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When the Pressure's On: The Secret to Winning When You Can't Afford to Lose

When the Pressure's On: The Secret to Winning When You Can't Afford to Lose

by Louis S. Csoka

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Do you have what it takes?

At the highest level of any pursuit, the difference between the two top performers in a contest is always mental. One holds it together—while the other falls apart. The same is true in business. Whether you are confronting a crisis, making a pitch, negotiating a deal, or facing a deadline,


Do you have what it takes?

At the highest level of any pursuit, the difference between the two top performers in a contest is always mental. One holds it together—while the other falls apart. The same is true in business. Whether you are confronting a crisis, making a pitch, negotiating a deal, or facing a deadline, your mindset can give you the edge.

When the Pressure’s On brings peak performance principles to the boardroom, revealing five core mental skills that enable professionals to excel while under duress:

Goal Setting—become mission-driven

Adaptive Thinking—replace negative thoughts with positive ones

Stress/Energy Management—keep your cool no matter what

Attention Control—maintain focus despite distractions

Imagery—see success before it happens

Together, the skills form the core of this complete brain-training program, which is packed with guidelines, examples, exercises, assessments, and the latest advances in biofeedback and neuroscience. By learning to harness the power of your mind, you’ll achieve extraordinary results when it matters most.

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When The Pressure's On

The Secret to Winning When You Can't Afford to Lose

By Louis S. Csoka


Copyright © 2016 Louis S. Csoka
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8144-3611-0



WHAT DOES IT TAKE to be extraordinary?

Extraordinary people possess a state of mind and emotional calm that transcend the pressures and challenges of life. They understand the mind–body connection and have trained themselves to possess the mental skills that make it possible to go from good to great. They focus on performance. To attain all this, you must first develop a growth mindset.

As we grow up, we adopt one of two mindsets. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck describes these mindsets as either fixed or growth-oriented. In a fixed mindset, whatever skills, intelligence, or personality traits we happen to have are believed to be concrete and are not under our control. If you're not inherently smart, tough luck! We are either good at something or not. Interestingly, it is with the best of intentions that a fixed mindset is reinforced; when children are told how smart they are after completing a math problem, they become much more likely to give up when given an unsolvable math problem. It seems that an association between intelligence and outcome is developed (i.e., solving the math problem), instead of the hard work involved in completing the task. This is where the growth mindset is built. In Dweck's research, when she highlighted how hard the children must have worked to solve a problem, they stayed with the task much longer than the "smart" group. You might be wondering how this could be. Well, with a growth mindset, abilities and traits are fluid, and they change based on our efforts. As we develop a growth mindset, we feel more in control of our own destiny and are willing to work hard to try to make success occur. Interestingly, no one is born with a fixed mindset; it is our environments and thoughts that shape our outlooks.

In a classic experiment, Dweck and her colleagues asked young children to complete a set of math problems. After the children finished a preliminary test, the researchers told one group that they must be extremely smart, whereas they told the other group that they must have worked really hard. The results on subsequent (and purposefully unsolvable) tests were remarkable. Children who were told how smart they were gave up almost immediately on the unsolvable problems, while the "hard work" group kept at it for a significant amount of time. It seems that if you are told that you are naturally smart, you associate intelligence with success. Therefore, when you are not successful, you must lack intelligence. That is a hard pill to swallow for a young child! On the other hand, being told that hard work leads to success helps children (or anyone, as you will learn) persevere in difficult situations since they associate their efforts with a successful outcome. One thought, one belief, can change our entire outlook.

What we do in our lives is determined by what we think and how we think. For instance, scientists, researchers, and doctors all used to agree that it was physiologically impossible for humans to break the four-minute-mile record. But once Roger Bannister did it in 1954, twenty-four others broke the four-minute-mile record in the following eight months. Once the possibility was open, those who were capable suddenly could achieve what had always seemed impossible.

One small moment, event, or action can be the tipping point for making the biggest changes. I like to call it going the extra degree. Middle school students learn that at 211 degrees, water is hot, but at 212 degrees, water boils and turns to steam. All it takes to go from water to power is one degree. The same is true for you. What are you capable of? What is the one degree that will take you to another level to make extraordinary things happen?


The motto "Be, Know, Do" is a simple yet elegant framework that was developed at West Point and used by the U.S. Army. Traditional corporate learning models have focused primarily on "Know" and "Do." For example, education programs are designed to increase knowledge, and training programs aim to change behavior.

The "Be, Know, Do" framework is different because of that third component: Be. I have found in many organizations a reluctance to even address this element of leadership. Yet peak performance is all about the Be. You must develop yourself as an individual. You must invest in your thoughts to achieve the greatest effect.

