SuperBowl winning quarterback Patrick Mahomes exemplifies performance under pressure. Not only did he win on the biggest stage in the NFL, Mahomes overcame multiple physical injuries and competitive setbacks to get there. In the end, the record books will say Kansas City was the 31-20 victor over San Francisco and we’ll all think it was inevitable. But victory was far from inevitable at the start of the season. Mahomes sprained his ankle in Week 1, dislocated his patella in Week 7, and had to come from behind in every playoff game, including the SuperBowl.
As leaders and entrepreneurs, we face moments when all seems lost. So what can we take away from Patrick Mahomes’ performance under pressure for our business lives? When facing adversity and pressure, the way to success is through seeing opportunity, not crisis; accepting we don’t need to be perfect; and believing in yourself and your team.
See opportunity, not crisis.
Every time we face a setback, we fall into a situation where we can either see a crisis or an opportunity. Difficult circumstances make our bodies react. As performance expert Bill Benjamin of the Institute for Health and Human Potential explained, “Crisis or negative thinking causes the release of noradrenaline into our body, which leads to our blood vessels constricting so not enough oxygen gets to our body and brain. This lack of oxygen impairs our best thinking.”
So the more we frame things as a crisis, the worse our performance becomes because our thinking is impaired. It’s a vicious cycle.
On the other hand, if we see difficult situations as an opportunity, our bodies react positively. “Then adrenaline is released and we get more oxygen back to our body and brain, allowing us to be more effective,” said Benjamin.
So when Mahomes saw his challenges as opportunities, he was able to get a boost of adrenaline that allowed him to think and perform better in the second half of the SuperBowl and help lead his team to victory.
Accept you don’t need to be perfect.
You must accept no one does their best work in high-stress situations. In fact, Mahomes played poorly for the first 3 quarters of the game before finally getting into his groove. As J.P. Pawliw-Fry, bestselling author of Performing Under Pressure, explained: “Patrick Mahomes, like every other athlete in high-pressure situations, underperformed. There is a belief that some people rise to the occasion and perform better statistically when they are under pressure but that is a myth. Nobody does.”
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The key for us in high-pressure situations is to accept our performance will not be perfect. Pawliw-Fry said: “When things aren’t going our way, it is about our reaction. In this respect, Mahomes was fantastic. He did not give up, sulk, or give into the cycle of embarrassment, shame, and underperformance, which happens to many athletes. It suggests a strategy for all of us—we do not need to be perfect (which, ironically, takes the pressure off). We just need to be less imperfect than our competitors and more resilient when things don’t go our way.”
So instead of beating yourself up over mistakes, accept they will happen and move on.
Believe in yourself.
One of the key factors to overcoming adversity is a belief in yourself and your abilities. Adventure Racing World Champion Robyn Benincasa’s team lost many times before it won a world championship and even then winning was never easy. She explained the power of belief as essential to success: “I think there’s definitely something to be said about the power of believing deep in your soul you are meant to be successful; then combining that belief with working harder than anyone else on the field and ‘refusing to lose.’”
Mahomes’ success came from his mindset. He continued to believe he could win so he didn’t give up in the face of adversity and mistakes.
Believe in your team.
Finally, you need to believe in your team to overcome high-stakes situations. Our teams can help us in moments of crisis when we falter. Sometimes the pressure we feel is believing we have to do everything ourselves. Mahomes was the quarterback on his team, but even he acknowledged “There’s a ton of leaders on this team.”
Brigadier Gen. Tom Kolditz (retired), author of In Extremis Leadership, explained Mahomes’ leadership under pressure this way: “Mahomes is a unifier. He makes everyone on his team better. He is not selling himself as a standout talent. That’s why he’s a standout talent.”
So the key to success under pressure is to let others step up when you’re not doing your best. Then you will all succeed together.
The same four lessons can be carried into our lives and careers. When faced with stressful situations, we should see crises as opportunities, accept we will underperform, and believe in our abilities and our team to get us through as they have done so many times before.