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How to deal with pressure and end up at the top of the food chain

Updated: Mar 17, 2021

I’ve always been a fan of professional sports in general, but the game of rugby in particular represents something very special, honest and pure, where a group of players put their unprotected bodies on the line for their teammates, club or country. The game embodies the spirit of teaming, endurance and high performance like no other. So naturally, when I heard EY was sponsoring the Lions Tour to New Zealand in 2017 as a principal partner, I was thrilled.

Taking some of the best players from England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland and putting them together to play against the best Southern Hemisphere teams is quite the special occasion, particularly given that Lions only visit each country once every twelve years.

For players who are at the pinnacle of their careers, playing in a very hostile environment in Australia, South Africa or New Zealand and sharing the field with some of the best players in the world, the Lions epitomise how to deal with pressure. Dealing with pressure draws important parallels with the business world, too, where leaders undergo and handle all kinds of “pressured” situations throughout their careers. Pressure is a feeling an individual athlete has about an upcoming rugby test or, in the business world, a leader might have about a key presentation or strategic decision. It’s intrinsic and internal to the individual, in the sense that they arise due to thoughts like “I better make this drop goal against New Zealand or-else…”, or “my strategic decision better work or we’ll be out of business.”

I believe there are eight critical elements to dealing with pressure either ‘on’ or ‘off’ the pitch:

  1. Embrace it – players, or people in business, need to understand the situation they’re in, control it, own it and embrace the pressure rather than let it consume them.

  2. Stay focused – staying focused on the task at hand, cutting the noise out from the crowd and executing what’s critically important is the only way to get the job done.

  3. Follow your strategy and plan – having a well thought out strategy and plan is critical, but sticking to it even when it might be tempting to veer off in a different direction in a high pressure situation is even more important.

  4. Listen and over communicate – you need to listen to the people around you and on your team, really understand what they’re saying and seeing – and then communicate what you’re seeing back to them.

  5. Reframe and control the situation – it’s important to recognize pressure, and try and perceive it as positive to the situation (feed on it). The Lions, for example, is a special once-in-a-lifetime occasion and enjoying the moment is critical.

  6. Reduce internal sources – many rugby athletes – and people in general! – put unnecessary pressure on themselves. Some pressure is good, but it can be consuming. Don’t let it be!

  7. Recognize the symptoms – typically athletes experience heart rate increases, breathing changes and other symptoms of pressure. Recognizing those symptoms, allows you to control them.

  8. Train like you play – rugby teams that are able to simulate during training the level of pressure experienced on game day can be that much more prepared to rise and roar to the occasion.

You can draw many parallels between dealing with pressure as a world class Lions rugby player, and a boardroom player in any organization. Business leaders in complex organizations are dealing with pressured decisions all the time – many with big consequences if they get it wrong. Success is how you recognize, embrace, control and leverage the pressure to your team’s advantage.

So in a couple of months’ time when you’re watching the Lions play in New Zealand remember: the devil may whisper “you can’t withstand the storm”, but you are a warrior. Simply reply, “I am the storm”.

By Lance Mortlock, EY Canadian Strategy Leader

The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.

EY is an official sponsor of the British & Irish Lions only.


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