Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Dealing With Pressure, Part 1: Describing It

Besides general advice about game we’re playing, the question I probably get asked the most is “how do I deal with pressure?”

Failing to deal with pressure was my hallmark characteristic for a long time.  I responded with anger, depression, frustration, and wanting to quit; when I would feel pressure, I’d experience this sick, acid feeling in my stomach.  I would feel an interesting blend of wanting to puke and wanting to cry; the muscles in my arms would tense up almost to the point of pain, and my primary coping method was huddling in on myself in my chair.  As time went on, the feelings got worse and worse.

Somehow, I found a way to deal with it.  Feelings of pressure during tournament and difficult matches began to vanish.  The sick feeling and the tension would flare up briefly like a bad memory, then subside.  What changed?

A lot of things changed, and it took a lot of effort as well.  Before I could begin to deal with pressure, the first thing that had to change was the way I perceived it.  Today’s post will focus on that, and I will post a follow-up on Thursday.

The First Fact Of Pressure:

Pressure is not something that happens to you.  Pressure is something you generate.  It is always an internally created phenomenon, based on what you prize and what you fear.

A phrase I’ve started to use lately, a question I ask, is this: “does this say something about the environment, or does it say something about me?”  And emotions always say more about us than they do about the environment.  The things that engender pressure, the way you respond, it always has more to do with you than anything else.  It is about how you perceive the situation, about what you value, about what matters to you, what threatens you, what upsets you and what delights you.

Pressure is a characteristic of you, and the number one way to deal with pressure is to stop making it.  This is easier said than done.  The reasons that we feel pressure and generate them are… well, reasonable.  They’re common.  And to top it off, they’re powerful reasons.

Why Do We Generate Pressure?

There are a few primary sources of pressure.  While I think they all trace back fundamentally to worrying about loss and survival, I think these are the main manifestations.

--Social situations and expectations
--Feelings of potential loss
--Feelings of potential change
--Feeling of limits
--Challenges to worth and value
--Danger and survival

If you were in a situation where nobody expected anything of you, you couldn’t lose any material worth, your body wasn’t in danger, nothing would change as a result of the outcome, and you didn’t care whatsoever whether you won or lost… would you feel any pressure?  My hypothesis is probably not.

But invariably we think of social pressures, what others think and expect of us, how we will look and how we can’t let certain people down and how we don’t want to prove the haters right.  We worry about what we might be losing, whether it’s material resources or rating or time or effort or opportunities.  Sometimes we worry about just change in general, wondering what the situation will be like in the future if we win or lose.  Sometimes we worry about what winning and losing says about us, which is why somebody can inflict pressure on themselves during a single player game (in a room, alone, with nobody to ever know the result).  And sometimes you simply experience pressure because your actual survival hinges out the outcome of a given scenario.

The worst part is that if you don’t really sit down and think these things through, you will just feel it all at once, a big blast of tension and pressure that can’t be parsed or explained.  Even when you do break it down, the reasons for feeling pressure make sense.

Socially, you must always deal with people and their perceptions of you.  Materially, you can’t function with nothing.  Changing your circumstances might mean future failure if you aren’t prepared.  Our values and sense of worth are important to our self-esteem.  Surviving is pretty cool too.  Doesn’t it make sense to have an emotional response when such things are on the line?  Doesn’t it make sense that we would manifest something under these circumstance?  Can’t it be argued that something is a bit goofy with you if you don’t feel pressure?  Ideally we would feel something that improved our performances under these circumstances, but for some reason, pressure does other things to us.

Pressure Expressed

I think it’s interesting the vast number of different ways that pressure manifests in our behavior.  Once again, the way you respond almost always says something about you, not necessarily the concept of pressure itself, and I say this because of how differently people can respond to pressure.

Nervous behaviors will surface.  Some people become quiet and some people start babbling.  Muscles tend to tense up, though you may shake and move, or hunch in and freeze, or just quietly rock back and forth in your chair.  Maybe you’ll tap your feet and drum your fingers and dart your eyes around.  Maybe you’ll close them and clam up.  Do you become more aggressive and snappy, or more passive and quiet?  Maybe you become more sensitive to criticism, and maybe you are more likely to criticize yourself.  Heck, maybe both.

