This applies to us in our every day lives as well. If you’re presenting to important board members, focus on what you’re delivering, not the pressure of who you are delivering to.
One of the most historic sports feats we’ve seen in recent history was Nick Foles leading the Philadelphia Eagles to victory in Super Bowl LII. After star rookie QB Carson Wentz went down with a season-ending injury, many counted the Eagles out of true Super Bowl content. But Foles knew what he had to do: win the game. He went 6-1 down the stretch to secure their playoff birth, and 3-0 during the playoffs. But this was the Super Bowl against a seemingly unflappable Patriots team.
What makes this win so impressive was that he prevailed against all three forms of pressure that we defined. He never let the stakes take over the fact that he had 4 downs to go ten yards. His poise was never undercut by his inexperience. He was never shaken by the Patriots fortified defensive efforts. In a game where Tom Brady threw for over 500 yards, was 5-for-8 on third down conversions, had a higher QB rating, and had been there so many times before, Nick Foles still won the game.
Foles shows us two important lessons here as well. The only way you can get rid of inexperience is to go do the things you are inexperienced with. It’s important to research, prepare, and have a game plan, but you can’t gain experience by dodging what you’ve signed up for. A great example of this is the tremendous weight we put on “relationship experience.” Those without “relationship experience” can become scared of dating in fear that they don’t know “how to date.” Yet, if you ask people is long-lasting relationships what their “secret” is, they usually say that they’re best friends with their partner, and that traits like loyalty, respect, and consideration and the ingredients for success. These are largely what we value in friendships. Eventually, you just have to get out there and do it.
The other important lesson is overwhelment. In a world where we are constantly connected by technology and are bombarded by a seemingly never-ending to do list, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. One of the most common responses in this situation is to do nothing. We don’t know where to start. We don’t know what is most important. And so we become paralyzed by the sheer volume of what lays ahead. But the best way to counter this pressure is by action. Just as the tasks can snowball onto us, taking some sort of action helps momentum swing in your favor.
As for me at 17 years old on Super Bowl Sunday , the pizza and wings orders never seemed to end. But hey, the store has to close sometime, right?