Maximizing Your Performance Under Stress


Ox here…

Whether you found us because of a desire to be more prepared or to shoot better, there’s a good chance that you’re like the rest of our audience and would love to know how to perform better in extreme stress.

It could be reacting to a family member having a life threatening emergency, responding to a natural or manmade disaster, stopping a lethal force threat, or everyday life challenges.

Through the years, I’ve encountered high stress situations where I’ve frozen with indecision. Fortunately, I have always “snapped out of it” quickly and taken positive action. I haven’t always made perfect decisions—everyone makes mistakes that are easy to see with the eyes of a Monday morning quarterback—but I’ve made mostly good decisions.

But this has led me to dig into why some people freeze under stress, some people make bad decisions under stress, and some people thrive under stress.

When learning to drive, I wondered how I’d handle different emergency situations. When learning to fight, I wondered how I’d handle different surprise attacks at full speed. When learning medical skills, I wondered how I’d handle someone with a critical injury. When learning combative shooting, I wondered how I’d handle myself in a gunfight.  You’re probably the same way.  You always wonder how you’ll perform “when it counts” until after the first time it actually does…then you’ll wonder how you can do it better the next time.

It’s important to ask why different people with the same training, using the same technique, perform SO differently when the fit hits the shan? Traditional wisdom says that your fine and complex motor skills will disappear under extreme stress, but personal experience and the experience of many people that I’ve known and people I’ve studied have shown me that it’s not a black/white, all/nothing issue.

This topic comes up fairly often because of rabid “haters” who say that using the slide stop on a pistol during a tactical reload is a fine motor skill and will always fail under extreme stress. I have too many friends who have been in combat who have made it work, and I’ve executed too many fine motor skills with precision under extreme stress so I have relentlessly dug into why some people can do fine motor skills and complex motor skills under stress and others can’t…and how to improve extreme stress performance.

There’s a saying that “In a life or death situation, you won’t rise to the occasion…you’ll perform at half the level that you do in training.”

But that’s not always true. Some people DO rise to the occasion. They’re “clutch players.” They’re unflappable and perform no matter what. The question becomes, what factors dictate high stress performance and how can we control them and use them to our advantage?

The following is a work in progress and open to input, but it is an equation that attempts to quantify what is needed to perform under extreme stress:

Performance=(inoculation+state control+fitness level) x (sleep+hydration+nutrition+pre-existing stress load) x (familiarity+myelination) x (comfort with unknown+decision making) If math’s not your thing and your brain just froze, keep reading…in simplest terms, the better each of these factors are, the better you’ll perform under stress.

At the risk of turning this into a book, I’m going to cover each of these briefly. I encourage you to self-assess in each of these areas and see how you can increase the chances that you will perform at a high level under stress.

A point of note to the vast majority who aren’t math nerds. Each group of factors within parentheses are related. Theoretically, as long as at least one of them is not zero, you’ll be able to perform the skill to some degree under stress. This is not hard-and-fast and I covet input on how to refine it.

With that, let’s get into each of the factors:

Successful past stress inoculation: Simply put, you’ll perform better in situations that you’ve been in before. I find that, in shooting defined stages or courses of fire, I perform 20-30% faster the 2nd time I shoot the course of fire than the first time. I noticed the same phenomenon in sports, fighting, dealing with emergency trauma and medical situations, driving emergencies, and more and I’m betting that you can think of several personal examples from your own life.

On lethal force encounters in particular, Ken Murray, co-founder of Simunitions, has found that officers and soldiers are working out the kinks until about the 3rd successful and justified lethal force encounter. That being said, the ramp-up is much faster and easier for someone who has been gradually exposed to stress inoculation while mastering their craft than someone who has done all of their practice in a stress free environment.

Retired Navy SEAL, Larry Yatch, has had similar findings. He’s found that, in general, stress shooting performance is maximized with a mix of 80% dry fire, 10% live fire, and 10% force on force with simunition, UTM, or paint ball training.

Regardless of the situation, the more successful exposures you’ve had to similar situations, the lower your heart rate will be, the less adrenaline and cortisol your body will release, the clearer your thinking, and the more in control you’ll be the next time you’re in a similar situation.

I recently heard an officer talking about his first lethal force encounter. One of the comments that he made was that it wasn’t really the first time that he successfully stopped a lethal threat with a firearm. He’d mentally rehearsed the scenario hundreds of times before and nothing about the scenario surprised him when it was happening in real life.

