How Top Performers Stay Calm Under Extreme Pressure

In the last post we talked about how exponential technologies are creating a need for rapid learning. Today's topic is about how top performers manage their emotions and remain calm under extreme pressure.

Here's the problem: Most people walk around in a low level state of anxiety. This constant anxiety clouds our judgment and stops our ability to develop as top performers. New research shows that consistent anxiety causes degradation of the area of your brain that controls willpower and self-control (dorsilateral PFC).

It gets worse.

When placed in stressful situations our nervous system kicks in; all learning stops and performance plummets. We stop being the best version of ourselves, which is especially frustrating when you are used to performing at a high level. 


What Shaq can teach you about Your Nervous System

Shaq dunks on Dennis Rodman

In the 90’s and early 2000’s the most dominant player in NBA history, perfectly displayed how comfort, performance, emotions and your nervous system are linked.

If Shaquille O'neal received the ball within 6 feet of the basket, he was going to score. There was no question. In fact, he was probably going to dunk on someone and make them look like a scrub off the street. 

This was his comfort zone, where he was dominant.

His defenders soon realized that the best way to stop Shaq was just to foul him and force him to do something he was uncomfortable with..... The dreaded Free Throw.

From Wikipedia, Yerks Dodson Law [6]

From Wikipedia, Yerks Dodson Law [6]

A the free throw line he was a mere mortal and looked like a fish out of water. In the graph, his stress level was somewhere between strong and complete meltdown.

In the 2002 Western Conference finals, Shaq's Lakers played the up and coming Sacramento Kings. It’s was perhaps the best (and most controversial ) 7 game NBA playoff series ever. In this series “Hack a Shaq” was in full swing and Shaq got to the free throw line an astonishing 69 times.

Watch the video below. It's explains the entire story. 

You just want to give the big guy a hug. 

You can see how uncomfortable he is (eyes are wide with fear, anxiety and stress). The pressure of the moment was mounting and it’s written all over his body.

Everything from the way he stands (awkward), to his eyes, the way he holds the ball, shows his nervous system freaking out.  

You can almost hear the thoughts in his head:

  • “What are they going to say?”

  • “If I mess this up we lose. What are my teammates going to say?”

  • “You are such a fraud. You’ve been training your entire life for this moment. Do not miss!”

Shaq's nervous system is going crazy and is sending all sorts of messages which interfere with his ability to make a shot he's made a million times. While in this state, he has little chance of performing his best. 

This must have drive him nuts because in practice he was an excellent free throw shooter


It Happens To All of Us

Most of us have felt like Shaq when we are in moments of stress or pressure. We forget to do the little things that got us there and have no idea how to get back into state. 

I remember taking the ACT college entrance exam while in high school. After studying for months (and being fully prepared), I walked into the testing room and saw the high level of anxiety from my peers. Anxiety is a contagious emotion, their stress got to me and my performance dropped as a result. My score sucked and I was crushed. All of the that prep was wasted because I got nervous and did not stay calm under pressure.

What was your big moment like?


Your Nervous System Controls you

Like Shaq at the free-throw line, when we get anxious, our nervous systems tries to shut down all non-essential systems and get us to safety. 

This is our fight-or-flight system, which evolved to keep us safe in a dangerous prehistoric world. This system no longer serves us.  In fact, with very little physical threats in the modern world it mostly just gets in the way. [4]

The physical symptoms of this state should be familiar: Increased heart rate, your breath shortens, pupils dilate, and you start looking for exit signs everywhere. If you are speaking in front of a group you may even feel your chest tighten and lose the ability to speak. 


Image from


how to control your nervous system 

Developing complete control over this system should be a major priority for anyone looking to improve themselves, because it's impossible to be your best while scared, stressed out, anxious or fearful. 

What follows are two basic things you must be doing each to day gain control over your nervous system and shut down your fight or flight response (before it shuts you down). 


Step 1: Get your intentions right

The intentions we set each day tell our subconscious mind and R.A.S. (reticular activating system) what to focus on.

Here’s the deal. Each second your brain is getting way more information than it can process, so it has to filter out essential vs. non-essential information. In fact, your R.A.S. filters out over 99% of the information available to you, so you can preserve brain glycogen for solving hard problems when they arise.

