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The privilege of pressure

When asked how it felt to be playing in her first U.S. Open, Billie Jean King (a pioneer in women’s tennis winning 39 Grand Slam titles in singles and doubles), reportedly responded with this quotation - “Pressure is a privilege.” It later became the title of a book.

Pressure is often viewed as a negative force in our lives… but human nature always demands that we are always searching for safety and an easy life. Undue pressure can be an enormous cause of stress but each challenge that comes along also presents important questions that test our character, our approach to our sport, and our approach to life: Do we dare to engage in the face of such pressures? Do we have the strength of mind to give it our all, knowing full well that we may fall visibly short? Do we have what it takes to step up to the stresses of a sporting life? To have any chance of a career in professional sport it is essential to find a way to respond to all of these questions with a meaningful and resounding, “yes.”

If you want to win in sport you can’t skirt around pressures by playing it safe…. you can’t win if you don’t play, you have to step into the ring, lean into the punches, and do everything you can to come out on top. With that in mind, here are three important reasons that pressure can help you perform:

  1. Pressure makes you better - . They say “necessity is the mother of invention.” It can also be argued that “pressure is the mother of performance.” Why does this work? Because it is widely accepted that we must put ourselves into unfamiliar situations to truly develop. Hence the popular quote that, “Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone.” When challenges rear their heads we are forced to apply all the knowledge and skill that we can muster. If we have prepared properly, through training, practice, and ongoing sincere effort, we can rely on that training in challenging times to help us be our at our very best.

  2. Pressure challenges us to stay honest - Pressure makes us better because we are forced to be the best versions of ourselves. But it doesn’t make us better if we sacrifice our character or shortcut the learning process. You either win with integrity or you don’t win at all. And, if you fail – you fail having stood firmly by your principles. Being able to look yourself squarely in the mirror is always a little bit of a win, even when it accompanies a loss. Embrace pressure as a challenge to uphold your character.

  3. Pressure helps us engage with life more meaningfully - We can’t experience the ultimate joys of high achievement if we don’t embrace all aspects of our life - both the ups and the downs. Arguably, the “ups” are less sweet if the “downs” don’t test us in some way. There is a well-known quote that speaks to this point: “Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.” If the climb is too easy, will we appreciate the view from the summit? If we consistently take the easy route, we consistently deprive ourselves of the pride of having worked and triumphed – and we also miss out on the lessons waiting for us in times of failure.

Being a racing driver is a dream held by many people but only the lucky few have the opportunity to pursue a professional career in motorsport… they are privileged. That privilege brings with it pressure - Pressure of expectation. Pressure to get it right. Pressure not to make mistakes. Pressure to deliver results. Pressure from other competitors. Pressure from home. Pressure from sponsors. Pressure to stand out…. these are some of the pressures of privilege. Many people experience a different kind of pressure… and theirs is much more pressing. Pressure to find enough to eat. Pressure to find shelter. Pressure to avoid abuse. Pressure to escape repression. Pressure to find refuge. Pressure to stay safe. Pressure to stay alive. These are not the pressures of privilege. They’re different. And they’re sadly still too common. For many of these people these pressures are largely out of their control.

The point here is….

Pressure depends a lot on your perspective. It’s something we perceive from our life’s experience and our position in the world. The pressures of deprivation are often based on basic survival and safety needs. They are very rarely pressures we face by choice. Pursuing a career in motorsport we are far more likely to be dealing with the pressures that result from a privileged position. These pressures are still real, but they’re less pressing. Your survival and safety needs are likely to be very well taken care of. Your pressures relate to psychological and social needs for achievement, the need to be valued, to achieve a status, and to achieve success.

How can you start to see pressure as a privilege?

First of all pause for a moment and see the privileges that you have now and will have going forward in your sport. Now look at your pressures. Does it change your perspective and perception of the pressure you feel? If it does, here are some pointers to follow when you start to feel the pressures of privilege:

  • Pause… and look at your situation.

  • Observe the privileges. Take perspective. Absorb a sense of gratitude.

  • Take 5 deep, slow breaths. Now look at the pressure you were feeling and the challenges in front of you.

  • Choose the first thing you need to do… “What’s right now?”

  • Choose your attitude.

  • Go do what you need to do – to the best of your capability.

  • As you do the thing you need to do, keep remembering how fortunate you are to be dealing with this kind of pressure.


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