In the game, pressure will manifest itself in interesting ways.  If you’re too tensed or jittery then you will have difficulty executing things.  Your body trains under certain conditions, and if you change the conditions it won’t perform the same way; obviously with more tension and stress than normal, it won’t perform identically, so you can expect errors.  The more precise your motions, the worse it will probably become.

Mentally, you may panic and act impulsively, or you may over-think, slow down, and play clunkily.  You may act with knee-jerk responses, or you may delay every response because you don’t trust yourself.  Sometimes people are too eager to try and close out the opponent, and sometimes people are too afraid to go for the finishing blow, afraid of making a misstep.  Sometimes one leads into the other; a player thinks, “I’m hesitating too much, I need to act!” or “I’m being too impulsive, I need to slow down!”  But rather than even out the behavior, they become an emotional pendulum, swinging back and forth between extremes.  Then they wonder why they can’t think straight.

In your specific game, people will probably be more likely to play a given way when pressured.  There are probably more “obvious” moves that will spring to mind in a tense situation, and they will be more likely to act on them.  You may be inclined to follow the script more; then again, maybe you throw all your knowledge out the window and just start mashing buttons.  Who knows!  Pressure is an exciting bag of surprises.  When you reach in, what you get is a big, exciting mystery.

Then, in a tiny isolated camp, there are a few people who seem to amplify their performance in response to the level of pressure on them.  I don’t know if there’s a specific method to becoming such a person (if I knew, I would tell you) but this is how I see such people.

Most feelings of pressure trace back to feelings of danger and loss.  You don’t want to look bad and lose face, you don’t want to lose your investments and you don’t want to lose opportunities to succeed.  You don’t want to move into novel situations you won’t know how to handle.  You don’t want physical harm to come to you and your body.  You don’t want to experience damage to your ego and worth.

People who shine under pressure, who increase their levels of performance rather than fall apart, are not thinking about loss.  They are thinking primarily about the opportunities in front of them, and how amazing it will be to seize them.  They get excited, but it’s not a distracted excitement that gives them too many “what-if”s to think about, it’s focused, eye-on-the-prize excited.  They are excited to make clutch plays, excited to have all the eyes on them, and excited to have the chance to express their strength and ability.

If you see stressful, pressuring situations as opportunities and chances rather than sources of danger and loss, you will become more excited and more focused, not less.  The pressure won’t choke your output, it will channel that output it into more amazing performances.

Directing Pressure

If I told you that, through training and rehearsal and conditioning and use of the proper techniques, you would be able to eliminate all pressure, I would probably be lying.

The experience of pressure, the emotions that result, these exist for a reason, so I have no desire to tell you “never feel pressure.”  Pressure and the resulting emotions must serve as motivators to action.  Your body experiences physiological changes, more blood flow to the muscles, more stimulation in the brain, sharpness and alertness.  Pressure and stress are there to funnel more energy into situations that demand them.  As mentioned, some people just play better while pressured.  They certainly wouldn’t want to get rid of the feeling.  I don’t think any of us really benefit from getting rid of the feeling completely either.  Even if you could totally eliminate it, I don’t think it would help.

Second, pressure happens quickly and it also can work subtly, right up until you suddenly feel it overwhelming you.  It will happen based on your experiences and beliefs, memories and quirks and phobias.  If you can believe that pressure reflects your past and your beliefs, then you wouldn’t be able to completely alter it without changing those other things.  So even as you come to grips with pressure, even as you change your views on things, the roots of it won’t really vanish.  They will recede and control you less, but never truly go away.  As I stated above, this isn’t actually a problem.

Pressure causes a stress response.  The stress response changes the way your brain and body responds to a situation, it’s been developed in the body over millions of years in the one test that matters, the test of survival.  It has a function, and it performs that function fairly well.  Does it even make sense to try and undo that completely?  Or is there a better option?

The better option is not elimination, but reduction and channeling.  The real question is not “how can I eliminate pressure?”  We want to reduce it to a manageable and healthy level, a sweetspot of just enough, then we want to channel it.  We want to experience pressure so that it improves our performance and function rather than reduces it.  There are a variety of methods that I’ve used to improve my own response to pressure, and I’ll be sharing them in the second part on Thursday.  See you then.


  1. Regarding your last paragraph, the phenomenon is well documented - known as the Yerkes-Dodson law. There is an optimal amount of stress for different activities, based on the person. Great read as always, Rob.

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