· 3 min read · Features

Getting your swing back: Rory McIlroy - performing under pressure


Pressure is an inherent and incessant part of the modern world; and no one knows more about performing under pressure right now than 21 year old Rory McIlroy.

Having played brilliantly throughout the Masters Golf Tournament at Augusta he threw away a four-shot lead in the final round to finish tied 15th. Talking to the BBC, he said "I can't really put my finger on what went wrong. I lost a lot of confidence with my putting, but I just hit a poor tee shot on 10 and sort of unravelled from there."

McIlroy let the pressure of the occasion get to him, and affect him to such a degree that he did not perform to his full potential. But pressure doesn't just affect athletes. In a pressurised business situation, with a deadline looming and demands from stakeholders, business leaders face equal levels of stress. In order to thrive under pressure, rather than let it debilitate you, you must develop mental toughness. Research with some of the world's best athletes shows that mental toughness is the capacity to respond positively to multiple, and sometimes conflicting, pressures in order to deliver consistently high levels of performance.

  • It is underpinned by four core skills:
  • Handling pressure
  • Self-belief
  • Motivation
  • Focus

Handling pressure and keeping your head under stress

Finding ways of keeping any symptoms of stress under control Stress can result in both behavioural and physical symptoms that are often difficult to manage. Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, visualising soothing imagery and taking meditation breaks, are extremely helpful in controlling these symptoms. As are identifying factors that exacerbate stressful situations - such as not getting enough sleep, or not eating properly. Identifying what is within your control and what is not so you can exert as much control as possible Mentally tough performers accept that there are factors in their performance environment that they cannot influence, identify what they are and then focus on things they can control. In McIlroy's case, he couldn't control the course conditions, or the scores of his competitors, but could focus on his own performance.

Staying strong in your self-belief

Identifying and believing in your skills and abilities These are the reasons you have achieved what you have which often get overlooked in tough times. Listing tangible achievements can highlight evidence of professional and personal success. These can then provide the building blocks to self-belief. Being passionate about your goals and truly believing that you can achieve them Goals that motivate you to achieve your performance expectations are vital but it's also important to focus on the process that underpins the outcome, as focusing solely on the outcome only adds to pressure. For example, McIlroy was passionate about winning The Masters, his ultimate outcome goal, but process goals such as developing the correct breathing and adopting the same pre-shot routine are fundamental components.

Making your motivation work for you

Skills and abilities alone will not deliver high performance that is sustainable under the immense pressure regularly experienced in the modern workplace where even the tiniest error of judgement can have a long term effect. Mentally tough leaders will be able to bounce back and remain motivated despite sustained pressure.

They will do things because they want to succeed rather than fearing the consequences of failure and be energised and exhilarated by what they do rather than being desperate to succeed. Extrinsic motivation, such as pay and reward, is unquestionably a source of motivation for many. However research shows that internal motivation and working for an inherent satisfaction leads to more enjoyment and consequently less pressure.

Maintaining your focus on the things that matter

Focusing on the positives If external distractions are not enough to disrupt focus, then internal ones lurk menacingly. Thoughts of past failures, consequences of failure or doubts about achieving goals are all negative thoughts that hinder performance. Mentally tough performers will focus on past achievements and personal strengths to realise their potential. McIlroy is already showing signs of resilience - the power of 'bouncing back' - having tweeted after the game "Well that wasn't the plan! Found it tough going today, but you have to lose before you can win. This day will make me stronger in the end." Concentrating on what he did well, and learning from things he didn't, will indeed help him perform better next time.

Adrian Moorhouse is the MD of Lane4,