Friday, January 17, 2014

Dealing With Pressure, Part 2: Techniques and Mindsets

Last post I went into a bit of detail on the topic of where pressure comes from.  Specifically, we are the ones generating it based on our attitudes towards a situation.  If you feel genuine apathy towards something, you can’t really experience pressure.  At the same time, apathy wouldn’t motivate you much to perform.  What we want is a middle-ground, where you experience the stimulation of stress and pressure without letting it go so crazy that you crumble.  As I said last time, it would be pretty tough to eliminate pressure entirely, and I don’t think we want to do that anyway.

There are two main ways to approach the issue of handling your pressure and channeling it into better performances.  One is short term, and one is long term.  Learning both is pivotal.

Short Term

When talking about handling pressure in the short term, you want immediate actions that will reduce its cognitive and physical effects.  I don’t think I’m going to tell you anything particularly new--you could spend about five minutes on Google and find similar stuff--but it amazes me how few people use any pressure and stress-reducing techniques at all.  They just roll the dice and hope things work out.

Well, it doesn’t amaze me at all, because in the past I didn’t use any either.  It takes time to work them into some kind of routine; more than that, one of the downsides of pressure and stress is that they often reduces your ability to think clearly.  As stress increases, we act more instinctually, less thoughtfully.  You are less likely to remember useful information until its too late; you rely entirely on a mix of your training and instinct.  You gravitate to habit.

This is why before I even give you short term advice, do what I’m about to tell you, and do it right now.  Get something to write with; pen and paper, a notebook, or a word processor will work.  It will help more than just thinking about it.  Do not rush this step.  If you plan to skip it, just stop reading now.  If you have nothing else available to you, start typing in the address bar at the top of your browser.  Do something to write this down and think about it.  Ready?

Remember the last time you were competing and felt a lot of stress and pressure.  I want you to write down three of the physical symptoms.  Did your face get hot?  Did you breathe more shallowly?  Did your hands start to shake, or lock up?  Did your mouth dry out?  Did your stomach start to hurt or knot up?  Pick the three that you remember most clearly, and write those down.

Now, if you can, try to remember the things you thought about that pressured you the most, and write down two of them.  Were you nervous about playing in front of people?  Was it the last match to determine your advancement from pools?  Were you facing an opponent who always beats you?  Were you playing badly at the start of the day, and freaking out?  Pick two, and write them down.

Why do this?  Because if you’re going to remember to use any stress-reduction techniques, you need to recognize that you are stressed, that you are in the situation at all.  You will be more likely to remember and notice if you describe your pressure scenarios in advance.  You could read an entire book about handling stress and pressure (there are plenty out there) but they will be worthless if you don’t notice you need to handle the pressure until it’s too late.

So if you skipped that exercise, go back and do it.  Shoot, go back and re-read it even if you did do it.  It’s the most important step.  Even if you don’t use any other exercises, predicting your stress will probably help reduce it.

Well, let’s talk about some techniques.

--Deep Breaths

I told you it wouldn’t be all that new.

Why bring up deep breathing?  Because it works.  Increase the depth and decrease the frequency of your breathing, and your heart rate slows down.  Your stress response will lessen, giving you a bit more mental clarity.  More than that, sitting down and breathing deeply for a bit keeps you from taking other actions.  It gives you time to think about things, and your thoughts are more likely to be positive while less stressed.

Remember, you want to breathe deeply and lower the frequency.  If you are trying to breathe deeply and quickly, you’re going to hyperventilate yourself.  Don’t do that.

Here is how I do it.  I sit in a comfortable position, usually cross-legged or I’ll stretch out my legs while sitting against a wall.  Start with a breath in through the nose and count to eight.  I don’t try to force the air into my lungs, I just feel the nose and lungs open up and let air fall in.  My stomach expands and fresh air fills my body, no force needed.  Then instead of forcing the air out, I just open my lips and let the air fall out.  Little to no exertion involved.  Repeat until you feel about five times better than you did before.

