We all know what it feels like—that churning you get in your stomach before an important performance.
You may have felt it before a sports competition, in a new role at work, or during a high stakes test. The truth is, we all have nerves and feel stress when we’re under pressure to perform our best. For some, pressure sharpens performance (we call these people “clutch”). For others, pressure seems to bring out the worst (we call these people “chokers”). If you’ve ever secretly worried that you’re a choker, or ever feared that deep down you don’t have what it takes to rise to the occasion when it counts, this blog is for you.
The truth is that none of us is born clutch, or born a choker. Each of us has a part of themselves that retreats from challenge. And everyone has something within them that is ready to rise to the occasion. People who consistently rise to the occasion under pressure have a different way of thinking about stress. Research from Harvard University has shown that people who believe that stress is debilitating perform worse than those who believe it is enhancing. Quite literally, our beliefs about stress impact hormones in our body that make us sink or swim in pressure situations.
Let me share a story from my life that illustrates this research.
I’ve been playing professional football for a decade now—a small amount in the NFL and a lot more in the Arena Football League. Early in my career, I had a lot of doubts about my own ability. A repeated string of failures in college made me feel like I was a choker. In 2008, while playing for a minor-league team in Louisville, Kentucky, I learned a lesson that changed my life forever.
Just before our last game, I was in a bad place. The voice of doubt in my head was louder than ever. I felt certain I was going to fail. Not sure how to calm myself, I snuck off into a secluded hallway a short distance from our locker room to call a friend who was a sports psychologist. As the phone rang, I thought to myself, “What if our fans knew their starting quarterback was huddled in a lonely corner making an emergency phone call to a psychologist?” I felt like a fraud.
After a couple rings, my friend picked up the phone. “What’s going on, Danny—aren’t you supposed to be playing soon?”
“Hey John,” I said, my voice trembling with nerves, “I, um… I don’t feel very good… In my stomach, it just feels like I’m going to fail. I’m just feeling the pressure, ya know?”
John paused for a second, then told me something that changed my life forever.
“You’re feeling pressure, huh? That’s good.”
That’s good!? How could he say that? I felt like I was dying inside, and this guy had the nerve to tell me that it was good.
He continued, “Danny, have I ever told you about Billie Jean King? Do you know what she said about pressure? She said that pressure’s a privilege. It’s a signal that you’re living your dreams”
He repeated it again, “Pressure is a privilege, Danny. It’s a signal that you’re living your dreams.”
My mind was blown.
All this time I’d been struggling to become a starting quarterback. Years of frustration, toil, and tears had gone into earning the opportunity to be on the field that day. And now that my day had come, all I could think about was the pressure. At that moment, I realized that pressure felt infinitely better than the quiet desperation I felt when I was on the bench.
I made a decision. No matter what happened, I was going to go live my dream of being a quarterback with reckless abandon that day. I’d earned the privilege of pressure, and nothing was going to stop me from going out in front of ten-thousand fans and laying it all on the line. I felt the entire chemical makeup of my body shift from fear to faith. It was just like the Harvard research study showed. I felt like a lion who had been let out of his cage.
We won that day. I threw for six touchdowns, bringing our team back from an early 28-7 deficit. I never had the same types of doubts ever again. I put my demons to bed. About ten months later, I was signed by the Oakland Raiders in the NFL. I did it by performing exceptionally well at a pressure-packed tryout with several other NFL prospects. I did it by remembering that pressure was a privilege.
It was a remarkable journey that no one thought was possible. And it wouldn’t have been had I not known the secret that I hope you took away from this blog.
Pressure is a wonderful thing—It’s a signal that you’re living your dreams.