How to stay cool in high-pressure situations: the psychology of top performance

Davis: Hey everybody, this is GRE Bites. My name is Davis, and I’m an educator with over ten years of experience.

Orion: And I’m Orion, the founder of StellarGRE.

Davis: We’re here to bring you your weekly bite-sized episode on GRE prep and grad school admissions. Check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at And don’t forget, you can use the code “BITES” for 10% off any membership.

Alright, let’s get into it. Exciting times. Once again, we have another user-submitted, listener-submitted question. Caitlyn, this is her second question as well. I’ll read it from the email. It’s very detailed, and I appreciate your thoroughness in asking your questions. She says, “In Episode 25 of GRE Bites, you provide a number of practical recommendations for what to do the day before the test. Are there any additional pre-performance psych tips you’d like to recommend before a test? Or for someone going to an acting audition, playing in a playoff, or a championship game? How about for an Olympic athlete or a team going to the Olympic Games? Do you have any favorite recommendations for being clutch in high-pressure moments, such as when the bases are loaded in the bottom of the ninth, either as the hitter or the pitcher? Or going into the final hole with a chance to win or lose the golf tournament?” Alright, Orion?

Orion: It’s a great question. On some level, we can think of the GRE as an academic Olympiad. You are competing against the best and brightest from all over the world to become doctors. It is a normalized exam, which means that the scaled scores are adjusted to accommodate the actual performance of your competition, similar to how professors might curve grades in high school or college. The competition is fierce, especially in this modern age where it’s at a global level. So, comparing the GRE to the Olympics isn’t necessarily a far-fetched idea. It’s crucial to stay focused and composed during these situations.

Davis: You’ve used the word “frosty” before. I just want to make sure I understand. “So frosty,” “stay cool,” “increase your baseline chill”—what do these mean to you? Help unwrap this for people.

Orion: I think it means being appropriately activated physiologically. I don’t mean that you’re sluggish or unresponsive, which you might infer from terms like “chill,” “frosty,” or “cold.” However, the more anxious a salesperson becomes, the more inappropriately physiologically activated he or she tends to become. That activation can disrupt the over-rehearsed performance that person is there to do.

So, one of the best ways to stay calm in a clutch moment is, on some level, to have a “fuzzy focus” with respect to the moment. Or, to put it another way, to not really focus on what’s going on. It might be the bottom of the ninth with bases loaded and down by three, but on some level, it’s in your best interest not to dwell on that or prioritize it.

It’s not a great idea for a therapist to say, “Don’t do this,” without suggesting an alternative. When told, “Don’t think about pink elephants,” suddenly, that’s all anyone can think about. So, I can’t just advise against something; I also have to recommend an alternative. That’s why it’s essential to have those grounding rituals we discussed in a previous episode.

It’s like watching Steph Curry at the free throw line. He dribbles the ball twice, with his mouthguard conspicuously hanging out the side of his mouth. He does this, I assume, whether it’s in an empty gym when he’s practicing his free throws or in game seven of the championship. And why wouldn’t he? It’s that behavior that got him to the championship game. Clearly, it’s working. Now is not the time to deviate from that system or to experiment. You want to do what you’ve done 100,000 times and has demonstrated sufficient success to keep doing it. This allows Steph to focus on the dribble, to focus on the mouthguard, instead of game seven. He’s not focusing — I mean, I can’t know for sure, but I assume — on the score, the championship trophy, the sponsorship deals, or everything that’s at stake. He’s focusing on dribbling the ball and going through the motions and the ritual that he has cultivated over thousands and thousands and thousands of repetitions.

Davis: Now, that’s right. Just like in the “Men Until Recharge” episode where we talked about utilizing the park screen to, for example, change your posture and alter how you’re engaging your senses and physiology, Caitlyn is specifically asking about, for instance, the pregame day. She’s also referring to those clutch moments, which we can discuss further. But for the day before the GRE, do you have any specific recommendations to mention?

Orion: Well, at that point, you’ve done all the preparation you’re going to do for that test. There’s not one more word you need to memorize the day of the test that will make any significant difference in your performance. So, at this point, it’s about taking care of yourself. This means getting a good night’s sleep, engaging in some exercise to get the blood flowing and the focus sharp, and having a nourishing breakfast or lunch, depending on the time of day. I’d also suggest doing a few practice problems to warm up before you go into the test. You don’t want the first problems you tackle that day to be the ones that count. This is akin to sports; before a game, players do easy layups to get back in the groove, and you’ll want to do the same. It’s crucial to maintain a positive expectation, to visualize yourself succeeding, to see yourself navigating the test effortlessly, and achieving the results you desire. This is often discussed in sports psychology as “quiet eye” time. The more time you spend visualizing what you’re actually going to be doing with your mind and body before you do it, the more likely your mind and body will execute as you intended. Does that make sense?

Davis: No, that makes perfect sense. And that ties right in. I’m not particularly into mainstream sports myself, but I have competed at an international world level in martial arts. You knew that. But then, this point about visualization is something I just wanted to emphasize. We’ve talked about this in a number of ways before. He mentioned, first, establishing a “chill baseline,” which involves engaging your physiology in a good way.

So often, when a big event is approaching—whether it’s game day, a major tournament, or the GRE—it’s common and natural for the human psyche to become overwhelmed. One might start reflecting on everything that hinges on this moment, all the potential future outcomes, as well as any past regrets or anxieties related to preparation. This can lead to a spiral of “what ifs”.

And so it happens: we, as human beings, have a tendency to pull from past experiences and project into the future. Much of what you’re discussing is about finding a way to center oneself in the present moment, focusing on what’s necessary right then and there. This principle holds true for sports as well as larger life decisions.

Visualization is an incredibly powerful practice. I can attest to its efficacy firsthand. There’s also merit in the idea of “clearing the slate”. Using breath work helps to let go of extraneous thoughts about the “what ifs”, future uncertainties, or past regrets. By the time you’re in the moment, you’ve prepared as much as you could. Prime the pump, so to speak: ground yourself with a few practice questions or visualization exercises, picturing yourself succeeding. Then, direct your focus solely to the present, as if you were simply practicing. Whether you’re taking the GRE or participating in a game, approach it as if you’re giving your best in a normal event.

Orion: Yeah, you had a lot of good stuff there. Davis and I want to highlight, in particular, another antidote to focusing on all the things that your performance hinges on. Instead of imagining the future or remembering the past, it’s important to stay grounded and focused in the present moment. That’s because the outcome is shaped by the process. The more we focus on the outcome, the less we pay attention to the process, and consequently, the more we jeopardize the outcome. Paradoxically, when we shift our attention away from the outcome and concentrate on the process, we increase our chances of achieving the desired outcome.

Davis: Thanks, everybody, for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with another bite-sized episode of GRE Bites. If you have a topic you’d like discussed on a future episode, let us know at And if you’re ready to take your prep to the next level, check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at You can use the code “BITES” for 10% off all memberships there. Talk to you soon.

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