Feb 022012

In Stressful Situations, Your Training Takes Over

In Stressful Situations, Your Training Takes Over

What happens to you when you get into stressful situations?  Do you freeze up like the proverbial deer in headlights, or do you keep going, unphased, “like a pro”?  Your answer to this question can have a profound effect on your ability to obtain the results you desire, when the going gets tough.

Why does one person freeze up, when the other performs “calm, cool and collected” in a stressful situation?  One need look no further than Special Forces military training to gain significant insight into the answer to this question.

As I wrote in the article Overcome Your Fears and Become Great – The GAMES Approach, fear, in its various forms and manifestations, is often the culprit in sub-optimal performance during stressful, critical moments.  Whether it’s fear of failure, of the unknown, or of a multitude of other possible factors, including success, it can cause additional tension and interfere with one’s ability to focus and succeed in the “stressful” task at hand.

One way the Navy SEALs, for example, deal with this issue in training, is to teach their trainees to focus on the present and not permit extraneous thoughts in moments of high stress and potential panic.  This involves creating very short-term and achievable goals, so that you are not overwhelmed by a bunch of irrelevant thoughts and concerns and can remain totally engaged in the task at hand. So, for example in the case of the Underwater Pool Competency Test that all SEALs must pass, when you are underwater and the instructor tangles your breathing apparatus, you don’t think to yourself, “I wonder what he’s going to do to me next…”, or “I’m not sure how much more of this I can take…”, or “I wonder how the candidate next to me is doing…”. Rather, you say to yourself, simply, my goal is to untangle these knots – nothing more and nothing less. You then say to yourself: I will employ the knot untangling procedure we learned in training, step-by-step. Then you execute step one, step two … etc.  In other words, you block out all extraneous thoughts and factors and focus totally on the task at hand, step-by-step.  This short-term goal-setting represents the “G” in the GAMES Approach.

This approach, of course, presumes that you have procedures and have had “training step-by-step”.  The reality though is that in many endeavors, including sports, but especially in the business world, a large percentage of people have not received such training, if they’ve received any training at all.  This is particularly true in the entrepreneurial, small and family business world.  Large companies have, at least in part, learned the important lesson that detailed training is key, particularly when employees will be faced with stressful situations, where there is potential to panic and “freeze up”.  Many entrepreneurial companies are still climbing that learning curve.

Think about your own situation as an entrepreneur.  How much detailed, step-by-step training have you had in key areas of your business?  Why do you think apprenticeship has been a tried and tested approach to groom next generation performers in a variety of endeavors, throughout history?  This is the case because as you’re going through the learning phase, especially at the beginning of the journey, there is nothing like having a “master” to help you stay on the right track and guide you regarding how to handle challenges, particularly those that occur in high-stress situations.  In an apprenticeship, the master “craftsperson” is roughly equivalent to a coach or a mentor.  In the military, such apprenticeship is hierarchical, structured, and mandatory.  What is the equivalent in entrepreneurship?  For the most part, it doesn’t really exist.  There are bits and pieces, but it’s highly fragmented and the onus is on the individual entrepreneur to seek such training.  Granted, it’s not necessarily practical or even possible to undertake step-by-step training in all areas and situations an entrepreneur must master, but for many key areas of the business, such as marketing and finance, it is both possible and reasonably straightforward.

So what can be done about this lack of step-by-step training and exposure to key knowledge in the entrepreneurial world?  There are several options:

1.)   Wing it.  This is by far the most common approach.  It involves just handling challenges as they come along and not really taking pro-active steps to train and prepare for the inevitable challenges that will arise.  This is the “experience is the best teacher” approach and it has a great deal of merit, but also a great many bumps and bruises along the way, hopefully none of them fatal to your business.

2.)   Find a mentor.  This is an approach I highly recommend.  I have used this approach my entire entrepreneurial career.  It involves identifying people who have done what you want to do and asking them to help you prepare for the journey and address acute challenges as they arise.  This approach can be tremendously useful, but given the fact that mentors are very busy people and probably you are not compensating them for their time, you are not likely to get structured, step-by-step learning; your mentorship will take place opportunistically and over a significant period of time.

3.)   Become an apprentice.  If you’re early, or relatively early in your entrepreneurial career, why not become the right-hand-person to a successful entrepreneur, thus taking advantage of the age old apprentice/master approach?  It won’t be easy, but there may not be a better way to learn, if you can find the right relationship.  If you’re in a good-sized family business, there may be several such opportunities available.

4.)   Be a learning animal.  Study, even devour, every bit of written and recorded knowledge out there on your business and all the functional areas of business critical to your success.  Operate with the mindset that you can never learn too much.  Consume everything from current publications to the classics, in whatever media suit you, including written, audio, video and live events.

5.)   Hire a coach.  All “pros” have coaches, no matter what level they’ve achieved in their chosen endeavor.  This will cost you some money, but if you get very focused on what it is you’re trying to learn and improve on, the dollars you invest here will likely be very well spent.  The key is to find a coach or coaches with whom you are very compatible, so that the communications are efficient and effective and not weighed down by logistical and personality challenges outside the realm of the subject matter you are trying to learn.

