The Pressure Paradox

Posted by on Jan 9, 2019

By Jenny R. Susser, Ph.D.

Just the word can change how the body feels: Pressure. Now check your pulse. David Bowie and Freddie Mercury ring in my ears and visions of 1980’s punk rock hair with Andy Warhol highlights flash across my memory, eliciting a chuckle because now that song is stuck in my head: “Pressure, pushing down on me…”

It is a word originating in physics as a unit of measurement of force, now such common vernacular, we have to adjust our thinking to use it scientifically (properly). Rarely used in the positive, pressure, like the word stress, has been stolen from science in an attempt to save us from emotion. I should love this word because it is the reason I have a job. As a sport psychologist, I help people handle pressure, you know, “the exertion of a force upon a surface,” (Wikipedia). Sometimes I get lost in the idea of pressure, athlete after athlete, manager after manager, executive after executive, parent after parent, all saying the same thing in slightly different terms. Where does it come from? Why does it have such power over me? How do I get better at it?

Pressure in sport is made up, a fabrication of force on the surface of the self. If only it felt that way. It feels overwhelming and there is no way around that…or to make sense of it. Thought: Make this shot or your world will fall apart. Feeling: Nausea, heart palpitations, sweaty everywhere, shaking hands and knees, wanting to die. Solution: quit, suffer, or figure out how to handle pressure. So how and where does all this pressure stuff begin? I have spent countless hours wondering how sport became the ultimate pressure cooker. “Did you win?” My nieces and nephew all played sports and I found these three words falling out of my mouth before I could stop them more times than I care to admit when my niece would call after a game. Dammit. Asking if she had fun sounds so lame, though. Fun is a by-product, not just from winning, but from playing hard and rising to the challenge of sport. “Did you rise to the challenge? Play with character? Dig deep when the game was tough? Rely on your training? Correct mistakes? Learn from failure?” What ten-year-old wants to be asked those questions? “Hey Aunt Jenny, we won!” and that is when her face lights up and her excitement gives me goosebumps. Dammit. We are designed to be competitive as part of a survival instinct: think Darwin. But shouldn’t we be able to control the primal instincts and not drive ourselves crazy with it: think Descartes.

We all have pressure and if we are honest, we have it more than daily; some days, we have it hourly. How do you deal with it? The answer to this question is layered and dynamic, mimicking the experience of pressure. A boat doesn’t have one way to deal with water, waves, wind, and currents, and it can’t have one answer for all conditions. The design accounts for as much variability as possible but can’t cover it all so we have to make choices about what weather and water is good for each boat. As technology and innovation allows, design improves, creating boats with better adjustability to withstand the pressures of being on the water. Still, I wouldn’t take a Sunfish across the Atlantic and a cruise ship certainly would not do well on the lake where I vacation.

Fall in love with pressure. Such crap. Yet, I have said this, presented this, and tried to talk people into this because wouldn’t that make it easy. Looking back and then forward, it is not falling in love with pressure that we want, it’s falling in love with how we respond to pressure. As a competitive swimmer, I was crazy nervous before each and every race. It was uncomfortable, physically disruptive, and energetically costly, but I don’t think I would have wanted it any other way. I hear this from the athletes and executives I work with every day, no matter how successful they are. We tolerate and survive the front-end impact of pressure for the way we feel after the event. Did we rise to the challenge? Or play with character? Or dig deep when it was tough? It is the answers to how we performed that allows us to continue to expose ourselves to another round of pressure. When the answers are good, we feel amazing. When the answers are bad, we want another round to try again for a better result. Resilience.

Developing your response to pressure comes in the form of a training program. Boats weren’t just born sea-worthy (ha, ha) and I bet the first-round design sank like a rock. It takes time, of course, and commitment, and a great design idea because becoming “sea-worthy” involves more than just some wood and a desire. Over the last twenty years, my relationship to pressure has evolved, thankfully, through trial and error, the research of the brilliant, and the hard, hard work of those I have been lucky enough to be with in the trenches of performing under pressure. The paradox is we need pressure not only to grow, but to perform at our highest levels. We have to train our mind to control our physiology so that we can manage our mind so that we can control our performance. I never swam as fast in practice as I did in competition because of the physiological bump pressure gives a body. If it was just enough, success, but if it was too much, failure. The game then becomes the balance, and not just any balance, but balance under constantly changing conditions and pressures. We love to rise to the occasion, no matter what it might be, because the afterglow is indescribable and what we all seek in return for all the work to get there. “Can’t we give ourselves one more chance…De day da.”