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Under Pressure

In an excerpt from his new book, The Power of Pressure, Dane Jensen, BCom’04, writes about dealing with pressure in the moment and over the long haul.
Dane Jensen
Dane Jensen

Are you feeling a lot of pressure these days? Join the club. Every day, we’re faced with various degrees of pressure. Sometimes it’s quick and intense. Sometimes it drags on and on . . . and drags us down.

But what if pressure wasn’t the problem. What if it was the solution that allowed us to perform better at work and everywhere else? In The Power of Pressure, Dane Jensen makes that case.

Jensen is CEO of Toronto-based Third Factor, where he works with leaders, athletes and coaches to become more effective and resilient. He also teaches at Smith. Over the last few years, Jensen has interviewed more than a thousand people about how they’ve dealt with high-pressure situations—everything from the stress of make-or-break job interviews to the sudden fear of being caught too far from shore while swimming in the ocean.

The stories of several people Jensen interviewed make it into the book. They include Curt Cronin, a U.S. navy SEAL who had to make quick decisions under enemy fire, and Jeremiah Brown (Queen’s Executive Education, 2018), an unlikely Canadian Olympian. In this book excerpt (starting below), Jensen uses Brown’s story to explain two types of pressure—long-haul pressure and peak pressure—and the importance of being able to handle both.

When we think about pressure, we typically think about moments: Curt Cronin taking enemy fire on deployment, a big sales presentation we need to nail to keep our career on track, a high-stakes exam that will impact where we go to university. But there’s another form of pressure.

In 2019, with the Toronto Raptors up 3–1 in a best-of-seven series against the defending champion Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, Kyle Lowry sat at a press conference and was asked what pressure meant to him. A perennial all-star, and the de facto captain of the Raptors, Lowry was in the midst of one of the highest-pressure periods of his professional life. Before the season, the Raptors had traded his fellow star and best friend DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio in exchange for Kawhi Leonard, an injured superstar whom most saw (rightly, it turned out) as a hired gun brought in for one season to lead the team to victory. The team had asked Lowry to swallow the loss of his friend and surrender leadership of a team that had been “his” for the past five playoff seasons in service of hopefully breaking through to the biggest stage. Lowry had done all of that and, led by Kawhi, the team was on the verge of doing the impossible: beating the Warriors to secure Toronto’s first-ever NBA Championship. On the eve of his first shot at a league championship, here is what Lowry told reporters pressure means to him:

"What my mom had to go through, what my grandmother had to go through, feeding myself, my brother, my cousin, my little cousin, my other little cousins. Going to work, getting up at five in the morning and [still] having a bowl of cereal sitting in the refrigerator with some milk [for me]. Being able to provide for me, my brother and my family. That’s pressure. That’s pressure to me."

In what had to be one of the highest-pressure moments of Lowry’s life, he didn’t take the expected route when asked about pressure. He talked about enduring pressure over time. And while Lowry didn’t bring home the championship in Game 5, he delivered an all-time performance in Game 6, scoring the Raptors’ first 11 points to establish an early 11–2 lead, and eventually putting up 26 points and 10 rebounds to bring the first NBA Championship to Canada in the Raptors’ 25th season. This is someone who understands pressure.

Pressure comes in many flavors. Importance, uncertainty, and volume can combine in an almost infinite number of ways. Sometimes, with enough importance, even the tiniest bit of uncertainty can create pressure. Other times, the sheer volume of what we're navigating creates pressure even if each individual item isn’t hugely important to us. But broadly speaking, there are two major ways pressure manifests that we’ll examine over the remainder of the book: peak pressure moments, like Lowry’s performance in Game 6, and the long haul of pressure over time.

The long haul

Jeremiah Brown is an unlikely Olympian. After graduating from university with a torn labrum that had ended his college football career, he moved back in with his parents. On August 17, 2008, he sat on his parents’ couch and watched, enraptured, as the Canadian men’s eight rowing crew triumphed over the British and American rowers to bring home gold. His athletic spirit rekindled, he made a bold promise to himself: “I will be on that podium in four years in London.” There was only one problem: outside of a single disastrous one-hour experiment in a four-man boat the year before, he had never set foot in a rowing shell.

That small inconvenience did not hold Brown back. He found a job at TD Bank in Victoria, British Columbia—2,800 miles across the country and the home of the national team’s training center. By a stroke of luck, at his company’s holiday party in December 2008, he was pointed toward Doug White, the head coach of the Victoria City Rowing Club. When I sat down with Brown, he talked about how pivotal that first meeting with White was: “I remember looking at this guy with this baseball, leathery face, creased and wrinkled from all those years coaching on the water, and feeling like, I need this guy to believe in me. Because he knows what he’s talking about.” For the first time, Brown put into words what he was trying to achieve. “Doug looked at me, and he said, ‘Jeremiah, what do you intend to do in this sport?’ And for the first time, I vocalized it: ‘Doug, I want to go to the Olympics, and I want to win a gold medal.’ I just threw down the gauntlet.” Staring across the table at a naive 22-year-old who had never taken a proper rowing stroke, White simply said, “Well, we don’t have a lot of time. We better get to work.”

