By: Mark vonAppen
Performing under pressure is something that people who operate in high-octane professions routinely deal with; firefighting is no exception. How do the great ones deal with chest-crushing, muscle-paralyzing pressure? How do they stay so cool?
The elite among us know that preparing is itself a ritual and they work their craft and themselves hard at every opportunity.
Everything is about competition.
The performance is the reward. Performing is the payoff of weeks—sometimes years—of preparation in the form of sweat, aches, and mind-numbing repetition. Performance is where we are tested in our field; where we display our make and mettle. Elite performance stems from consistency, from performing and mastering the basics over and over again.
The devil is in the details and the demons are exorcised well before they take to the field to do battle. Top performers sweat the small stuff, and they sort out the details of their task well ahead of time in order to get themselves that much closer to achieving their desired goal. They know that learning never stops.
When the time comes to rise up will you play big or shrink from the pressure of the moment?
If you are prepared, on game day you should feel loose, relaxed in the belief that the hard work is behind you. It is time to set your training and preparation in motion. It is time to show what you are made of, to show the depth of your preparation. If you have put hard work in ahead of time, the pressure should ease because you have prepared.
Top performers work at winning. They see successes and failures in training as immediate and concrete feedback. It is the environment speaking directly to them:
Hmmm, that didn’t work. Cross that one off the list of things to try…
- Or -
Okay, that worked. Now, take that success and make yourself even better.
You have to believe in yourself and have faith that training and preparation will see you through. Those who believe in themselves and surround themselves with people of like mind, who share a belief in a common goal, will find success in time. Success is attributed to hard work, dedication, learning from mistakes, and belief in a cause.
Keys to success in pressure situations
Start with a strong foundation
Build a strong foundation in all aspects of your profession, whatever it might be. A solid base includes having a strong grip on the mental, physical, and emotional aspects of yourself and your profession—they are all linked together.
If everything else is equal, mental and emotional control can make the difference. Most people feel that top physical performance is all about speed and strength, but it goes much deeper than that. Some people have a fear of success; others have a fear of failure. You have to prepare to succeed, and you have to see yourself doing it.
Master the basics
Rehearse basic skills to the point of muscle memory. Mastering the basics allows you to perform them without thinking, thus allowing for greater awareness. The greats practice rote disciplines (SCBA donning, air emergency mitigation, calling a MAYDAY, making a stretch, ladder raises, internal size-up) to the point that they forget that they are even performing a skill.
Perform the basics until muscle memory kicks in; then add a sense of urgency and PPE to turn up the degree of difficulty. Gradually increase the tempo of drills until performance speed is reached. Alternate between a slow pace in which no mistakes are made and training at the desired performance speed to get the best results. Mastery of the basics makes you less accident and injury-prone when fatigue sets in, which can make us clumsy and inattentive.
Practice hard and set goals for each training session. Do not go out and simply go through the motions. Set your mind on winning, even on the drill ground. Practice is where you develop good habits. You must train proactively for any situation. You have to know how you will react given any circumstance—you can’t guess. You must practice for every possible scenario so you don’t get surprised. You have to train to the point that you can anticipate what is going to happen next.
Learn how to be present in the moment, how to maintain your focus on what is happening around you (fire and structural conditions). If you focus on living and performing in the moment, the pressure goes away. In the present, you’re not worried about the past or what might happen, you are only focused on the task at hand. You have to ask yourself, “What is most important right now?”
You must be willing to move out of your comfort zone. When you try something new and you feel awkward and uncomfortable, that is when you grow.We can learn a great deal from observing the work habits of great performers in any arena. If you get to know yourself and your craft well enough, pressure subsides and fear becomes a tool. Great performers rely on training and preparation, both physical and emotional, to turn fear into aggression, thus surpassing those who freeze at the moment of truth. They take fear and turn it into anger, fueling the fire to win or survive. The great ones normalize pressure situations, emotionally categorizing them as routine—the result of intense preparation.
You must be willing to stretch yourself during training sessions in order to achieve what was previously thought to be impossible. Fear is conquered through training, visualization, pushing through pain, and finishing hard. Great performers know who they are before the action starts.
Some will say of those who succeed that their good fortune is rooted in luck. Those who dismiss reaching a goal as something left to chance underestimate the drive and determination needed to achieve elite performance levels.
Are great performers lucky? Maybe they are if you look at it this way. Success is not an accident. Very seldom does Lady Luck play a role in the outcome of high-stakes endeavors. I’m not even sure that Lady Luck exists at all. If she does, she has children and she shows them great favor. She smiles upon the driven few who stay late, put in the extra work, take a few more reps, and sweat that much more than the competition. Some of the best performers create their own luck through hyper-vigilance, and deep, thoughtful preparation.