Next is State Control, which is worthy of it’s own article. Comment below if you want me to go into more detail on this. If there’s enough demand, I’d love to.

In short, I’m calling state control the ability to control the state of your mind in situations where others aren’t or can’t. When you can stay cool, calm, and collected and have ice running through your veins, you can perform at levels much closer to how you perform in practice than having everything fall apart. Is it easy? No. Is it possible? Absolutely…as evidenced by the feats that brain surgeons, neuro surgeons, trauma surgeons, combat medics, and warriors throughout the ages have been able to accomplish in “impossible” conditions.

Here’s where the rubber meets the road. Let’s say that you’re violently surprised and have an adrenal response. The initial release of adrenaline, which you probably can’t control, will happen subconsciously in less than 1/100th of a second. Someone without state control will keep releasing adrenaline…both draining their adrenals and seriously compromising their ability to perform fine and complex motor skills and perform higher level thinking. But someone who does have state control can quickly slow the flow of adrenaline. The quicker they do it, the more likely they’ll have an optimal amount of adrenaline in their system that doesn’t rob them of performance. Also, since adrenaline has a half-life of approximately 90 seconds, the quicker you stop the release, the quicker you’ll be back to a “normal” state and the less of an “adrenaline hangover” you’ll have.

Adrenaline is one of up to 200 neurotransmitters that are released in an extreme stress situation…it just happens to be one that most people are very familiar with.

The factors that I’ve identified that make up state control include the following:

Inner compass (which is complex, but for me includes my Christian beliefs, belief that my life is worth defending with whatever force is necessary to insure that my wife has a husband and my sons have a father at the end of the day, and belief that innocent people should be protected from evil people). Matt & Sherrie Seibert (see here ) have come up with the best process that I’ve ever seen to get people to internalize the fact that it’s OK for good people to do bad things to bad people who are in the process of committing evil acts.

Nutrition, hydration, and sleep. Pretty self-explanatory. A deficiency in any of these makes it hard to respond to stress effectively and remain in control.

Brain chemistry and hormone levels. There’s a lot of crossover here with nutrition, hydration, and sleep, but I feel that they’re worth separating out. Ironically, when people’s adrenals are fatigued, they’re more likely to “go straight to 11” rather than having a measured response.

Unconscious mind/flow state/the zone. High performers and extreme athletes are all familiar with and constantly seek flow state and/or the zone. It’s a state of mind where the unconscious mind does most of the driving, time appears to slow down, balls/hoops/targets seem to get bigger, the body relaxes, Gamma waves in the brain increase, creativity flourishes, and amazing things happen.

For most people, this is a fleeting state that happens outside of their control without rhyme or reason. They think that some people “have it” and some don’t. That’s simply not true. This kind of performance is amazingly normal and you can trigger it on command and at will with >this training<

Will Power, confidence. Again, there’s a lot of crossover with these and other factors, but I’m pointing them out because they can be easily be influenced in yourself and in others.

Pain/injury level. This is a tough one to place in the equation. I view pain and injury somewhat differently than most. It’s been incorporated into a few trainings and courses that friends of mine have put out, so you may be familiar with it already. In short, I view pain/injury as a constant that the mind acts like a lens on. The mind can use this lens to cause the pain/injury have more or less of an effect on mental and physical performance. There are definite limitations to this, but the discipline/skill of being able to minimize the effects of pain is very valuable.

One person can get a paper cut, see their own blood, and become completely frozen and ineffective. Another can be unfazed by life threatening wounds.

Pain and injury can be distracting and take mental resources away from performing a needed task at a high level in a stressful situation.

Fitness level. In general, the more fit a person is, the better they’ll be able to deal with a stressful situation. Add to that the fact that if the stressful situation requires dynamic movement, the exertion will be less stressful if you’re fit than if you’re not.

Familiarity of the task at hand. Most people remember a time when they drove around a corner and their rear wheels lost traction. Instinct is to turn away from the skid, but the right move is almost always to turn the front wheels into (towards) the direction that you’re skidding. The more times you’re exposed to this situation and have successful outcomes, the quicker you’ll respond and less stressful it will be in the future.

