As some of you may know, I work with several professional athletes. One of them is a professional golfer and last week, I spoke with his swing instructor. He talked about how hard the golfer had been working with him on his swing, the “technique” of the game. I played 9 holes with the golfer, mostly to assess where his “emotional intelligence” was (i.e., how he handled adversity on the golf course).
Golf is a game where adversity is a guarantee, and because there is so much time between shots, there is also plenty of time to dwell on the negatives. When we got to the first tee, I surprised him with a challenge – I told him I wanted him to shoot the best possible score he could for those 9 holes. I asked him if he had the “skill or ability” to birdie every hole, and he said “yes.” He shot one under – with two birdies and one bogey. Though not impressive for a pro, I found the golfer’s shots quite spectacular – he had all the necessary shots. But the “pressure” of trying to shoot the lowest possible score with me watching/playing with him clearly got to him. After the round, I asked him how much time he had spent on practicing golf the past few months. He said up to eight hours each day and walked me through his physical fitness routine every morning — his hours on the range and short game area, which often concluded with playing at least nine holes. I then asked him how much time he spend practicing being under pressure. “None. How can I practice being under pressure?” To which I said, “We just did.”
There are many parallels to this athlete’s intentions, goals, and results to those of us in the workplace. In his mind, he was doing all the right things – working very hard on all parts of his game and fitness. Good performers, both in sports and work, often do that. When things are going well, when there is no pressure or stress, good performers perform great. These same performers also underperform under stress and pressure, just as my client did last week.
Just as adversity in a round of golf is guaranteed, I argue that adversity in both life and the workplace is guaranteed too. I do not know of too many workers today who have not experienced an unusually heavy dose of it over the past two years. So, the trick is clearly not to avoid it, but to be able to manage it. I think most of us get that. But there seems to be a gross disconnect, as there was with the golfer, between knowing about stress or pressure, and actually practicing to thrive in it.
I wonder, as we embark on the traditional season of goal-setting, how many of us set goals to work on thriving under pressure and put together action steps to achieve them? This is an emotional intelligence dimension: self-awareness and self-regulation — which can be learned. This year, I encourage you to explore thriving under stress and pressure by actually working on diagnosing yourself (your behavior, your performance) specifically under stress (not under normal conditions) and working on how to manage yourself through that. Good performers can become great performers more often if they can learn this.