Seven Tips for Excelling under Pressure

A Vanderbilt expert offers practical advice for school and the workplace

From the Spring 2015 edition of Vanderbilt Business

Ask just about any investor what the key to a healthy portfolio is, and you’re likely to get the same piece of advice: diversify. But when it comes to maintaining a healthy sense of self-worth—something that’s incalculably more valuable than any financial asset—diversifying may not be the first thing that comes to mind. That is, unless you’ve had an opportunity to hear Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry David Sacks speak.

Late last year, Sacks gave a presentation to business school students, faculty and staff that drew upon his experience as associate director of Vanderbilt’s Psychological and Counseling Center. Roughly one in five students visits the center during his or her time on campus, and even more attend its outreach and prevention activities.

A prevalent need among students is guidance on how to cope with stress, which is one of Sacks’ areas of expertise. Relying on his background in sports psychology, he often teaches students not just how to cope but how to excel under pressure, much like high-performing athletes. Sacks argues that when stakes are high—whether on the playing field, in the classroom or in the office—one can influence the outcome by taking steps like diversifying one’s life interests. The following are seven such tips that he says anyone can use.

1. Engage in deliberate practice.

“You’ll never find an expert in his or her field who doesn’t work hard at it, but there’s a difference between practice and deliberate practice,” Sacks says. “Deliberate practice involves setting goals. It’s not the same as just putting the time in. Ask recreational golfers what they’re working on in their game, and they probably won’t be able to tell you. But a professional golfer will. That explains why some people play golf all their lives but never improve.”

2. Focus on what is within your control.

“During times of stress, there’s nearly always something we can control,” he says. “If we attribute outcomes, whether good or bad, to things outside of our control, we’re not motivated to do anything differently in the future.

“When I talk with students about a bad experience they’ve had during an exam, they often say something like, ‘I’m just not as smart as the other people in the program.’ They’re making an internal attribution but an uncontrollable one—‘I just don’t have it,’ versus ‘I didn’t take advantage of the help that was offered’ or ‘I used a poor strategy.’ My work is trying to get them to move toward a controllable attribution.”

3. Think about the upsides of success, not failure.

“When things go badly, we often catastrophize the situation, but the truth is failure usually isn’t as bad as we make it out to be,” Sacks says. “I like to use the metaphor of walking on a tightrope. Recognizing that you have a net under you can reduce your anxiety, and it’s not your intention to fall and land in that net. Knowing that it’s not a life-or-death situation can help you keep your focus on your goal of getting to the other side.”

4. Follow a pre- and post-performance routine.

“It’s really unfortunate when we worry about a task without working on that task. It isn’t productive, and it ruins our leisure time,” he says. “To combat this, most athletes have a simple routine that gets them from their time off to their time on—like baseball pitchers between each pitch. I tell students to do something similar. Go to the same location each time to study, or during tests, do short breathing exercises between questions.

“Another suggestion I have is that, if it’s unrealistic to ask yourself not to worry, then take control and budget yourself a time for it. If something is occupying your mind, thinking through it can help, but be deliberate in your problem solving.”

5. Diversify your life interests.

“When you have tunnel vision and are into just one thing, you’re not necessarily setting yourself up for better performance,” Sacks says. “I encourage people, even when their time allocation is unbalanced, to give at least some thought to a diversity of issues. Besides hobbies and exercise, I’d suggest talking to friends or family members who have no clue what you’re invested in. If their affection for you is not contingent upon how you perform, they become your safety net.”

6. Find your optimal level of anxiety.

“Most of us have an optimal level of anxiety that we perform under,” he says. “Past that optimal point, we’re so nervous that we can’t function. One explanation for this is that when we’re highly aroused, our attentional capacity [the brain processing it takes to pay attention and act] shrinks. And when our attentional capacity shrinks, we make mistakes.

“An example is how common it is for a quarterback to throw a “pick six” [an interception that leads to a touchdown] late in the game. The stakes are high, and the quarterback has tunnel vision. If he would just take a step back and relax, he would perceive more.

“Or for instance, have you ever been taking a test when you knew the answer but couldn’t come up with it? And maybe it occurs to you only after you’ve finished? That’s because you’re more relaxed at that point. It’s ironic that caring less about something and lowering the stakes can get you where you want to be.”

7. Pay attention to self-talk.

“It’s important to be aware of how we talk to ourselves,” Sacks says. “Sometimes we tend to berate ourselves. Think about it: If that’s the message you’re listening to, then you’re working against yourself. I advise people to talk to themselves as they would to someone they really care about, or as that person would talk to them.”

Bottom line

“If you’re worried that your results are uncontrollable and you think you either have it or you don’t,” Sacks says, “your failures are going to reveal to you that you don’t have it. And if that’s a fear you have, you’re going to hold back in testing your limits because you don’t want your weaknesses to be revealed.

“If, on the other hand, you believe that outcomes are controllable, your weaknesses are absolutely what you want to target because you think that with deliberate practice you can fix them. Every day you can improve something a little bit, and the gap between you and the person just going through the motions will continue to grow.”