“Rowing is a pain game,” Brown would tell me later. And the period that followed was definitely one of pain—physical and psychological. He would wake up at 4:30 a.m., rolling out of a warm bed to make the icy drive to Elk Lake. In the dead of winter at 5:30 a.m., the rowers were on the water with LED lights affixed to their boats, bobbing in the pitch black. Following a grueling workout he would sprint to work, often arriving last, to the displeasure of his new boss. At lunch he would head down to the YMCA to get in a second workout, returning to work dripping with sweat. And finally, at the end of the day, he would head home, exhausted, to his partner, Amy, and their young son, Ethan.

In the midst of this demanding routine, his relationship with Amy unraveled. It was gut-wrenching and only added another layer of pressure to Brown’s life. Not only was he holding down a full-time job and training twice a day, he was a single dad half the time and feeling profound guilt the other half.

The first major milestone on the path to Olympic glory was the National Championships in 2010. An exhausting period of increased training with White paid off: Brown finished second to Mike Braithwaite and nabbed a “D-Card” that entitled him to national development funding as an elite athlete. This was the golden ticket. The minimal funds it provided were just enough to allow Brown to take a leave of absence from his job at the bank and move to a full-time training regimen. Finishing second at Nationals also accomplished something else: it put him squarely on the radar of men’s national team head coach Mike Spracklen, who, in January of 2011, pulled Brown into the National Team training group.

Spracklen was a proven winner who had guided teams to the podium at six different Olympic Games. He was also the owner of a well-earned reputation for working athletes harder than they could possibly imagine. The uptick in training volume was immediate and brutal. Spracklen didn’t believe in pacing in training—he demanded that every workout be done at full intensity. In the damp Victoria climate, the blood blisters on Brown’s hands never turned to callouses. To avoid coating the handles of his oars with a mixture of blood and blister serum, he would Krazy Glue his wounds closed every day before his first training session. He existed under a constant cloud of physical pain—between the blisters on his hands and torn tendon sheaths in his fingers that couldn’t fully heal without Brown taking a rest that would essentially disqualify him from competing for a seat in the boat, he was a mess.

But it was the psychological pressure that was the killer. With eight seats in the boat that would compete in 2012, and 20 rowers training with the National Team program, there was intense competition within the ranks, something that Spracklen encouraged. As they neared major competitions, they would routinely engage in “seat races” where one rower would be switched out of the boat for another to see what happened to the boat’s time. If the boat got faster after you were swapped out, well . . . that wasn’t good for you. Almost no one was safe, and the coach used the uncertainty around placement in the boat to fuel the competitive fire of the athletes.

“Almost without exception, high performers will tell you that the pressure of anticipation is worse than the pressure of performance.”

The three grueling years Brown endured between his move to Victoria and the eventual London 2012 Games are an example of what I call the “long haul”: a period of intense volume and pressure that is grinding and unrelenting. Often, the long haul is a period, like Brown’s, that is building toward a peak pressure moment. In his case, that was the Olympic Games; for others, it could be months of work to secure a big client, the grind of developing and launching a new product, or preparing for a big presentation at a conference or a professional exam.

In other cases, long periods of pressure aren’t building toward anything—they simply exist. This type of long haul can come on gradually, as additional sources of pressure are slowly layered on, one by one, until you realize you are no longer sleeping well at night or are feeling emotionally overwhelmed, unable to focus. Instead of spontaneously resolving as it reaches a peak, the pressure may gradually abate as the situations you are facing start to resolve.

So, in the midst of the pressure of the long haul, what’s our goal? We might aspire to learn to love these periods—to not just endure but enjoy the pressure of the grind. Sometimes that’s possible. Often, however, it’s not realistic. When pressure is visited upon us for a long period of time, it can be profoundly uncomfortable and unenjoyable, regardless of how we approach it. Yet it is possible to not just endure these periods but actually become committed to navigating them, to see them as meaningful challenges we can rise to, and, ultimately, to emerge with th satisfaction that we were equal to the challenge. We may not wish to repeat the test, but deep down we can feel a sense of pride in our resilience, confidence that we can handle whatever life throws at us, and a feeling that we are better or stronger than we were before.

“It was bigger than rowing for me. It was about my will—it was a test of my will,” said Brown as we sat in a hotel in Calgary six years later. He was in the midst of embracing another pressure-filled journey—this time setting his sights on becoming a world-class professional speaker. I had just watched him bring a room of 200 business executives to their feet, marveling at what he had endured and accomplished in just three years. “I knew if I can do this, I can do anything. And because I went all in with my chips, the price of not seeing it through would have been too great for me. I would feel tremendous regret.”