Real motivation for success is internal, and it is something you must develop for yourself. You have two choices: Do more of the same things others are doing and do them better, or do something new and different. To change, you have to get out of your comfort zone. No new results come from old practices!

This is why self-awareness, self-control, and self-management are essential for achieving exceptional performance. The competencies in my Peak Performance Model are at the heart of self-awareness, self-control, and self-mastery. Gaining a competitive edge is really in your hands.

You can train somebody all day long how to do things the best way, but she has to reach that extra degree on her own: she needs to be aware of what she is thinking and regulate how she is reacting. Some naysayers say a glass-half-full mentality is worthless in the real world. But they do not know the science behind the methodology. When you receive a more in-depth education of how positive thinking affects you physiologically and neurologically, and how negative thinking triggers heightened arousal and the stress response, you begin to believe.

The brain is a powerful organ, and you can let it control you, or you can control it. If you have not learned how to control your mindset, you leave yourself open to distraction by any number of stressors. Once a situation is perceived as a threat, the stress response affects your cognitive function, analytical abilities, and the ability to think clearly and rationally, and your body physically tenses. All negative thinking is detrimental. Our minds and bodies are inherently linked with our behavior, influenced by our expectations. So if your brain anticipates only undesirable outcomes and focuses on what is wrong, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it will direct your body into more danger or activities that reinforce the false perception. On the other hand, if we remain calm and positive, our brains will be able to stay clear, and quick thinking will allow us to respond and perform effectively.

Stress compromises your ability to achieve in any given situation. Knowing how to control that stress and instead focus on the goal is key to becoming a peak performer.

Physically when we experience stress, we feel anxious and breathless. If it really makes your anxiety go through the roof, stress can set off a panic attack. When you have gone through extensive physical training, as many athletes do, you can often fall back on your physical prowess during times of stress and distraction. This will be able to get you through those moments, but only to a certain extent. At some point in our lives, all of us face times when even physical preparedness is not enough to get us over the stress. In these instances, it is our winning mindset — that is, our determination, focus, and perseverance — that helps us succeed.

When you learn how to control your thinking, you can achieve extraordinary results. And I am not talking about the ability to multitask. Inversely, it turns out your achievements are directly determined by how targeted you can make your focus, not how many things you can focus on at once (see Chapter 7).

While you can teach people what they need to know to do well in their careers or sports, and you can train them to do things in a certain way, to be truly successful they must explore themselves and understand how they can develop their abilities to be successful. It takes all three components, Be, Know, and Do, and the first is crucial to success.

If you cannot find the positive in a situation, it is time to look at it from a different perspective. Put yourself in a position to gain success. If you let yourself succumb to fear and worry, it undermines motivation.

For example, say a college student has to take a math class, but he feels as if he is bad at math and is afraid he will fail the class. How does such a simple thing as thinking a few negative thoughts manifest itself in real life? This person will go to the class and sit in the back because he is not confident in his abilities and does not want to be called on. He will not listen to the lecture, because what's the point? He is not going to "get it" anyway. He will not ask questions for fear of being ridiculed. All of these actions, or inactions, set him up for what he is the most fearful of: failing. How you feel about a situation highly influences how you will achieve in that situation.

So how do you change your mindset, and allow the Be to take over? How can you react in a situation where you historically have felt nervous and hesitant and stressed, and achieve great things?

We start by turning around a situation that you are looking to change. Ask yourself the following question: If a close friend or family member was facing a similar challenge or situation, how would you advise her or him to solve it? You would be surprised at how the ideas start to flow.

Then ask yourself: Now why can't I use those ideas for me?

What has your thinking gotten you up to this point? Failure? A glass-half-empty mindset? Open yourself up to the possibility that you are not doing all you can to achieve your goals.


I have seen some big successes from our company's work with veterans. As a retired U.S. Army colonel and Vietnam veteran, it is very important to me that we help our servicemen and servicewomen as much as we can.

At Apex Performance, our programs with veterans help soldiers transition from the military to civilian careers. Many of them worry they will not know how to do a job well, or that they do not have the right background or training for the job. All of this creates stress. When they were in the military, they did not have to worry about knowing how to do a job because they were provided training. Many of them thought they would be in the military forever until an injury meant they could no longer serve.

The trainers at Apex are able to give the veterans a different kind of message than what has been stopping them from moving on. They convey to them that, as former soldiers, they are coming in with a lot of strengths. We tell them, "You have the advantage. You understand leadership from a whole different perspective. You have skills you can't learn in a book, and you've got experience other people don't have." After learning how to manage their thoughts, the way they look at a situation, their emotions, and their stressors, they improve their performance.

