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The Privilege of Pressure

I love the Olympics.

I love the commitment displayed by the athletes and how it inspires me and my kids and so many others to think about and (hopefully) reach our goals (I seem to exercise a little more when the Olympics are on as well!)

I love the emotion involved. One of the things that emotions do for us humans is prioritize information. Essentially, emotions function to tell us: this is important, this is less important. When we have so much information coming at us in the course of a moment or day or week at work or in our lives, emotions play a crucial role. During an Olympics, however, emotions can become overwhelming as importance increases and so much feels on the line.

How do athletes handle this emotion? As someone who has worked at a number of Olympic Games in the area of mental training, I am fascinated by this question. In fact, it is the question that burns at the core of our whole company, the Institute for Health & Human Potential: how do athletes and leaders handle pressure?

Olympics bring intense pressure

The Olympics create some of the most intense pressure an individual will face in a lifetime. As you watch the Games, here is something to look for or listen for: how does an athlete ‘frame’ the pressure of the occasion? Here is what we have found working with athletes and teams at the Olympics, NFL or NBA as well as leaders at organizations such as the US Navy, Marines, CIA or Fortune 500 companies.

Each athlete will get a huge amount of information from both internal sources (physical sensations, emotions, thinking) and external sources (the game, crowd, Rio, media etc). This information can be overwhelming. But what makes it difficult to manage is less the intensity and quantity of the information and more how they ‘see’ this information. Essentially, we see athletes (and leaders in organizations) fall into two groups: those who see the strong internal and external information they experience as something negative (a crisis or threat to their self-image) while others see this same experience as a challenge or opportunity. But the truth is that, after working for the last almost 20 years with elite athletes and leaders under pressure (and doing research along the way), we see a third group emerge: those who see pressure not only a challenge or opportunity but as a privilege.

Pressure is a Privilege?

A privilege you say? Yes, a privilege. What does that mean?

Essentially, it means that some will see how fortunate they are to be in this position and that the sensations and strong emotions they are experiencing means they are really living, really experiencing all of what life has to offer. Seeing pressure as a privilege means that they become grateful for all of the things that conspired to get them to this place – like family, coaches, country – so they could compete in an actual Olympics. In this way, they feel gratitude as opposed to fear, excitement as opposed to nervousness. And the difference is significant. Those who see pressure as a privilege walk towards the pressure. They welcome it. They befriend it. This is what allows them to manage the strong emotions more intelligently and perform closer to their best in these important moments. I think the best part of working with an athlete (or a leader in an organization) is seeing what happens when these individuals come to realize they have a choice; that they can see pressure differently and that it is something that is completely within their control. This is something to behold and, definitely, a privilege from my vantage point to watch. Enjoy the games!

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