While you are breathing, focus entirely on the sensations of breathing.  Feel the air and blood and oxygenation spreading out through your body.  Pay all possible attention to this sensation as you let air fall into your body and drift out.  Give the whole process at least a minute.

When you’re done, stand, shake yourself out, do whatever.

--Foundation Exercise

Let’s say that you are in the middle of the match when the pressure begins getting to you.  Or you are about to play, and you’re jittery and uncomfortable .

Rather than start doing the hardest stuff you know to warm up, do something different.  Do the easiest things you know how to do.  One of the biggest worries we have is an uncertainty that we will perform well; if you negate this uncertainty by focusing entirely on things you know you can do, you build your confidence.  You also decrease unnecessary risks by evaluating what will and won’t work for you.

Don’t judge anything right now.  Your goal isn’t to prove anything, it’s to figure out what you can depend on.  You’re like one nurse double-checking to make sure that another nurse isn’t about to give a dying patient the wrong medication; not because you don’t trust them, but because you need to know.  If something doesn’t work, set it aside, and do it dispassionately.  If you start saying to yourself, “oh wow I can’t even do X how pathetic I deserve to lose,” then there’s not much point to an anti-stress exercise.  So take a second to warm-up, stretch out, and find out what you have in you.  Slowly build it up, and don’t judge.  “If not this, then this?  How about this?  Okay, I see.”  

In SSBM, my hand tremors made most technical maneuvers tough; under stress and pressure, I would sometimes start twitching and shaking so badly I would miss buttons entirely (even dropping my controller sometimes).  I found that I could build up my confidence and movement by taking a moment, rehearsing the slowest, most basic stuff.  I’d make giant movements that didn’t even require fine motor control, re-teaching my hands what they already knew.  The goal was to build up from the very foundation of the most basic motions in a way I knew I couldn’t mess up.  It also had the benefit of telling me exactly what I could trust for this match, and how I would need to play if I wanted to win.


Take a second and think about the things that are pressuring you.  Think about the emotions, the attitudes behind them, and ask yourself some simple questions:  Why is this emotion useful?  What makes this attitude a good thing?  Remember, you don’t get to eliminate pressure.  You don’t want to.  You want to use it.  So reframe the things pressuring you.

Are you nervous in front of a crowd?  Ask yourself, “why is it useful for me to be nervous here?”  Find the good in it.  Why am I nervous?  Because I don’t want to look bad on stream.  This is good, it means I want to play well.  I have the desire to compete and win.  That’s a good thing.  If I wasn’t a little nervous, it would probably mean I didn’t care.  This means I’m in the right place.  I’m a competitor with the desire to win."

If you take a few seconds to think it through, and you still can’t come up with anything, that’s fine.  Reframe that.  Get meta.  If you can’t conceive of a reason why being nervous would benefit you, think of it like this.  “I’m playing in front of people, I’m nervous and it’s going to make things harder.  My opponent is good.  Winning under these circumstances would be an amazing accomplishment.  I don’t want to have it any other way.”

Like I said in the previous post, people who turn pressure into better performances are the ones that see it as a challenge and opportunity.  If you re-describe the emotions, if you reframe them as tools with a purpose and a benefit, you are doing exactly that.  When you start to feel these emotions but push through them and conquer them, you start feeling a certain degree of giddiness.  You realize that there’s a game inside your head as well, and you’re winning it.  Whenever I hit that state, I stopped caring about the game at all, I just wanted to stay in that same state-of-mind for as long as I could.  Coincidentally, it was my optimal state of performance and enjoyment.


Again, these things can be tough to remember to do, so don’t try all of them at once.  Pick one that you will rely on for the duration of an event or day until it’s part of your routine.

The three things I suggested here all share something in common: they emphasize control and autonomy.  They are all focused on things you can do.  Instead of feeling helpless, you get to feel controlled, active, awake.

