Thinking correctly under pressure creates a winning mentality

The Rugby World Cup Final, All Blacks v South Africa, is on Saturday and promises to be a classic. It’s about individuals playing to their full potential, teams executing strategies and tactics from the training ground, and it’s about heart, keeping going when you’ve given everything. Most of all it’s about the capability to perform under pressure. Come on the All Blacks!

Player of the tournament is All Blacks wing Will Jordan, who has equalled the record for most tries scored in a tournament with eight so far, including a hat-trick against Argentina. He shares the record with Jonah Lomu, Julian Savea, and Bryan Habana, legends of the game, trailblazers.

It brings back memories of England’s victory twenty years ago on 22 November 2003 versus Australia in Sydney, especially that that closing passage of play from the final: the lineout take from Lewis Moody, the break from Matt Dawson, Jonny Wilkinson standing in the pocket and Ian Robertson’s iconic commentary – He drops for World Cup glory. It’s over. He’s done it. Wilkinson’s last-gasp effort was all that separated England and Australia after 100 minutes of rugby and a dramatic extra-time finale.

Captain Martin Johnson became the first player to lead a northern hemisphere side to the world title. I don’t think I’ve ever shouted at the television as much as I did that day or been as emotional! Here’s what I remember of the game.

The Wallabies started strongly when Tuqiri out-jumped Jason Robinson to a Stephen Larkham bomb with just six minutes on the clock; three Wilkinson penalties silenced the home support. In the pouring rain, both sides kept the ball in hand and the England pack began to dominate. With ten minutes of the first half left, Jason Robinson scuttled over wide on the left after a powerful midfield burst from Lawrence Dallaglio. Jason jumps up and punches the ball into the air. Queue mayhem in our house.

The men in white started the second half as they had finished the first, Johnson led from the front with a towering performance. Just as England looked to pull away, two penalties allowed Elton Flatley to bring his side back within touching distance. 

Lancastrian Will Greenwood knocked on inside the Aussie 22 and Wilkinson missed a drop goal as the match entered a tense closing quarter.  Runs from the powerful Stirling Mortlock and ebullient George Smith pushed England back, and as referee Andre Watson prepared to blow for full time, Flatley slotted his third kick to push the match into extra time.

Many seem to forget the composure Flatley had at that moment, it was an awesome kick under extreme pressure. Four times Flatley put the ball between the posts, a fine personal game from the inside-centre ultimately on the losing side. 

Now the players from both sides looked exhausted. Wilkinson and Flatley swapped penalties in extra-time, 17-17, the match looked to be heading into sudden death. Then, with 38 second of extra-time remaining, England run two set piece moves to set up the winning play: Dawson to Wilkinson, who shapes up confidently, and with his non-dominant kicking right foot calmly bangs over the World Cup winner. England, World Champions.

For the record:

  • 6 mins: Tuqiri try puts Australia ahead.
  • 38 mins: Robinson scores a try after three Wilkinson penalties – England 14-5.
  • 80 mins: Australia haul themselves back level with Flatley’s last-gasp penalty, 14-14
  • 82 mins: Wilkinson’s penalty gives England an extra-time advantage.
  • 97 mins: Flatley strikes again, 17-17
  • 100 mins: Wilkinson’s drop goal wins the World Cup 20-17

England: J Lewsey, J Robinson, W Greenwood, M Tindall, B Cohen; J Wilkinson, M Dawson; T Woodman, S Thompson, P Vickery; M Johnson; (captain), B Kay; R Hill, N Back, L Dallaglio. Replacements: D West, J Leonard, M Corry, L Moody, K Bracken, M Catt, I Balshaw.

Rugby is a physical game, but it’s not all about brawn, there’s plenty of guile and thought. At the margin, with 38 seconds to go, this win was about composure, the capacity to make the right decision under pressure, holding your nerve and keeping focus to put training into practice.

England had a phrase in the 2003 World Cup – T-CUP – Thinking-Correctly-Under-Pressure – for those pivotal moments. When interviewed after the game, Wilkinson was asked if he’d been nervous, one swing of the boot and England were World Champions? Not really, he replied, the last 38 seconds had been six years in the making.

Most of us can reflect on our own moments where we’ve underperformed when it mattered most, not thinking straight presenting to an important client, the ‘box of frogs’ goes off in our head, flustered and scrambling any sense of being control. Nobody is immune: Mahatma Gandhi had a choking moment during his first case before a judge, and in his own words ran from the courtroom in humiliation. Your thinking becomes impaired meaning you have trouble making sense and behaving as usual. Your performance in the moment declines when the stakes are raised.

Like Will Jordan and Jonny Wilkinson ready for the big game, if you’ve learned and practised the skills that you’ll draw on, there are a number of techniques that can help you reduce the impact of pressure and boost your ability to cope. This will ultimately help prevent and navigate through a potential choke. Here are some tips.