When you consciously decide what to focus on you can select where you want to place your awareness. If you don’t actively do this, you will become a victim to your environment (such as the media messages you are exposed to). [5]


Example 1: Average Joe's Day

Each day Joe wakes up watches the news, then rushes off to work listening to the radio. He stops for a quick bite to eat at a gas station, listening to the news nonstop. Messages about death, fear, panic, and consumer advertising fill his conscious and subconscious mind. His R.A.S. begins to focus in on these messages and soon it feels like the entire world is going to hell.

Guess what Joe’s focuses on? 

As a result he stays in a low level anxious state all day long and learns nothing new. The worst thing about it, is that he doesn't even know this is happening to him.

Each day your intentions will be set, the only question is are you going to be in the divers seat or is mass media going to choose for you? [3]

NOTE: Here is a link to a Yale study that shows how consistent stress leads to brain degradation in the Pre-Frontal Cortex.


Example 2: Jane's AM Priming Routine

Jane wakes up each morning and immediately goes into an AM daily priming routine, where she exectures the following steps.

  • 10 minutes of deep breathing based meditation.
  • 10 minutes of Gratitude Journaling and setting intentions for the day.
  • On her drive to the office, she listens to motivational audio books or informative programs. The radio and news never get’s turned on.

While at work, Jane is calm cool and collected. She learns like a sponge and her coworkers comment on her pleasant demeanor. Jane is a person who has drawn boundaries and knows where to put her awareness.

With all of the new knowledge and skills she has learned, where do you think Jane will be in 35 years?


Step 2: Practice deep breathing 

Every top performer  has control over their emotions and nervous system. 

Vulnerability researcher Dr. Brene Brown has written extensively on people who “stay calm under pressure”.

After interviewing hundreds of them and testing their stress response she made a powerful realization: Top performers know how to breath. [2]

Brown found that people who "stay calm" have a knack for knowing when to take a deep breath and don't give into nervous energy. In order to do this, we have to pause between the stimulus (stressed out person) that will make us anxious and our response to the stimulis. Taking a few seconds to pause, stops the emotional response that would normally happen. Instead of feeding into the stress, top performers paused and allowed the tension to dissipate. 


Their process looked like this upon hearing stressful news:[2]

  1. Stop. Wait before responding.

  2. Take a deep diaphragmatic belly breath. (Breath through the nose and out the mouth.)

  3. Wait (sometimes an uncomfortable amount of time). Take another breath if necessary.

  4. Respond in a calm and confident manner.


Following this process has the following benefits:

  • Transforms your response to stress and quickly rebalance your mind, body and emotions

  • Increases your ability to think clearer, be more intuitive, and make better decisions, especially under pressure

  • Improves health, increase resilience and well–being; maintain personal balance

  • Decreases stress and burnout in chaotic and changing environments

  • Maximizes creativity and innovation

  • Boosts performance and overall intelligence

If you have a meditation practice, you'll find this practice much easier than someone who doesn't.



We’ve all had these moments of extreme panic which prevent us from being our best. Whether you feel like Shaq at the free throw line or a kid taking his ACT test. We all know what it feels like to be at the shitty end of the fear spectrum and lose our control.

If you practice the two steps listed above, you’ll learn to control your stress response, become a learning sponge and start performing at your best. 



[1] Shaquille O'Neal and the Death of the True NBA Center. (2013, August 26). Retrieved April 21, 2015, from

[2] Brown, B. (n.d.). Power of volnerability.

[3] Harris, J. L., Bargh, J. A., & Brownell, K. D. (2009). Priming Effects of Television Food Advertising on Eating Behavior. Health Psychology : Official Journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, 28(4), 404–413. doi:10.1037/a0014399

[4] Layton, J. (n.d.). How Fear Works. Retrieved April 21, 2015, from

[5] Chapter 12 - Central Nervous System. (n.d.). Retrieved April 22, 2015, from 12.htm

[6] Yerkes–Dodson law. (n.d.). Retrieved April 22, 2015, from–Dodson_law


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