Mat Fitzgerald Running in High School

Pressure Is a Double-Edge Sword

In 2015, economists Daniel Hickman and Neil Metz conducted an interesting study on the effect of pressure on performance in professional golfers. Data from the final hole of PGA tournaments taking place between 2004 and 2012 was analyzed to determine the effect of financial stakes—specifically how much money was riding on draining a putt—on performance. Hickman and Metz found that for every additional $10,000 a putt was worth, the likelihood of a player making it decreased by 0.18 percent.

So, there you have it: Pressure harms athletic performance.

Or does it? The limitation of this study is that it looked only at the general effect of pressure on performance and did not consider individual effects. But other research has shown that, whereas a plurality of athletes perform worse under pressure, some perform better. In a 2006 study, for example, scientists at Victoria University measured basketball free-throw performance under two conditions: low pressure (where the shooter was observed by a single research assistant) and high pressure (where the shooter was watched by an audience and also videotaped, and a financial reward was attached to their performance). Of the 66 subjects, 35 were less accurate under pressure, seven performed about the same, and 24 shot better.

It would be interesting to know what, if anything, was different between the subjects who choked under pressure and those who thrived under pressure. Well, the Victoria University researchers looked at this too, and found that personal self-consciousness (defined by as “the tendency to focus on oneself from a personal vantage point and attend to aspects of the self that are not readily apparent to others, such as one’s thoughts and feelings”) and somatic trait anxiety (defined by Wikipedia as “the physical manifestation of anxiety”) explained 35 percent of the variance in performance under pressure. If you have an aversion to pressure in the sporting context, you may have one or more of these two traits and need to address it/them to become cooler under fire.

At the other end of the spectrum are athletes who not only thrive under pressure but actively heap pressure upon themselves for the sake of its performance-enhancing effects—athletes including my favorite of all time, Muhammad Ali. Throughout his storied career, Ali used trash talk as a way to heighten the personal stakes of his bouts, making bombastic public promises that would come back to embarrass him if he failed to back them up. A few examples:

Before his first fight with Sonny Liston: “He might be great, but he’ll fall in eight.”

Before fighting Buster Mathis: “I will do to Buster what the Indians did to Custer.”

Before fighting George Foreman: “George can’t hit what he can’t see.”

Sure, Ali had other reasons to deliver lines such as these in the lead-up to fights. They expressed a frothing, youthful élan that he couldn’t bottle up even if he wanted to. They also increased interest in his bouts, which helped his bottom line. But on a pure athletic level, Ali talked trash to put even more pressure on himself than was already tied up in fighting for huge prize purses on national television, and he did so because he knew it would make him fight better.

I’m no Muhammad Ali (duh), but I’ve taken Ali’s example to heart. Ever since the rise of social media, I’ve used the medium to share my athletic goals as a way to compound the cost of pressure and thereby increase my chances of succeeding. Most recently, I set a goal to run a sub-5:00 mile for the first time in 32 years. It was a stretch, but despite the risk of making a fool of myself, I broadcast my intention on Facebook and Twitter and ginned up a fair amount of interest.

My first attempt was an utter disaster. I knew during the warm-up that I didn’t have the legs, and when I hit the 800-meter mark of the mile well off pace and redlining, I pulled the plug. I won’t lie: It was embarrassing to fail so spectacularly with so many folks paying attention, but I did not regret my choice to put my goal out there because I knew that my doing so would increase my chances of achieving it eventually. So I channeled my embarrassment and my hunger for an equally public redemption into my next attempt three weeks later and dropped a 4:55, and boy did it feel good (after the nausea passed)!

The word “pressure” carries more negative than positive associations, but it has proven positive potential for athletes especially, when they are on heavy training. If you tend to have an aversive reaction to pressure, get to work on the anxiety and self-consciousness underlying this aversion. And if you are the sort of athlete who (so to speak) hits more free throws with an audience and cameras rolling and money on the line than without, consider seeking out sensible ways to add pressure to your pursuit of important goals, not for its own sake but for the sake of your performance.