We make thousands of decisions every day. Often our most important decisions are made under intense pressure. Little time, no preparation, severe consequences for mistakes, limited information, or reputation at risk can all pressure the decisions we must make. The New Zealand All Blacks rugby team constantly plays under the most intense international competitive pressures, yet they are perennial champions. A study of the team’s preparation for and participation in the 2011 World Rugby Championship (which they won) offers some wonderful insights and proven strategies for making great decisions under great pressure.

Practice and prepare for pressure. Practice coping with pressure will give you greater confidence in the decisions you make. One way to practice is to role play or simulate scenarios prior to important meetings or events. Engage in challenge appraisals. In other words, when you hear or read about a situation you have not experienced but may do so in the future, work out how you would deal with it. If you may have to lay-off employees, present a plan to a board of directors or investors, or land a commercial airliner on the Hudson River, how would you do it—how would you feel, what would you say, what obstacles might you encounter, how would you overcome those obstacles? Practice of this sort leads to positive adaptation and strengthened resilience under pressure.

Clarity of purpose and alignment of actions. The research found the All Blacks performed best under pressure when they had great clarity as to what they were trying to accomplish. This allowed them to both filter out distractions and focus complete attention on the goal at hand. Next, they aligned their actions with their intentions. In other words, they targeted their actions to accomplish their goals. If it wasn’t going to achieve the ends they desired, they didn’t take that action. Also, if an action they were taking was not making sufficient progress toward their goal, they abandoned that action and adopted another that appeared to have greater promise for reaching their goal.

Review the game plan. Those who make great decisions under pressure feel more accountable for solving problems rather than letting someone else solve their problems for them. They, therefore, continually evaluated the quality of their decisions. They were not simply satisfied with a decision that worked.  They wanted to know if another decision might solve the problem better or longer. Regularly evaluating their own decision-making, they checked that they had picked up the right cues and executed the right actions, and if not, a change was made in the action. Their game plan was a guide, not a prescription.

Smith, W., & Hodge, K. (2014). Public Expectation, Pressure, and Avoiding the Choke: A Case Study from Elite Sport. Sport Psychologist, 28(4), 375-389.

Photo credit Andy Rain/EPA