Dane Jensen's book: The Power of Pressure

In short, the long haul may not be enjoyable, but with the right tools it can be meaningful and developmental.  Our ability to look back on periods of great pressure free from regret and with admiration for ourselves is a hallmark
of a life well lived and a vital source of the healthy self-esteem that leads to deep-seated satisfaction and contentment.

Peak pressure moments

A peak pressure moment is just that: a moment. It could be a footrace lasting 10 seconds or a professional exam lasting several hours, but it has a beginning and—more importantly—a well-defined conclusion with a clear range of outcomes. You pass the exam, or you don’t. You hit your time in the race, or you don’t. The sales pitch is successful, or it’s not.

Brown’s peak pressure moment arrived at the 2012 Olympic Games. His unlikely gambit had paid off: three bloody, backbreaking years after taking his first stroke he was heading to London in the men’s eight boat. Just like that, the long haul was over and it was performance time. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

The top eight teams in the world qualify for the Olympics. At the Olympics, they are divided into two heats of four. The winner of each heat automatically advances to the finals, while the remaining six boats race in what is known as a repechage, or “rep.” Of the six boats in the rep, the top four join the winners of the heats in a six-boat final for all the marbles.

Canada came into the Games ranked third in the world and full of confidence. They had set a new world record at the World Cup in Lucerne three months before the Games. They knew they could win it all.

And they promptly finished dead last in their heat. Bursting with nervous energy, they delivered a season-worst time, limping in a full 12 seconds after the winners—an absolute eternity in rowing. “People were already leaving the grandstands to use the washroom before the next race,” Brown remembers. “I was never more mortified in my life.”

When I asked Brown about the most pressure he had ever been under, this was the period he chose—between bombing in the heat and competing in the Olympic final three days later. Following an almost unimaginable result in the heat, Brown descended into “a tornado of thinking,” he recalls. “You want to be fired up, and you want to come back and show the world what you’re all about. But no, I felt small. I felt like it was going to be very difficult to right the ship.” He found himself watching civilians in the Olympic Village and dreaming of an escape—how comforting it would be to simply be living a normal life, laughing over dinner and watching the events on TV. He contemplated how it could have all gone wrong after all the pain and suffering the team had gone through, how thoroughly they had prepared. He considered what he would do if they repeated their poor performance in the rep and failed to qualify for the finals, a plan that involved disappearing to Portugal and living out a quiet, unremarkable life.

His coach did nothing to alleviate the pressure. As the team headed into their boat at the rep, he looked at Brown and said, “Think about your son, Jeremiah. He doesn’t want his dad to let him down, does he?” With a bolt of searing anger at Spracklen for putting this additional weight on him, Brown pushed off with his boat. The coxswain, who acts as a coach in the water, ultimately set things right: “It’s up to the nine guys in this boat right now. We’re going to do it for each other—no one else.”

And they did. Rebounding from their brutal result in the heat, they rowed to a second-place finish in the rep, crossing the line half a second behind Great Britain. The immense pressure of imminent failure was off, and the pressure of the upcoming final began to build. For Brown, the waiting was excruciating: “It’s fatiguing even thinking about the moments leading up to the race. The fatigue would often set in for me 48 hours before. Sweaty palms, elevated heart rate, shallow breathing. All those things would strike me so early, so I have so many memories of the fatigue, of expectation, and the foreshadowing of the pain to come. I think we all have levels of resilience and endurance, and I was at my limit a lot of that time.”

Swimming in adrenaline and cortisol, Brown endured the minutiae of the final approach minute by minute—sharing silent elevator rides down to the dining hall with teammates, forcing himself to chew and swallow food with no appetite, and trying to imagine the same crushing pressure bearing down on his opponents, wondering how they would endure and taking some cold comfort in suspecting that they might not.

And then the moment arrived. Six boats lined up. Six final minutes of pain to get a verdict on whether all of the suffering had been worth it. The perfect race would require “a water rescue and eight stretchers at the finish line,” Spracklen had once said. Every man in the boat knew that was what was required: maximal pain, maximal effort. The starting gun sounded and the referendum began. At 500 meters they were in third place—hundredths of a second ahead of the Netherlands. They kept pounding until the coxswain yelled, “Two minutes to go here, boys!” with a quarter boat-length separating them from the Germans and Great Britain. Then there were 250 meters left—around 30 strokes. With 10 shuddering, powerful bursts they overtook the Brits and by sheer force of will held on for the next 20 strokes. Silver for Canada. A glorious end to a remarkable journey.

