Under Pressure? Don’t Get Rattled.

I noticed another lesson in the Olympics last night. I watched the 400m relays and saw the U.S. men’s and women’s teams disqualified for dropping the baton. The men quit running after the drop, but the women’s team anchor Lauryn Williams picked up the baton and ran the rest of the race. It was hard to watch the drops and the runners’ responses, knowing how hard the athletes had trained and that one slip terminated any hope of winning. I wondered if the women knew that the men had dropped the baton and, if so, if they were shaken by their teammates’ error.

Coverage cut next to the women’s 10m platform diving. Although the Chinese divers were considered almost a lock for gold and silver, the story behind the competition was about Laura Wilkinson, the 30-year old diver hoping to wrest a medal from competitors about half her age in this, her last competition. She’d injured her wrist and right tricep, and her dives were sufficient only to put her in 9th place. What I noticed (as an ignorant viewer, not even a diving enthusiast) was her spirit and composure. Although she was clearly disappointed that her dives earned such low scores, each time she mounted the platform, she smiled genuinely and gave each dive her all.

What do these sketches have to do with lawyers? As I watched the competitions last night, I started thinking about one of my former clients — let’s call her Jane. When we began working together, she was second-guessing herself at every turn. Jane had a rocky start in practice and had made some mistakes. She perceived that everyone was waiting for her to fail, and she was determined not to fail. (Did you catch that? She was determined not to fail, not determined to succeed.) Her hours were being sliced because she spent so much time trying to avoid making mistakes, and yet she made them anyway. She was discouraged, frustrated, and fearful. And yet, Jane knew she’d performed well in the past and wanted to do so again.

Before we began working together, Jane had already come to recognize what she called “the clutch,” the sense of fear and inadequacy that paralyzed her. When in the grips of “the clutch,” Jane found it difficult to write for fear of saying the wrong thing. She found it difficult to edit, for fear of missing mistakes. And even though she’s articulate and well-spoken, she found herself stuttering and talking in circles. The harder she tried not to make these mistakes, the worse things seemed to get. I suggested to Jane that trying to perform well while in the clutch was unlikely to work, because the clutch is simply too strong. Our work focused on learning how to get out of the clutch. Here are a few ideas Jane implemented:

1. Stop and recognize the clutch. Name it. There is innate power in recognizing what’s happening.

2. Breathe. It sounds simple, but taking a few deep breaths kicks off a string of positive physiological changes that work to counteract the effects of the clutch.

3. Figure out what exactly is going on in the moment. What needs to be done? What is in incoming data? What is the next right step?

4. Select and take an action. The next right step can be as small as going to get a cup of coffee or stretching. It could be choosing to edit a brief by reading it out loud, which draws on a different part of the brain and increases the chances of catching typos and errors of grammar and logic. Or it might be taking another deep breath, adjusting to assume a more powerful stance, and moving forward with an oral presentation.

When Jane learned to take these steps, she found that she was usually able to meet the demands of the moment. Within a couple of months she was performing on a higher level, feeling much better about herself and her work, and sufficiently confident to make a move just a few months later to a better-fitting practice. She tells me that “the clutch” still shows up sometimes, but that she is now able to recognize it and deal with it, and it’s no longer the paralyzer that it once was for her.

Returning to the Olympics, I’m not suggesting, of course, the the relay runners “just” got rattled, and the results show that grace under pressure won’t necessarily lead to a gold medal, either literally or figuratively. Training, physical conditioning, and skill play huge roles. However, knowing how to escape “the clutch” increases the opportunity for training, conditioning, and skill to shine through.

Julie A. Fleming-Brown, J.D., A.C.C. has coached countless lawyers, has practiced law for over 15 years, speaks for bar associations and law firms, and publishes a weekly email newsletter.