How to focus under pressure like a pro
'There is always an inner game being played in your mind no matter what outer game you are playing. How aware you are of this game can make the difference between success and failure in the outer game.' Timothy Gallwey
What pressures are you under at the moment? How are you coping? Are you able to concentrate and be laser focused, or are you easily distracted? It’s an enviable skill to channel pressure in a way that allows you to perform at your best and it’s a skill that requires great mental strength.
In any sport you’ll find people at the top who have perfected this skill of staying focused under immense pressure. In fact, eight of the world’s top tennis players are experiencing enormous pressure this week as they compete in the ATP World Tour Finals. With it being the final event of the season the pressure is even higher than normal, with their performance determining where they finish in the overall World ranking. Whilst no one can unseat Nadal in first place or Federer in second, the remaining six players will be competing for their highest-ever finishes. In addition to this, there is also huge financial pressure. The prize money for reaching the semi-finals is £445k, and it’s a whopping £915k for reaching the final!
High pressure situations are nothing new for these players, and over the years they’ve developed and honed strategies to enable them to thrive under pressure. Their ability often comes down to how well they can control their mind and their ability to focus.
Controlling the mind
I believe that pressure is necessary for high performance as we can harness the pressure and use it for our advantage. It’s when we are unable to cope with this excessive pressure that it becomes an issue and actually impairs our performance. Timothy Gallwey explores this pressure in his book ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’. He notices that tennis players often make the same mistakes despite having practiced better ways to play. He argues that performance is not simply our ability, as professionals know how to physically perform, for example the potential of an athlete like Federer is practically limitless. Instead, Gallwey argues that it is our brain that stops us performing at our best and for a tennis player their mind is actually a more daunting opponent than the one on the other side of the net. Gallwey describes there as being two selves: the mind and the body. He believes that the body is able to perform to a high standard but that the brain interferes, acting as a barrier to peak performance. He presents methods to help tennis players keep their mental state from getting in the way of peak physical performance. For example, he suggests that focusing on where the ball is, distracts the brain and stops it from influencing the body.
Although it could be easy to interpret Gallwey’s thinking as being ‘the less you think the better you will perform’, this is not the case. He believes that “the ability to focus your mind is the ability to not let it run away with you. It doesn’t mean not to think—but to be the one who directs your own thinking.” Essentially, it’s about focus.
Focusing to tackle your pressures
We all experience pressure and whilst your pressures may not determine whether you earn £915k or become the world number one tennis player, it is still important to adopt strategies to approach them and enable you to perform to your full potential.
Your ability to perform is not monitored solely by your intelligence, time or resources, but also by your mental strength. To focus your mind to perform through your pressures, these are my top 3 tips:
1. Pay attention to your attention
One particular area of your brain (the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex)prevents distractions; however, its effectiveness is determined by how well you can focus. Try to learn how to focus more efficiently by paying attention to your attention. Be aware of when you begin to lose focus, so you can prevent yourself from getting completely distracted.
2. Take a short break
When your eyes start to glaze over, or when you start to feel like the energy has been zapped from you, do one simple thing - take a break! If you continue to struggle you will reduce your ability to focus even more, increasing the number of mistakes you’ll make. Take a short stroll around the office or outside, get a drink, have a snack, practice some yoga! Give your mind a rest.
3. Do smaller tasks
We have all been there when you get that sudden overwhelming feeling when trying to tackle a large project. Here’s a simple trick: break the project down into easy bitesize tasks so they can be completed more quickly and efficiently. That way you will feel as though you have accomplished something, and be more motivated to finish the project.
So, whilst our ATP champions are experts at controlling their minds and focusing their attention (most of the time!), could you say the same about your own performance at work? Which of these simple strategies could you employ every day to improve your focus? If anything, it’s a good excuse to take a short coffee break and catch up with a colleague you haven’t spoken to in a little while!