Performing Under Pressure: 3 Steps to Boost Your Mental Strength

You need to learn how to perform under pressure if you want to succeed in high-pressure situations, such as presentations or deadlines. The secret to success is mental strength, which can be developed through training.

November 2023
min read
12-3 Steps to Boost Your Mental Strength
Skrevet af
Written by
Samuel Kirk-Haugstrup

Psykolog, specialiseret i pædagogisk psykologi og formidling.

Samuel Kirk-Haugstrup

Psychologist, specialized in educational psychology and communication.

Despite appearances, many elite athletes, artists, and career professionals face pressure and get nervous or doubt themselves.  

The reason they perform when it counts is that <hl>they have trained their mental strength to focus on the task at hand, even if they get nervous, even if they are unsure, and even if they doubt themselves<hl>. They are not superhumans. They've just trained their mental strength to know what to do when they're under pressure.

And you can learn that too. Read on for tools to train your mental toughness.

How to train your mental strength

Whether you are an elite athlete, an artist, or an ambitious career person, you will face situations where you need to perform. And no matter who you are, you'll get nervous and doubt yourself. Why? Because when something is important to you; when you want to succeed at something, the fear of failure will always follow. That's the flip side of the success coin. Because if you didn't care about failing, why would it even matter to you to succeed?

Everyone gets nervous or doubts before they have to perform. It's perfectly normal. <hl>The key to success is not allowing self-doubt and nervousness to control us<hl>.

To achieve this, you can use the same tools that have helped top athletes succeed, inspired by Danish sports psychology consultants Kristoffer Henriksen and Jakob Hansen.

Why is it important to you?

The first tool to prepare you to perform under pressure is to find out what you want to achieve and why it is important for you to achieve it. In other words, it's about finding your mission and your values.  

<hl>Mission<hl> = What you want to achieve and why you want to achieve it

<hl>Values<hl> = How you carry out your mission

It can be difficult for many people to define their mission and values, but reflecting on why you want to be a good leader, the best in your field, and what motivates you - whether it be money, recognition, or ambition - can help clarify your goals and why they matter to you.

To help you get clear on what you want to use your mental power for and why it matters to you, use the following exercise.  

What do you want to achieve and why?

Next, reflect on these speeches and <hl>ask yourself the following questions<hl>:

  1. What particularly stood out to you during the first speech?
  2. What did you particularly remember during the second speech?

Use your answers to these questions to better define your mission and values. The things that stood out in the first speech likely align with your goals and mission, while the things mentioned in the second speech may be things you want to avoid or work on to achieve your mission.

Having a clear sense of your mission and values will give you direction and motivation, even when faced with challenges. It will also help you make decisions and set goals that align with what is truly important to you. This clarity will enable you to perform under pressure and reach your desired outcomes.

From the two speeches, take note of your personal mission and core values. Consider what traits the first speaker emphasized about you, such as being hard-working, disciplined, and putting the needs of others first. <hl>If these align with what you aspire to be, they can serve as your values<hl>. For instance, your mission could be "To be a dedicated and compassionate leader who leads by example and prioritizes the well-being of others".

If you are having difficulty identifying your mission and values, reflect on the points raised by the second speaker. It could be that they spoke of traits like selfishness, indifference, and laziness that you do not want to embody. <hl>By examining what you want to avoid or improve, you can arrive at a clearer understanding of your mission and values<hl>.

With a defined mission and values, you will have a strong foundation for performing under pressure. You will have a clear sense of purpose and motivation to keep pushing forward, even during challenging times. Additionally, having a well-defined mission and values will assist you in making informed decisions and setting achievable goals that align with your aspirations.

3 steps to performing under pressure  

1: Identifying Negative Thoughts

To effectively perform under pressure, you need to learn to recognize negative thoughts and feelings that arise in stressful situations and not let them dictate your actions. To do this, reflect on a previous instance where you didn't react in a way aligned with your values.

For example, during an important meeting, you failed to speak up and voice your opinion because you were afraid of what others would think of your idea.

Take the time to examine the specific thoughts and emotions that led you to act in a manner inconsistent with your values. When we act in opposition to our values, it's often because we're driven by our emotions rather than our principles. This can result in short-term gratification at the cost of long-term goals.

<hl>When we act in opposition to our values, it is often because we act from our emotions instead of our values<hl>. We act on what gives us an immediate reward instead of what we want in the long run.

By becoming mindful of your thoughts and feelings in stressful situations, you can identify the patterns that lead you astray from your values. Once you have this insight, you can work to address these thoughts, so they no longer have control over your actions.

2: Dealing with negative thoughts and feelings

Step 2 is about detaching from negative thoughts and feelings.

You can do this by recognizing that thoughts and feelings are just that - thoughts and feelings. They do not define you. Just because you have thought about jumping off a bridge, it does not mean you need to act on it. The same applies to negative feelings like anger or nervousness. <hl>You can acknowledge them without letting them dictate your actions<hl>.

Practice detaching from negative thoughts and feelings with this exercise:

Find a pen

When you are in a pressured situation and feel the nerves, doubt and uncertainty, find a pen.

Record the thoughts and feelings you experience and imagine placing them on the pen. When you put the pen on the table, you also put your negative thoughts and feelings on the table.

In other words, you detach yourself from the thoughts and feelings and instead focus on your task in the situation you are in.

You don't throw away the thoughts and feelings, you simply distance yourself from them and decide that you will not allow them to control you.

3: Align with your values

Once you've become aware of your negative emotions and thoughts and learned to detach from them, it's time to refocus on your mission and values.

Suppose you're in an important meeting and you want to propose, but you're uncertain about how others will react. Start by acknowledging the uncertainty, then try to let go of it by imagining it written on a sheet of paper.

After letting go of the uncertainty and deciding not to let it control you, focus on your values and make decisions based on them. Consider how your actions align with your values. For instance, if your values are proactive and resourceful, what actions align with these values? If your values are accepting and compromising, how can you embody these values in your actions?

<hl>Acting in accordance with your values will help you make the right decisions in pressured situations, rather than being controlled by emotions<hl>. This way, you can be confident that, no matter the outcome, you have acted in a manner consistent with your values.

Navigating Pressure: Embracing Your Values for Success

In conclusion, learning to perform under pressure requires being aware of and managing your negative thoughts and emotions. You can make the right decisions in high-pressure situations by catching negative thoughts, detaching from them, and refocusing on your values. Remember, your thoughts and feelings do not have to dictate your actions. You have the power to choose how to react and by acting according to your values, you will ensure that you are always making decisions that align with your goals and beliefs. With practice, you can become a confident and effective leader who is capable of making decisions under pressure and achieving your mission.

  • Harris, Russ (2019). ACT – spørgsmål og svar. Dansk Psykologisk Forlag.
  • Henriksen, K. & Hansen, J. (2016). Præstér under pres. Dansk Psykologisk Forlag.  
  • Thienot, E. & Fournier, J. F. (2009). Mindfulness and Acceptance Approaches in Sport Performance. Journal of Clinical Sports Psychology, 4, 320-333. DOI: 10.1123/jcsp.3.4.320

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