Peak pressure moments are different from the long haul. When they end, so does the pressure. There is no long tail-off. For Brown, the pressure was immediately replaced by ecstasy, but that’s not always the case. Some peak pressure moments don’t go our way and the pressure is replaced by sadness, anger, or grief. But either way, it’s no longer pressure.

In peak pressure moments, the goal is simple: perform. Get out everything you are capable of when you need it most. In sport, this is known as “performance on demand.” While over the long haul we define success as building confidence and the satisfaction of facing life’s challenges head-on, when it comes to peak pressure moments, success is about what you get out. It is not necessarily about winning or losing—in many cases that’s out of our control; it is, however, about performing to the peak of your abilities instead of shrinking from the moment.

While some peak pressure moments come on us without warning, most consist of two distinct phases: the pressure of anticipation and the pressure of performance. Almost without exception, high performers will tell you that the pressure of anticipation is worse than the pressure of performance. “Waiting is a disease,” Brown wrote. As a result, while you can apply them at any time, many of the techniques we’ll cover when talking about peak pressure moments are of highest value in the immediate anticipation of performance. This period—whether it’s the 10 seconds we have to steady ourselves as a patient requiring a lifesaving intervention moves from the ambulance to the ER bay, or the week before a big presentation—is the space in which we have the most opportunity to impact our eventual mental state during the performance itself. In most peak pressure moments, managing anticipation is managing pressure.

Being ambidextrous

The things that make us good at navigating the long haul aren’t the same as those that make us good at nailing our peak pressure moments. Some people can sustain performance through the long haul but struggle in a crisis, and a lot of elite athletes and Navy SEALs who are tuned up for performance on demand don’t have the most well-ordered or high-performing lives outside of their peak pressure moments.

If you can learn to be better at both performing in peak pressure moments and approaching the long haul with a sense of challenge, commitment, and motivation, you can become unstoppable. People who are “pressure ambidextrous” are set up to embrace the challenges that make for a rich, meaningful, and ultimately successful life.

Becoming ambidextrous is all about returning to the root causes of pressure: importance, uncertainty, and volume. While these manifest quite differently over the long haul and in peak pressure moments, the same three fundamental forces are at play—and by dealing with each of them in turn, we can transform our experience of pressure.

Excerpt from The Power of Pressure: Why Pressure Isn’t The Problem, It’s The Solution by Dane Jensen.
Copywrite 2021, HarperCollins.

When pressure strikes: “Will I make it?”

Dane Jensen tells us why he wrote a book about pressure and what he learned along the way.

Smith Magazine: How did writing The Power of Pressure come about?
Dane Jensen: I spend a lot of time talking to people about pressure and resilience. That's something I've been doing for more than a decade. The genesis for the book was this question I had: ‘What's the most pressure you've ever been under?’ I found that it was almost this magic portal, because no matter who you asked, there was a really interesting story on the other side. And that story was rooted in real wisdom and experience.

I came to realize two things: First, when people told me about the most pressure they’d ever been under, they were telling me about a moment that really mattered to them. It bent the arc of their lives, for better or worse, and how they handled it led to tremendous satisfaction or tremendous regret. Second, I started to see patterns in the causes of pressure. I thought, maybe there's something that we can learn from these critical moments.

What patterns did you find?
The stories I heard from people varied a lot. But there were three consistent patterns. The first was that every situation people told me about had an important outcome. Second, every situation carried a fair bit of uncertainty. Will it happen? Won't it happen? Will I make it? And finally, many situations incorporated an element of volume—the sheer number of tasks, decisions or distractions that surrounded that important, uncertain outcome. If we can learn to relate to those three things in a productive way, if we can take action on them, as opposed to just letting them happen to us, we can begin to manage pressure and even harness it in a positive way.

Anything surprise you in your research about pressure?
One thing was the incredible role that support plays. My initial theory was that the more support you have, the better. I found a more nuanced story. One of the ways that people increase their pressure is by having too many people offering support.

If support is going to be helpful, you have to keep the circle reasonably tight—generally no more than five people. And it should be people who are in the arena with you, that have some skin in the game. They're not purely spectators. You also need to be proactive in dictating what you need from your support network. Sometimes we fall into this trap of, well, I don't want to tell somebody who's trying to help me how they should help. I found that people who were good at leveraging support were very prescriptive. They said, here's what I need.

Why can pressure be a solution rather than a problem, as you explain it?
Pressure can be a problem, of course. We’ve seen the impact day in and day out throughout the pandemic. But what I really want people to take away is that in every situation I unpacked through the research and the interviews that I did, it was the energy that the pressure created that gave people the capacity to handle the situation. Pressure is just a big ball of energy, and yes, that energy can be destructive. But it can also fuel our ability to move to higher levels of performance, higher levels of empathy and higher levels of creativity. That was core to a lot of the stories I heard from people who were successful in those moments of great pressure.