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Performing under pressure: the future of development

By Justin Bodill

Those of us working in the corporate space, can learn a great deal from the world of elite sport. As someone who specialises in learning and development, the way in which sports teams develop their players is of particular interest to me, and so I was excited to have the chance to spend time with one of the most respected and successful Sports Psychologists in the country. Working with elite rugby teams in South Africa and abroad, this individual has an incredible wealth of knowledge, and I was treated to an on field training session, to watch one of his teams in action.

What struck me, was the rigour with which he develops these players in terms of their own self-awareness, cognitive functioning and mental strength, apart from the collective work done on leadership, culture and values. There were many similarities in fact with the process for development in the corporate world, with assessments, lectures, coaching and of course, application, all coming to the fore. But there was one thing that stuck out for me, and that was the way in which these players were not simply taught to perform, but more so, to do so under pressure.

This may seem like an obvious point, but it was done in such a deliberate way, and was of such importance to his work with the team, that it stood out for me as a key lesson.

The principle is simple if we dissect it: these players spend the majority of their waking lives preparing and practicing intensively, to perform for 80 minutes on a Saturday once a week. This is the only thing that matters at the end of the day, and so the focus has to be on ensuring that each player can harness their full potential, talent and skill set, to execute with (near) perfection when it matters most. As such, the focus cannot simply be on knowledge retention, or even general application, but must be on application under pressure.

This is important, because when we are put under pressure, our brains react very differently to when we are free from stress and anxiety. Pressure can derail even the best of us. It clouds our judgement, and literally blocks our brains from making rational decisions, or accessing and executing on the knowledge and skills we possess. The result, is behaviour (and ultimately performance), that is flawed and quite often very damaging and detrimental to us and others around us.

So the focus for this individual is to identify these key moments of weakness (in each player if necessary), and to simulate these situations, to observe the players responding to them. This is then followed by intensive observation, and often times individual deconstruction of the event, the reaction of the players and the outcome, with coaching then used to support the shift in thinking and the behaviour required. It is a process, and not an overnight fix, but one that will ultimately raise the performance level of each player, when those crucial pressure moments hit.

This whole process got me thinking about whether we do the same for the employees or managers we develop in our corporate teams? If I am honest with myself, I would say that the answer is no.

We teach them knowledge, skills and also focus on application, but very seldom do we focus on teaching them how to access these skills under pressure. For example getting a manager to coach someone in the context of a classroom session, is not the same as making them do so back in their workplace when they are under stress. This is important, because it is in these moments that we often see the worst in ourselves; good managers become poor, communication breaks down, tempers flare and the knowledge we have to perform a task falls away.

I believe that we should be following the lead of these sports teams, and looking to see how we can build in ways to test, measure and improve application under pressure. Simulations, coaching and assessment can, and should all play a role here, as well as taking a longer term view on the sustainable development of an individual or team.

The reality is that in our businesses, each and every day is like a ‘match day’ for our employees and managers, especially in today’s VUCA world, and the sooner we equip and then support them to perform under pressure, the better.

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Justin works as a Learning and Development Programme Manager and has spent the last 10 years in the corporate world of L&D. He holds an Honours Degree in Organisational Psychology from UCT, and is also a qualified Integral Coach (ACC). He has a passion for how people identify and develop their talents, and is particularly interested in leadership development.


  • Hi Justin, I am an ETD Practitioner working with mechanical engineering artisans, full time and training grassroots and youth soccer players part time. this article has me intrigued as I am asking at what stage with the youth group do we need to replicate training as competitive as to the game situation. with the artisans I am asking myself how and what do we need to do to develop world class artisans?

    July 12, 2017
    • Hi Haroon. Firstly thanks for the comment. I am glad that the article has peaked your interest.

      To answer your first question, I would say firstly that I would not want to lose the fun element of youth sport too much. I am not sure how old the kids are, but there is always time to build in the professional element.

      Having said that, I think that the process of simulating game based scenarios can apply at any level. It’s more about learning then about putting them under stress for the sake of it. You want them to learn how to perform in a game, and I think if they understand why this is important and feel what it is like to try and access skills and knowledge under pressure, they will learn more from your coaching, and also start to appreciate and develop the importance of the mental side of the game.

      You can also make it fun still, and for example give them a scenario in the 5 final minutes of practice i.e. you are down by 1 goal, 5 minutes to play, and you have a corner kick…what do you do? Leave them to play, and then most importantly talk about what they did, and what their thinking was, what they decided to do, what the outcome was and what they learnt. This will help them to draw on key experiences when these scenarios play out on game day.

      The second question is very broad of course. I am not sure what your current curriculum looks like, or what you do or don’t do…but L&D is all about looking at the outcomes you wish to achieve, and then desiring a learning path that supports that, taking into account the various teaching methodologies at your disposal (i.e. blended learning). I would think for the field of mechanical engineering, there is a great deal of theory to cover, but as you know the word artisan means that you are dealing with roles that are hands on. So I would guess that you are covering both concepts, and application in some combination. In such areas, I think you need to ensure that both are being done properly. I.e. are you transferring knowledge? How do you assess this? (i.e. pre and post-tests). For application, how do you test this? I.e. (projects or tasks). If these are covered well, I would say the key is always to then look at the learnings that happen from these tasks.

      Coaching here plays an important role. Getting them to reflect on their learning is critical. They need to be able to understand errors in thinking or application, and find solutions. They need to struggle a bit with something to learn the mental skills or also coping and problem solving. So coaching, reflection and support is key, but allowing them to work independently first is important I would think. Adopting similar scenarios, as with your soccer kids, may be a great way to test this, make it fun and achieve rich learning experiences.

      Hope that all helps!
      Kind Regards

      July 12, 2017

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