How to Manage Stressful Situations at Work — And in Fishing

Remaining calm under pressure is a critical skill in business and, I recently learned, in striped bass fishing. In fact, the ability to manage high-stress situations is one of the primary characteristics that distinguishes top performers from others. And it’s particularly important – and challenging – for leaders.

I like to think I’m pretty good at managing stress. But recently, I experienced a textbook example of choking. How does choking work? Pressure increases your anxiety about performing correctly. As a result, you pay so much attention to the minute details of what you’re doing that you actually perform worse.

So what happened to me?

I know the best technique for catching a striped bass in Boston Harbor. I really do. I’ve caught dozens, well, at least a dozen. But fishing alone — or with a normal person — is no match for the stress of fishing with Pete.

Pete is a good friend and one of the most intensely competitive people I know. Even more importantly, he’s guided me on several major outdoor experiences, including a three-week hike in the backwoods of Canada. So when I had an opportunity to take him fishing in Boston Harbor, I really wanted him to catch a fish.

Let me tell you a little bit about bass fishing. It’s not relaxing, like lake or river fishing. The fish you catch in a lake are barely big enough to be bait for striped bass. Striped bass are over 30 inches long, and they fight. When you’re in the harbor you constantly have to monitor the depth of the water so you don’t maneuver your boat somewhere that’s too shallow. Airplanes are flying impossibly low overhead. Oh, and every so often you have to race to get out of the way of massive freighters that really don’t care about your need to impress Pete.

To catch a bass, you first catch a mackerel, then you troll the live mackerel behind the boat. As I fished with Pete, I kept fiddling with the drag to make sure I had the tension right. I kept fiddling so much, the line got way too tight. And when the fish hit, the line broke immediately. It was our only bite of the day. I had choked, and we went home empty-handed.

It was hard not to compare this failure to some of the experiences I have every day as a CEO and entrepreneur. When I’m pitching or negotiating with a new client, I often have the temptation to tweak my proposals at the last minute, particularly if I’m anxious about landing the sale. Even sending out an invoice can be high-pressure.

So when I got home, I thought about how I had snatched failure from the jaws of victory. Here are four lessons I learned.

1. Recognize that you’re under stress

You can’t manage stress unless you recognize it. Is your breathing elevated? Is your voice higher than usual? Are you obsessing over something that you usually know how to do without thinking? If you recognize that you’re feeling anxious, you can manage that anxiety. Even better, you can think logically about whether that anxiety is even warranted.

2. Remove any unnecessary external stressors

Once you recognize that you’re stressed, ask yourself why. Are you trying to do several things at once? Are you hungry? Tired? Do you, and I ask this seriously, need to use the restroom? Are you racing to get to another engagement? Sometimes, external factors turn an ordinary situation into a stressful one. If you’re hurrying to finish an important email because you have a call with a colleague in two minutes, it might help to take a break and finish the email later. Or ping your colleague and tell her you’ll be five minutes late.

3. Stop fiddling

Fiddling is the essence of choking. If you find yourself making a lot of tiny changes to something that you could usually do in your sleep, just stop. Take a break, wait 10 minutes, and ask yourself again whether that fiddling is necessary.

4. Remind yourself that it’s just football

Before the 2018 Superbowl, Nick Foles, quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, got a text from fellow quarterback Drew Brees: “It’s just football.” The text helped calm him down and put the game in perspective.

As a Bostonian, I am legally obligated to mention that Foles can hardly beat Tom Brady for staying calm under pressure. But he did, unfortunately, beat Tom Brady in the 2018 Superbowl, thanks in part to Brees’ advice.

It’s just football. Now if I could only explain that to Pete.

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This article was first published in Inc.

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Peak Support