Mental flexibility

You’re bound to have felt the pressure of your own expectations, but ditch the bravado and tough talk, it won’t help. Instead cultivate your mental flexibility so you can handle whatever comes your way. ‘Mental toughness’ is the wrong approach. It makes a great soundbite.

Consider an actor and the pressure of a live audience – right up until the moment of distraction from a mobile phone, at which point they forget their lines. Mental flexibility is about being relaxed, enabling you to handle whatever is thrown at you, especially the unexpected. It’s the ability to keep contact with the present moment more fully. You can switch quickly between strategies based on the demands of each situation and make decisions how to act. So, don’t go tense, go relaxed.


Golfers use this technique to frame the moments that matter I never missed a putt in my mind. Use the same technique when facing a moment of pressure at work. Prepare for various scenarios and envision them, allowing you to manage expectations and emotions more effectively. There is a significant body of scientific evidence supporting the power of visualisation.

When preparing for a big moment, rehearse it in your mind in as much clarity and detail as you can. What will it look and feel like? What will be the first words you say?

Practice for pressure

Athletes train for skill and pressure. Coaches introduce mental stressors by unexpectedly changing the conditions. For example, Michael Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, once stepped on and cracked Phelps’ goggles before a race, forcing him to compete ‘blind’. This experience proved useful when his goggles filled with water during an Olympic race: not only did he win the gold medal, but he also broke a world record.

Steve Jobs was known for his stellar presentations, but also for the amount of practice beforehand. Rehearsal is important, whether you’re alone in your office or in front of a crowd. You can raise the stakes by switching off your computer, forcing yourself to continue without your supporting slides.

Develop a pre-performance routine

Rafael Nadal has an elaborate 12-step routine when taking a serve. A pre-performance routine can help you clear your mind, get into the moment, ground yourself and set the autopilot. You might develop a short ritual, such as a breathing exercise or sipping a favourite tea to get you in the right mindset to tackle those first moments to settle yourself.

Don’t think, just do

Don’t overthink in the moment, you’ll get paralysis by analysis and focus too much on every aspect of a movement. In the minutes before a race, Usain Bolt said he thought about anything else than the race, until the moment he heard ‘on your marks’. No matter how much pressure, I never thought about it, because it starts creeping in and plays with your mind. That’s why I clown around before a race. I’m relaxed, I enjoy myself.

Expect the unexpected and rationalise the bumps along the way

It’s important to put your performance into perspective, so the anticipated results don’t overwhelm your ability to perform. Frame the big moment into perspective as ‘the long view’, putting immediate pressure in the context of the big picture which can help you minimise importance of a single event becoming overwhelming.

Unexpected events throw us all off course by taking away our sense of control over the situation. Any deviation from the normal or a slight change in circumstance can make us anxious, distorting our ability to think clearly. In reality, you cannot avoid the unexpected, so think in advance about ‘frequently awkward questions’, what could be the sticky moments, and create a solution in your mind using ‘What-if?’ scenarios to be less startled by the unexpected. 

Label your feelings more accurately

When you’re under pressure, you might become overwhelmed by your feelings which can trigger your automatic fight-or-flight response, which is unhelpful to getting to a steady state. Instead of catastrophising about these feelings or trying to suppress them, increase your emotional vocabulary so that you can describe your feelings with more accuracy and nuance. This will help you to choose a more helpful coping mechanism for that feeling.

Successful people don’t thrive under pressure, they just don’t let pressure impact their performance. They refuse to be overwhelmed by it. A successful person mitigates the negative effects of pressure on how it makes them feel. 

Reframe anxiety as excitement

A study by Harvard Business School’s Alison Brooks found that people who see pressure situations as an opportunity and not a threat perform better. You don’t actually change the surroundings causing negative emotions, but instead try to alter your understanding of the circumstances – a self-talk adopting an opportunity mindset as opposed to a threat mindset.

Brooks’ study found out that people who talked about being excited outperformed those who talked about being calm or were told to try to remain calm. Instead of trying to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ the smarter strategy is to force yourself to make the more subtle, achievable mental shift from nervousness to excitement.

Draw energy from past successes

Remembering a time when you were able to deal with a similar challenge successfully helps you think about the behaviours and actions that helped previously. It primes you to stay positive with actions that help turn it into a positive outcome.

You cannot predict the future, but you can plan for it. You cannot control uncertain outcomes but aim to be less dependent on the outcomes and put more focus on the effort to steer the outcome. 


We all face situations where we need to perform under pressure. It’s not the situation, but rather how we react to it that determines whether we are successful in achieving the desired outcomes or not.

Will Jordan will succeed in the final on Saturday not because of pressure but despite it. He won’t let pressure impact his performance by refusing to be overwhelmed by it. He will frame any anxiety as excitement, seeing the pressure situation as an opportunity and not a threat which leads to better performance.  

Mental flexibility and visualisation will enable him to focus his energy on things which are under his control, aligning his actions with the work needed to get him there – to become a World Champion. Thinking correctly under pressure creates a winning mentality.

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