Thickness of the myelin sheaths around the neural pathways for the task at hand. This sounds more complicated than it is. Practice something over and over the same way and you’ll develop neural pathways (muscle memory). Keep doing it and you’ll develop a fatty (cholesterol) sheath around the neural pathways that partially insulate the neural pathway from the performance robbing effects of adrenaline and cortisol. In other words, practice something until it’s boring and you’ll be able to do it under stress better…regardless of whether it’s a gross, fine, or complex motor skill. Why?

This is overly simplified, but it’s like running a maze in the dark, blindfolded. If you’ve done it so few times that you have to think about the process, it’s going to be a long and painful experience. But, if you’ve done it enough times…first slowly in the light, then speeding up, then gradually taking away the light…then you no longer have to consciously drive the process. The process is a conditioned response that you simply make the decision to start and the unconscious mind automatically fires off all of the neurons necessary to take you through the process and to the desired finish.

Comfort with the unknown and the ability to boldly make decisions. Also called “paralysis by analysis”, these are factors that are hard to quantify, but I’ve definitely seen them play a role in performance under stress. Fortunately, once you make the choice to start looking for opportunities to improve in these areas, your mind will start spotting them—then it’s just a matter of disciplining yourself to make educated choices when the outcome is stacked in your favor but not guaranteed.

Again, the equation I shared is not a hard and fast guideline and the factors I mentioned probably aren’t the only ones to consider, but if you honestly assess yourself in each of these areas and pick one or two at a time to work on, you’ll quickly see that your ability to react positively to stressful situations improves.

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Additions? PLEASE share them by commenting below. I am a brain and body hacker who’s been focused on squeezing maximum performance out of an average body for more than 20 years, but I’m no pedigree and I always seek out and appreciate wisdom from those who know more than me.  -Ox out.






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  • Great Grey

    Reply Reply March 8, 2015

    While freezing is not a bad reaction to wild animal attack, especially when you’re not the target or in a group, as those who move draw the attention of the animal. It doesn’t do anything to stop the attack but, it can give you time to plan what you need to do, it just freezing and not thinking about what you need to do that is bad. Just as running wildly maybe good or bad you might make it to safety or be the victim. And when counter attacking again you might or might survive. Evaluating your options before you act is not bad as long as you don’t too long to do it.
    Diving for cover in some situations may put you in more danger than staying put. If a shooter can’t see you where you are heading for what looks like cover can expose you but, getting under cover out of sight of the trouble maker is usually best. (your in aisle 4 the shooter is shooting down aisle 5 diving for cover in aisle 6 probably not a smart move, but if that where the stuff is that needed to stop him then what do you do?)

  • JH

    Reply Reply March 8, 2015

    Thanks for this excellent article Ox!
    Yes, please post more info on “state control”, or in fact any other area in this post.

  • Sean

    Reply Reply March 7, 2015

    Great article. Thank you. Have found some ways that help me mentally frame some stress reduction practices. Little “d” denial vs. big “D” Denial. Big D Denial is the denial of facts in a harmful way…”I can stop X, Y, Z addictive behavior any time I want.” Little “d” denial is “I’ll be getting the biopsy results on Wed.. There is little I can do until then. So I’m not going to think about it and move on with my life.” Practicing little “d” denial helps lock in the skill of being able to put aside potentially stressful input and stay in the “action” of what is necessary right now.

  • LBJ

    Reply Reply March 7, 2015

    Ox, the Inner Compass link is wrong. Good article! I’d love to see a more detailed State Control article, so do that, please. As DE stated above, laziness is my enemy, too. David and your articles are helping. Please keep up the good work/good fight!

  • Steve

    Reply Reply March 6, 2015

    All outstanding points. I’m no expert, and I cannot afford the quantity and level of training I’d like for me and mine. Absolutely agree that muscle memory is key-perfect practice until perfect is boring, then add terror.
    That said; prior experience with High-stress situations has led me to observe that even unrelated high stress situations in the past have a beneficial effect on responses in current state: Battle damage control ( USS Buttercup) was easier for those who had had either the live firefighting training or the CBR-D training than those coming in cold; and those who had had both nearly eliminated the “oh Sh*t/W*f” response before taking action. The action taken wasn’t always correct for the situation, but much more quickly taken. Apparently, the instructors were pretty effective…almost always, the fires got put out, the Buttercup was saved, and we survived the chemical and nuclear attacks well enough to fight the ship.
    By and large, any well thought out training is better than no training. Even piss poor training is better than playing call of duty on x-box; and cleaning firearms after killing the zombie hordes caps a day off nicely.
    Pray for peace but prepare for war.

