Performance under pressure: How to stay on top of your game

Olympic champion Ben Hunt-Davis gives TJ some well-earned advice about performing under pressure. 

Reading time: 4 minutes.

Performance under pressure is critical whether you are an Olympian, a surgeon or a businessman. When I was training for the Sydney Olympic Games in the GB men’s rowing eight, we had to learn a lot of skills to be able to deliver a gold-medal winning performance when it mattered.

Those skills of handling pressure were definitely less about the physical side of our training and more about the mental side of our training, though of course both interlink. I knew what it felt like to underperform at an Olympics – so I knew I had to find a way to approach things differently if I wanted a different result. And my crew felt the same way.  

With any ambitious project in business, sport, politics or life, setbacks along the way are inevitable. To counter this, we came up with an approach that we called the launch ‘P.A.D.’ to help us relaunch ourselves towards our goal whenever things went wrong and to help us get into the right frame of mind to deliver. 

P.A.D. stands for Prepare, Accept, Do:

Stage one: Prepare

Planning in advance, being clear about what you want to achieve, and learning to respond well are vital when things don’t go as you’d hoped. With my crew for the Sydney Olympics, we had lots of ‘what if?’ conversations. 

Preparing is not just about doing more yourself – it’s about getting the support you need in place too.

By talking those through as a group, we knew how we could draw on our resources to cope with those and find a way through any that occurred. We always had a mantra as a crew also to ‘Expect the unexpected – you can deal with it’ to build belief in our resilience – we actively looked for opportunities to test ourselves and build that belief.

Preparing is not just about doing more yourself – it’s about getting the support you need in place too. A healthy network who will challenge you, cheer you on, empathise with you and keep things in perspective are key. 

Keeping things in perspective is one of the first things to go if we let pressure get to us – so it’s important to have others to keep us on track at those moments.

Stage two: Accept

When adversity strikes, part of how we recover from it is about how quickly we are able to accept things, start assessing the options for what we do next and move on. Acceptance is a huge part of managing pressure, so that you can get on with the things you can control, and stay on track moving towards your Crazy Goal. 


That Crazy Goal we had set ourselves to win the Olympics (despite finishing 7-9th in the world for the previous two Olympiads) kept us focused through a few highs and many huge lows – the power of a Crazy Goal is not how it lifts you on the good days, it’s how it helps you to find ways inside yourself and others around you to manage the tough days too.

We also taught ourselves in our crew to seek an upside in every challenge that got thrown at us – we reminded each other to ask, ‘How can I use this situation?’, ‘How can this challenge help us?’ ‘What might be the positive here’ at moments when your instincts say there are none.

Stage three: Do

Once you’ve accepted the situation, it’s about getting back on track and moving positively towards your goal. It’s about thinking about all the things that are in your control to do – returning to that old sporting adage ‘control the controllables’ – that was language we used regularly, whether within a high pressure racing situation or a tough training day.  

Pressure often increases when we spend time thinking about things that are outside our control – so the trick is to stay focused on what you can do to improve the situation. Again, it’s about your frame in mind to enable you to take positive steps forward.  

There’s a fourth stage that’s an integral part of an athlete’s life – reviewing and reflecting on every experience you have, in training and racing – to review first, what went well – regardless of whether you won or lost. Then to assess what can you do to improve, again regardless of your result, and then to be clear about the 2-3 things you will do differently the next day as a result.  

Pressure situations always need reviewing – how did pressure help me to perform? Pressure isn’t all bad. How well did I manage the pressure? How could I manage it better next time? What have I learnt that will help me to adapt how I approach the next high-pressured challenge? 

Reviewing is all about learning – and high performance is to a large degree about how effectively we learn and improve, and whether we can learn more quickly than our competitors. Seeing pressure as a learning opportunity is in itself is one of the best ways we can approach it, using it as a tool to make our respective boats go faster in the future.


About the author

Ben Hunt-Davis MBE is a gold medal-winning Olympian rower and the founder of performance consultancy Will It Make the Boat Go Faster?


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