For some, transitioning to the civilian world also means dealing with the effects of a traumatic brain injury (TBI) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many come in discouraged by the effects of these conditions, but we tell them how powerful the brain is. Just because you have TBI or PTSD does not mean you cannot ace the test or find a way to succeed. You can retrain the brain to make up for what was lost.

The power of the human brain goes far beyond positive thinking. We show the inspiring story of Jody Miller to veterans, people with TBI, or warriors and athletes who have not been diagnosed with brain injuries but show symptoms.

Jody Miller was a typical, healthy, active toddler. Then, shortly after her third birthday, she began having debilitating seizures. Diagnosed with Rasmussen's syndrome, she eventually lost control of her left side and was having seizures so often she could not function normally. Her pediatric neurologist determined the best treatment was to surgically remove the entire right half of Jody's brain. This sounded like a drastic measure, but if it would help Jody, her parents were willing to give their permission for the surgery.

Within days of the surgery, Jody was walking and talking. By using exercises to train the left part of her brain to control the left side of her body, Jody now runs, plays, and dances just like the other children at her school. There is minimal evidence of her previous paralysis.

Jody is a living example of the brain's ability to compensate, to make new connections, and to adapt after trauma. After a brain injury, you are still able to do what you have always done; you might just have to do it differently.

The same ability to compensate is true for amputees. It is important for them to know they can still get from point A to point B rather than giving up. It might take prosthetics or devices and learning how to adapt to a new situation, but our brains give us the ability to adjust and thrive and be successful. The power of the brain to adapt plays a huge part in our ability to overcome what life throws at us. Until you have achieved the highest level of control possible over your thoughts, feelings, and actions, you cannot hope to achieve peak performance levels. One of the key elements of self-mastery is fully recognizing what you can and cannot control. Peak performers put all their energy and effort into what they can control, while letting go of the things they have no control over.

Here is a story I use to demonstrate this theory. One evening, an elderly Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside all people. He said, "My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us. One is evil. It is fear, anger, jealousy, regret, greed, self-pity, guilt, resentment, superiority, and ego. It carries anxiety, concern, uncertainty, indecision, and inaction.

"The other wolf is good. It is joy, peace, hope, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, truth, compassion, and faith. It brings, calm, conviction, confidence, enthusiasm, and action."

The grandson thought about it for a moment, then meekly asked his grandfather, "Which wolf wins?"

The old Cherokee replied, "The one you feed."

Courage is not the absence of fear — it is the realization that something else is more important. Confidence, positive thinking, and understanding that we have the power inside us to change ourselves and change our outcomes can make a difference in our performance. All that preparation leads you to the point to be ready for the life-changing moment that makes the biggest impact, that one defining moment that takes you to another level.

It does not matter where you are in your life; you can rewire your brain and function in ways you never thought you could. By learning the skills necessary to set goals and focus your attention, you will be able to make good decisions even during stressful times and perform at your best under intense pressure. So let's assess where your mental strengths are. Then I will walk you through the specific steps to improving them that I developed through my own experiences and research.



THE FRAMEWORK WE USE for teaching and developing peak performance mental skills was derived from an extensive search of the literature on peak performance found in sports and performance psychology journals, by studying exceptional performers in extreme conditions, and through our own experience with the peak performers we have helped develop over the years. This model was derived by investigating not only what peak performers do in extreme conditions but also how they do it from a mental perspective. Our peak performance framework has five parts, which are referred to as core mental skills: goal setting, adaptive thinking, stress and energy management, attention control, and imagery.

Before I discuss each of these skills, what they mean, how they can be developed, and their impact on performance and life in general, I would like you to take an assessment I call a Desired Behaviors Inventory, which will identify what your strengths are and where you could use some work. You may already use imagery or goal setting, or you may find that you have not used these tools as effectively as you could and will be able to pick out the areas that need the most work as you read through this section. As you spend time taking this assessment, focus on both the areas you know you need to work on and skills you already use, so you can continue doing what works. Then, at the end of the book, reflect on what you still need to practice and work on.


Excerpted from When The Pressure's On by Louis S. Csoka. Copyright © 2016 Louis S. Csoka. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

LOUIS S. CSOKA, PH.D. has specialized in teaching performance under pressure for more than 30 years. He is President of Apex Performance, which trains clients ranging from Fortune 500 companies to professional athletes. As a Professor of Psychology & Leadership at West Point, he adapted sports psychology to the demands of the military and founded the school’s pioneering Center for Enhanced Performance.

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