  • Ray

    Reply Reply March 6, 2015

    Good stuff. A veteran of several parachute malfunctions, I learned first hand the value of practicing emergency procedures. As valuable as visualization can be, nothing beats actually going through the steps one by one. Whether its cutting away a malfunctioning canopy or drawing a weapon and acquiring a target – practice makes perfect.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply March 6, 2015

      Absolutely! Thanks.

      • Ken Murray

        Reply Reply March 7, 2015

        Hey Ox. Ken Murray here. I always enjoy your thoughtful posts and this one is no exception.

  • Bill

    Reply Reply March 6, 2015

    Hey Ox, What you`re doing is cool but I have to say with (125) recorded combat mission`s in Viet Nam, nothing is better than experience. Hope I don’t have to do anything like that again. You know what I mean? We had none of the trainging I read about. But I – we can at least sit here and read & participate. Thank you.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply March 6, 2015

      Thanks for your service.

      In the areas where I have personal experience, I agree 100%. The point of identifying all of the factors is to help people be as ready as possible for their first “real” time and to help people self-assess and be more ready for the next time.

  • Mills

    Reply Reply March 6, 2015

    An example to support this can be heard listening to Capt Sully land a plane in a RIVER outside NYC. He is crashing a pretty big plane into a river. Yet, we only hear a remarkably calm gentlemen manage the “crisis” as if he were reading the paper.

    A more relatable example:
    Who frets walking, or adding two + two after 5 years old? Other than those ailiing, No one. Why?
    We have Prepared to the point of subconscious imprint and retrieval. We weren’t born knowing. We have over-prepared and the result is calm, confident, competence.

    Did walking and adding come as easy at 2 years old? No. We repeated them to the point of sub-conscious retrieval.

    The QP Principle is Over-prepare. It decreases the time between our hard wired reflexive and instinctual response, to taking deliberate, practiced action.

    Train in your “uncomfortable” zone, obviously safely. When the response enters your comfort zone, grab the next rung on the ladder and repeat.

    My opinions are not to confront anything you wrote and I adding feedback per your request.

    Train safe.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply March 6, 2015

      Hey Mills, thanks for your comments…I agree with them 100% and don’t see where they confronted with anything I said. Even if they did, right is right and I’m always open to being corrected…especially on topics that are potentially life saving.

  • Marc Lawrence

    Reply Reply March 6, 2015

    In all situations that one would deem an adventure ( a romantic name for trouble) there are certain skills a person must have, you must know how to master your own fear, doubt and confusion. This is done learning skills that allow you to reaction to that event. These skills can be transferable (IE similar) to allow you to respond correctly that is to say not have the Oh Sh-t moment and freeze. Humans have three responses these are fight flight or freeze. not everyone is born with a warrior brain just 10 percent but that does not mean you can not learn to find that inner warrior when needed. After 32 year of dealing with emergencies I have seen it all come from people. The best I can tell you learn a bit about all things have skill set to get you out of trouble and learn to recognize trouble before it happen and you will survive.

  • Chuck Pierce

    Reply Reply March 6, 2015

    Nicely done. I have served in the Army, retired from the US Border Patrol and served another 10 years on a small Police Department. I have heard about most of these at one time or another, but not all in one spot.

    I’m a Vietnam veteran. I was puzzled for years after observing how two different men could be shot in the same place could react so differently. The first one dropped dead on the spot. The second grimaced and fought on almost un-phased. Most people reacted somewhere in between. The common wisdom of the day was that the second soldier had “the will to live.” This article explains how complex the will to live is to accomplish.

    Thanks Ox

  • David Eberhardt

    Reply Reply March 6, 2015

    Great article. I’ll be reviewing this article several times more so I can incorporate the principles into my training. My immediate reaction is that I do not train enough. I have the tools, such as a SIRT pistol, to do the dry fire but laziness is my enemy (I’m a civilian now). These skills can’t be taken for granted.

  • Rick

    Reply Reply March 6, 2015

    My 7th grade algebra teacher used to say, “Repetition impresses facts upon dull minds.” My baseball couch used to slap line drives at the infield from 10 feet. He would ask the cheerleaders to sit in the bleachers to add stress to the situation. Your article seems to prove their points.

    This is a well researched and thought out article. I would like to see you dig deeper and flesh this out.

    Keep up the good work.

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