They also briefly divorce you from the tumultuous moment of pressure so that you can gain perspective.  Pressure and stress cause us to panic and act impulsively, or lock-up and do nothing; either way, we’re lost in a moment, not using our greatest weapon, our power of observation and decision-making to find a winning route.

Long Term

The thing about pressure, stress, and almost every emotion you feel is that they’re guided by your beliefs and assumptions about the situation.  Somebody who thinks it’s super awesome to play in front of people, be on stage, fight the best players in the world, they’re less likely to cave under that pressure.  It’s not a guarantee that they will win, but they will have fewer regrets.  Somebody who loves having more obstacles in the way because it makes victory more meaningful, such a person becomes more driven when the odds are against them, not less.

In the long-term, handling stress and pressure comes down to a few things.  One of them is nothing more than developing a habit of using short-term tools to neutralize and control them.  If you automatically use those tools to handle pressure properly every time it comes up… well, it’s arguable that you’ve found a solid long-term solution.

The other is as simple (and difficult) as changing what you actually believe.  If you believe that losing is a horrible, horrible thing that should never ever happen to you, you will always experience stress when you face win-loss situations.  The more you believe this, the more pressure you will feel.  If you genuinely, truly don’t think losing is a big deal, then you won’t feel an emotional response to it.  Likewise, if you really didn’t care what other people thought about you, you wouldn’t react when playing in front of crowds.  Odds are you do care to some extent.

Once again, this brings up the point of apathy; if you really don’t care about the situation, it can’t stress you.  You just kind of shrug and do very little about it.  Emotions are meant to be motivators, so this isn’t always a good thing.  Not caring about the game at all means you probably don’t play it or want to improve.

But if you want to influence how you respond to stress and pressure, you need to ask yourself some questions.  What do you really believe?  Do you believe that you have to be the winner for some reason?  Is it material, is it survival based?  Or is your ego on the line?

Maybe the pressure is a social thing.  You must win because… that’s what you expect of yourself.  You can’t lose because people will laugh at you and know that you are the most fraudulent fraud to ever fraud (ever).  You must win to prove that your character is good and that you are the best at this matchup.  You have to stand up for your city or state or country or planet in this video game.  Do these things make sense?  Do they really affect you, really?

I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of failing in front of giant crowds, in video games and outside of them (for instance, I’ve tried stand-up comedy, to mixed results).  I’ve had the majority of a community decide that I wasn’t good at a video game for many years.  I’ve dealt with the fact that I would not become the best, then I got to defeat the the best (if only once).  I’ve lost to people I shouldn’t and beaten people I shouldn’t.  I have crumbled violently under pressure and performed magnificently.

All the pain and frustration of those experiences proved to me that I generated my pressure and stress.  It all came from me, and when I focused just on myself and my responses, those frustrations began to deteriorate.  The things that mattered to me began to change, and my experiences changed with them.

Whatever you believe is important will always affect what pressures and stresses you.  If you’re going to reduce that in the long run, your attitude is everything.


Any time you take a moment to reflect on the actions you can take, on the things you can control, pressure goes down a bit.  Any time you separate yourself from the pressured scenario for a moment to sort out the causes, the pressure goes down for a bit.  Any time you recognize the pressure before it becomes uncontrollable, it goes down a bit.

In the short-term, focus on immediate actions you can control, that give you a moment’s independence from the pressure-stress reaction.  In the long-term, analyze what beliefs and attitudes you have that cause situations to become stressful to begin with; what do you expect of yourself, what do you fear, what makes you perceive a situation as stressful at all?

I hope this helps.  Good luck and thanks for reading.


  1. cool stuff, thank you so much for these posts!

  2. I started reading about a month ago and love reading your blog. Clearly you've put a lot of thought into each post, and I love hearing the thoughts of a cerebral player like yourself. Keep up the good work.

  3. Love it, love it, love it!!

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