Career: Train Your Brain Like an Athlete and Don't Choke Under Pressure!

Have you ever "choked under pressure?"

We all have that moment when we must do something that makes our hearts pump and our palms sweat. So what can we do to gain control and utilize our adrenaline to perform at our most peak levels?

Maybe it's a colossal presentation, a significant performance, or perhaps needing to make a stellar first impression.

The day, the moment has arrived, and your adrenaline kicks in, your heart rate elevates, and your stomach turns, forcing you to move into a "fight or flight" mental state. I've been there!

As a public speaker and leadership trainer, I experience continuous adrenaline surges and complete freak-out moments before stage time. The room (or worse- the ZOOM) of faces staring blankly at me as I speak or worse, staring at their precious smartphones as though their laps are that exciting, and thinking I won't be able to determine they are actually scrolling Instagram. It's heart-wrenching.

However, there have been times, and I'm happy to say more times than not, in which they aren't fascinated with their laps.

They are drinking the Kool-aide!

I have their attention.

I'm winning.

I'm exceptional (at least for a moment).

And now, I ask myself, what made the difference? What makes me so "on" one moment and ultimately stumbling over my words the next?

The answer:

Activation Management Also known as knowing what your "sweet spot" is. Exactly how much sleep and caffeine and adrenaline one needs to deliver a keynote or speech or training course that knocks off the dang socks, or you get it all wrong, and ... CHOKE under pressure.

When fight or flight are your only two options, you're working in a stressful state of mind. Your results will either not happen, or the pressure will cause mediocre performance at best- hence you CHOKED.

According to sports psychologists, the key here is to learn your "arousal zones" to achieve what is considered, in sports, the "peak performance" mindset.

In sports psychology, this is referred to as "activation management."

What is Activation Management?

Activation management is our ability to regulate arousal by utilizing specific techniques around relaxation or energizing strategies such as "pumped up" music. Have you ever noticed that you'll see some athletes getting pumped by blasting upbeat music around and battle crying while others sit quietly listening to something soothing? This is demonstrated by the ability to obtain your optimal energy levels.

In business, it's vital to understand when you need to elevate your energy for a high pressured sales pitch, afternoon deadlines, or when you need to lower your levels to zone into cold calls or have a difficult conversation.

According to Hallet & Hoffman (2014), when we "choke under pressure," we're performing at a lower standard due to our perceived stresses centered around our competition, the people observing us, pressure to obtain an award or promotion, and sometimes choking is the result of our good ole' ego preservation at work!

We must also learn how to calibrate our arousal points like a professional athlete.

Each of us is naturally on a different energy level as our default. Think of your energy default as a spectrum. I may naturally be a high-energy default (7-8) person, and you may be more on the lower end default (3-4). Knowing where we are naturally (our default) is essential when we need to activate ourselves up or down.

For example, suppose I'm a naturally high energy default and need a super high energy sales pitch to an audience. In that case, I know I only need to up my energy by 1 point or so from its natural point. If you're too excited, you'll overdo it. Or maybe I didn't sleep well, and my natural default is feeling lethargic. This understanding of my activation zone tells me I need a little more amp than usual to meet my critical optimal performance number.

Know Your Optimal Performance Number

To calibrate your activation point, I want you to take a moment and think of an experience when you achieved optimal success, felt in charge, or performed at your best level. Got it?

Now take a piece of paper and write a list of all the words you would use to describe how you felt in this experience.

What was your level of energy before, during, and after the experience? Now, based on your numbers, what would you place as your target aim for your optimal personal performance in a future similar situation? This number will be your optimal number.

Now manage yourself up or down.

To activate yourself down, you need relaxation—the goal here to slow your heart rate and relax the tension in your muscles.

Relaxation Techniques:

  • Deep breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth.

  • Meditation on your own or try using apps like Calm or Headspace.

  • Body scans activity: Find a quiet space to sit and think intentionally about your toes, feet, legs... all the way up to the top of your head. Repeat the activity back down.

  • Journal your thoughts on paper by writing down how you feel and acknowledge your feelings with understanding.

  • Listen to soft music that relaxes and inspires you.

  • Sit outdoors and acknowledge everything around you. Take note of things you may not have noticed.

To activate yourself up, you want to elevate your heart rate to increase your adrenaline and dopamine.

Dopamine is a "feel good" chemical that increases your brain neuron activity and improving your mood, motivation, and desire to complete goals. Many people rely heavily on caffeine, sugar, and other artificial energizers to gain energy, but this is a slippery slope and can create a dependence on even normal functioning energy levels.

For long-term energy, try eating unprocessed foods, get adequate sleep, and exercise daily.

Quick on the Spot Energizing Techniques:

  • Rapid breathing by taking quick, shallow breaths will help elevate your heart rate and get the blood pumping.

  • Energizing verbal queues repeated out loud will help pump you up. Say phrases to yourself in the mirror for added benefit. Here are a few uplifting ones to consider:

The finish line is yours; OWN it!

Rise up!

You are superhuman!

You've GOT THIS!

  • Play upbeat music as loud as possible and throw in a few moves if you can. This movement elevates your heart rate from the exertion and gives you a nice hit of endorphins to boost your mood.

When it comes to activation management, learning how to achieve this mental fortitude is key to becoming a peak performer in your professional life.

Professional athletes have mastered this skill, and it's led them to their success, so why not apply the same fortitude and mindset to our own lives?

When we learn to show up and face our challenges, we train our minds to overcome adversity. Do not shy away from the things that are hard. Embrace each and every one so you can conquer and claim victory over your own insecurities. Stumble, fail, embarrass yourself and then bring it all in. These are the parts of life that make us better because this is how we GROW.


Hallett, M.G., & Hoffman, B. (2014). Performing under pressure: Cultivating the peak performance mindset for workplace excellence. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 66(3), 212-230.