High reward means high risk, but if we are hard-wired to avoid danger, how do we overcome our natural psychology in order to succeed in high-pressure situations?

According to Sean-Kelley Quinn, M.A., CC- AASP, Director of Mental Conditioning at Moawad Consulting Group, years of evolution have hard-wired the human psyche to avoid danger and so limit risk. This has helped ensure the survival of the species for thousands of years, but it can also impede our performance in high-stress situations, where the physical danger is replaced by the stress and risk of failure. As Sean points out from his work coaching elite athletes in the United States, this risk is magnified many times over when your performance is seen by millions around the world. So what can we do to override our in-built self-preservation device to ensure we deliver in the ‘key clutch moments’?

Because we are dealing with deeply-rooted pre-historic tensions, any goal-focused coaching has to be clearly relatable to the task at hand and instantly accessible (mentally) if it is to overcome our natural instincts not to put ourselves in harm’s way, says Sean. This involves diligently practising the skill of singular focus, where all we allow to enter our mind is the successful completion of the task. Similarly, whether it’s sinking a tricky 6-foot putt or throwing the winning touchdown, it is the physiological action that is trained for during many hours of practice. Ingraining behaviours and not overthinking the actions required is essential.

Do it. Don’t over-think it.

In a test situation for golfers, elite professionals, club pros, and amateurs were asked to take part in a putting competition, watched by large crowds and filmed by the media. The exercise was repeated several times with different individuals, but the results across all groups remained the same. The elite pro’s performed well and consistently, as did the amateurs, but the club pro’s were, by far, the worst-performing group. This was attributed to them over-thinking the task and allowing the thought that they should do well but doubted their ability to perform due to the unusual pressure of the situation. The amateurs by contrast simply felt they had nothing to lose, and were free of any pressure of expectation, whereas the elite pro’s knew they had the ability to deliver because they had the experience of doing so on many occasions previously.

It’s not life or death, but our brain tells us it is.

This is a valuable lesson for anyone, whether it’s a sport, personal or business situation. Giving the best man’s speech, making a new business pitch, or asking someone you love to ‘be the one’ are all high-risk situations that we instinctively want to avoid. But it’s risk-aversion what we actually need to displace in order to succeed, not our perceived fear of failure. Understanding that nobody will die as a result of what we need to do is actually a very liberating mindset, but it’s one we will need to fight our own internal computer in order to adopt because all that can compute is life or death.