How to perform under pressure

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Former paratrooper and military mental resilience coach James Elliott explains how to cope, and even succeed, under pressure

Once the aircraft has reached 1,000ft and we are 20 minutes out from the drop zone, the number one despatcher stands up, turns to the C130 filled with paratroopers and shouts “PREPARE FOR ACTION!”, which is dutifully repeated by the soldiers to ensure that all hear and take the necessary reactions to the words of command.

It’s loud, it’s uncomfortable and smells. Your mouth is dry, the engines burning away can be deafening and the stench is a patented blend of panicked men and diesel, so that by this point, those words are welcomed, because it means that you will soon be escaping this green tube of pain and will be breathing the air - and for a brief moment, be at peace under a fully inflated canopy.

Some people were asleep, some were wide-eyed; jumping out of an aircraft is scary, unnatural, and it’s at this point you see the effect that pressure has.

Weapons get dropped, helmets fall off, people begin arguing, swearing, lots of swearing, I truly didn’t know how to swear until this point, I knew the words, but never heard them being used in such a colourful and meaningful way. Panic begins to set in.

But not for everyone.

Staying calm under pressure

Some soldiers methodically work their way through the steps and stay calm. So, what’s actually happening, and how do some become overwhelmed and some seem to have total control?

Neuroscience tells us that the amygdala at the base of the brain that senses the threat of parachuting instigates a physiological response. There is danger, so our body responds to that danger, by quickening heart rate, releasing adrenaline, restricting blood flow to the stomach, and of course fills our head with a fear.

We instinctively reach into cognitive memory to look for ways to manage this fearful situation effectively. The stoic ones (and this is not necessarily an age nor experience reaction), understand that they have had training for this, their conscious decision-making process is focused on the task in hand, what they can control, ensuring that their correct leg is in the leg strap, the location of the karabiner shackle and they’ve adopted the correct stance.

We see illogical and panicked decision-making processes in the individuals whose focus isn’t on the present task at hand but is looking for ways to ensure their safety, slipping between the conscious decision to fit their reserve, and the fear trying to get them to sabotage this process. The departments of fear and reason fight for control.

There aren’t going to be many situations in the automotive industry when you’re going to face jumping out of an aeroplane, but the process of remaining calm under pressure does transfer.

Performing under pressure requires you to focus on one thing, and one thing only – the performance. Not the engines, not the fall from the plane, not the pain as the canopy violently pulls open above you, not the unavoidable smashing into the ground, just what you can control, which is what you are doing in this exact moment.

No matter what pressure you’re facing you need to breathe. What should you be doing right now, in this very second, that’s going to maximise your potential to succeed? Ignore the fear, it isn’t real, it only feels real because it’s inside your head.