Keeping your composure when you feel safe is easy.  The question is how to regain and retain it when you are no longer in your comfort zone, when you feel out of your element.  Add pressure to any situation (speed it up, raise the stakes, increase the competition) and at some point, performance drops.

Most of the time you cannot change the situation, but you can change your response to it.  Learning to manage yourself is the key to gaining and maintaining your composure under pressure.  Here are a few ways to go about it.

  1. Reframe the situation:  When you are afraid, your systems shut down.  But to cope effectively with pressure situations, you need to be open and clear headed.  There is a Chinese proverb that says, “take a step back and the sky becomes vast and the sea infinite.”  I interpret this as stepping back and thinking about the situation from a different (and usually broader) perspective.  This is what “reframing” can do for you.  Once you put the situation into context, you are likely to find that the worst-case scenario is actually something that you can handle.  Which then leads to the conclusion that you may as well swing out and give it all you’ve got.
  2. Embrace your fear:  I have always been scared of rollercoasters, but from time to time become persuaded to ride them with friends and family.  Despite having chosen to strap into the seat, I used to fight it and clench my muscles, ending up with an awful crick in my neck plus being terrified the entire time.  Then, one time I decided to give in to the fear and embrace it; after all, my friends seemed to be having a great time with it and seemed to find it deliciously exhilarating.  What if I could achieve that same feeling that they felt?  I imitated their behavior and adopted what I thought must be their mindset.  Well, it worked!  Leaning into the fear and giving in to the plunge made it a better experience.  And if you're going to do something, you may as well enjoy it.
  3. Learn to breathe:  It turns out that breathing rhythmically is the single most important factor in controlling your physiology, emotions, and thoughts, and therefore how you perform.  Actually, there is a great deal of science to it beyond rhythmic breathing alone, which I learned about from Alan Watkins, international expert in health and performance at Cardiac Coherence.  But breathing is a great start.
  4. Get training:  You’ve got to have the tools and technical skills to deal with the situation at hand.  The more training you get, the more competent and confident you will feel.  That’s what military training is all about – equipping soldiers with the knowledge and routine to fall back on when it all turns pear-shaped.  When the going gets tough, you need to be able to fall back on something, so invest in your own training.  If your “scary situation” is about public speaking, get presentation skills training or join Toastmasters.  If it is about working the room at a business event or competing at tournaments, then there are professionals who can help you with that as well.  You get the picture.
  5. Practice and rehearse:  Nothing substitutes for experience.  Even if you are not thrust into pressure-filled environments on a regular basis, you can still rehearse as though you were in those situations.  In fact, I used to practice my presentations out loud in front of the mirror.  The more you put yourself forward into pressure situations, the better you will be at dealing with them.  The key is to give yourself latitude until you master it.  But keep practicing and rehearsing the behavior until it feels natural; it is the best way to improve.

I invite you to share your wisdom about maintaining composure:  what works for you?