6.)   Join peer groups.  There are CEO peer groups, such as Vistage, and there are peer groups for almost every functional area of business.  In fact, by now, there are peer groups, online and in-person, for just about any topic.  Find one that suits you and give it a try.  Again, this will cost you some money, but it is also likely to be money well spent, if you can hook up with the right groups.  Peers who have been through the challenges and the stressful situations you are likely to face should be able to help you be better prepared for when they arise in your business.

7.)   Participate in masterminds.  Masterminds have been around in various forms for quite a while, but only picked up this moniker in relatively recent times.  Usually, these days, they mostly involve “mastermind calls” with people who are trying to accomplish goals similar to those you are pursuing.  They may deliver much of the same value as “peer groups,” and sometimes, they can do so much more efficiently, as they often consist of relatively short, focused calls.

All of the above approaches and activities can help you better prepare for stressful situations, the kind where you want your training, rather than fear and panic, to take over.

Regardless of which of these approaches you decide to pursue, try to do so in a structured manner.  As the GAMES Approach lays out, goal-setting is just the first step in dealing with high-stress, potentially panic-inducing situations.  You will also want to work on arousal control, mental rehearsal, endurance (which you build through practice), and positive self-talk.  For the Navy SEALs at least, such an approach has led to markedly higher pass rates in what many would say is one of the most stressful challenges of all:  the Underwater Pool Competency Test.

Be very calculated about what it is you are trying to learn, then use all the various methods at your disposal to learn it, so that it becomes like second nature.  While you are not likely to face life-or-death situations to the extent of Special Forces operatives, your performance in stressful situations may, in fact, determine the life or death of your business.  Take the same focused, disciplined and successful repetition-driven approach in your own training, and you are more likely to see your business grow and prosper.  Make sure you seek and master the training and knowledge you need, before you need it.

I look forward to your thoughts and questions.  Please leave a comment (“response”) below or in the upper right corner of this post.

Paul Morin



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  • Wendy

    Stress is a part of life. Working in information technology can come with high levels of stress. Deadlines for projects, working with difficult users, and late nights from being overworked can cause abnormal levels of stress.

  • Nice post. I think we often encounter stressful situations without any training because we don’t like to think about stressful situations if we don’t have to. I like your suggestions for preparing for stressful situations and they remind me of the meditation technique of thinking of a stressful situation while in a meditative state so that you can calmly breathe through the stressful feelings. This works particularly well when there is an underlying unresolved issue that causes you to panic. For example maybe you’re afraid of authority figures so you panic whenever you are pulled over by a cop. If you think about this situation while meditating a few times you will notice that the panic feeling is greatly reduced, and after a few more times you may notice you barely feel any stress at all. Good luck with your blog and keep up the good work,

  • All great suggestions. #4, 6 & 7 are what I do. Thanks for sharing these ideas.

  • Janet

    When I start a new job, and have been in a position for a short time, I don’t have that “muscle memory” and familiarity with my surroundings as I do when I’ve been at the same organization for many years… It is at times like these when I tend to react to stress with the “deer in the headlights” reaction. A very uncomfortable feeling indeed…

  • That’s a very well thought out list of methods to prepare for stress and panic. If we even chose to embrace a mere few, we’d open so many new doors. Thanks for the post.

  • Thanks, Pat.

  • Agreed, Janet. Training is key to avoiding the “deer in headlights” moments.

  • Thanks, Bill. Your suggestion about working through stressful situations in advance, particularly when in a meditative stage, is a good one. It’s a combination of the mental rehearsal and arousal control steps in the GAMES Approach, and it can be very effective.

  • Excellent list of trainings or approaches in dealing with stress, Paul. Stress will always be a part of our life and we only need to know how to face it so that it won’t affect us negatively. Instead, it should make us stronger in dealing with life’s struggles especially on the entrepreneurial aspect. 🙂

  • Agreed. Stress isn’t going away for anyone, but especially not for achievers. The key is to learn to deal with it as effectively as possible.

  • Joel Carter

    Mentorship is so helpful. Architects require 2 years apprenticeship and several colleagues have said it takes 10 years for most architects to reach a balanced professional maturity. In other segments of our lifes skills, the training gives us confidence to reproduce excellent results on a regular basis.

  • Agreed, Joel. I think mentorship and apprenticeship are extremely helpful.

  • You know that when you are having a nightmare if you rehearse the solution while awake you will “solve” the problem while dreaming. Or why in karate schools, or any other sport, they practice and practice the same movements all the time, even if they do them perfectly? Practice makes our movements and reactions more natural. That’s why the best way to work under pressure is to prepare for it.

  • Jer Marie

    I will have the apprenticeship and having a mentor………. this will surely help me so much!!!!!!!!! Thanks for the suggestions.

  • Rudz

    You make a good point. We need to be willing to work on ourselves through these scenarios. The more emotional tools we can teach ourselves, the stronger we become.

  • Excellent points. Thanks!

  • Rudz

    Thanks Paul, keep me posted…

  • Michelle

    I believe Mentorship is very important. For me, mentorship, is a support you will get from the important person in times of a very rough moments. Since we were born, mentorship gets along with our live. From parents to school teachers to counselor and even friends, without mentorship (help from love ones) we will never surpass any stressful events in our own lives.