Book Review: Perform Under Pressure by Dr. Ceri Evans

In Perform Under Pressure, Dr. Ceri Evans teaches you how to change the way you feel, think, and act in order to improve your performance under pressure. Based mainly on neuroscience, Evans provides a "Red-Blue" model that gives you a great understanding of how pressure affects performance and how a "balanced brain" improves performance.

In the first section of the book, you'll learn how brain anatomy and brain functions can be categorized into two parts, Red and Blue. The Red component of the brain refers to the regions and functions associated with basic survival instincts, motivation, and emotional regulation. The blue component of the brain refers to the regions and functions associated with rational thinking, goal-setting, language, metacognition, attention, and working memory. Evans teaches that pressure is perceived as an emotional or social threat by our Red brain. And when threatened, our Red brain reacts in the same way as when threatened by physical threats: with fight/flight/freeze responses. In a performance context, this manifests itself in the form of aggressive, passive, or escaping type behaviors. These are obviously unhelpful behaviors when it comes to performing in games. This is why we need to balance our brains with Blue activity, which helps us face pressure, manage our emotions, think clearly, and remain focused on the task at hand.

One of the main ideas that Evans talks about is the fact that our Red brain cannot be completely suppressed. It is too ingrained into our biology/psyches. Besides, we need our Red brain to provide the emotion/motivation/energy that is needed to give our best effort in games. Therefore, the goal should not be to try to shut off our Red brain by pretending that there's no pressure. The goal, on the other hand, should be to learn how to be "comfortable being uncomfortable" by activating our Blue brains to perform well despite of pressure. 

Evans then gives us the main characteristics of a balanced brain that helps us perform under pressure. These characteristics include:
  • Perceiving pressure as a challenge rather than a threat.
  • Focusing on the task at hand in the present moment rather than overthinking.
  • Alternating your focus between specific details and the big picture instead of splitting your focus between the two.
  • Having awareness, clarity, and commitment to the task at hand in order to fight off aggressive, passive, and escaping behaviors.
  • Focusing on intrinsic motivations rather than external pressures from expectations, scrutiny, and consequences.
The rest of the book provides many practical tools to help you balance your brain before, during, and after pressure situations. My favorite tool I learned from this book is what Evans calls "the mental blueprint." A mental blueprint is a plan for how you need to feel, think, and act in order to perform well under pressure. This mental preparation helps keep you strong when pressure and adversity strikes in games.

Another helpful tool is called the "Blue-Red tool," which is simply becoming aware of your state of mind, finding clarity, and committing to what needs to be done. Evans provides a very simple way of using this tool with the phrase, "step back (to evaluate your mindset), step up (to find clarity), and step in (to take production action)". The next time you catch yourself getting overly emotional in a pressure situation, you can simply remind yourself to "step back, step up, and step in" to initiate change and balance your brain.

There's many other mental tools and exercises that Evans writes about in this book. Some of them might be confusing to you, or some of them might not seem as helpful. But if you truly want learn how to perform under pressure better, I suggest you take the time and effort to learn these tools and apply them so they become second nature. It's not easy, but it's worth it!

I highly recommend this book to all coaches and athletes. Almost everyone has learned basic advice for dealing with pressure, but not everyone has learned a scientific and systematic model for dealing with pressure. You can greatly separate yourself from the pack by reading this book. I also highly recommend another book about performing under pressure, by Hendrie Weisinger and J.P. Pawliw-Fry. The great thing about these books is that they offer different perspectives on dealing with pressure. While I think Wesinger's book is better written, I think Evans' book is more practical. But together, they complement each other and can give you a great understanding of pressure as well as a large toolkit for dealing with it.