Critical Moment Toughness

Critical Moment Toughness

What is critical moment toughness and why is it so important?

Apart from the importance of long term mental wellbeing, critical moment toughness is a vast part of overall resilience and often the hardest to grasp. For an Olympic athlete, a huge chunk of their mental resilience is presented in those critical moments before and during a performance. But this toughness isn’t just for athletes. It translates into the office and could help boost your career. 

Whether you face critical moment decision making and or pressure everyday or once every 3 years, it is important to understand how to control your nerves in order to achieve the best possible outcome for you.

But instead of telling you what it is, and you coming away with a deep understanding of the definition but no idea of how to deal with it, let’s discuss 5 things that will lead you to conquer critical moment pressure and keep you focused on the right things at the right times.

Recognise the Critical Moments

You might have more critical moments than you think and recognising them is the first step to controlling them. It could be an important meeting, a job interview, a sales pitch or even a chance meeting in the lift with the CEO – all moments that are prone to mistakes under pressure. 

In a 2005 survey of over 600 executives conducted by the chartered management institute showed that four out of ten conceded that they had taken decisions against their better judgement after being pressured or bounced into making panic commitments. 

How do we avoid this? First, let’s recognise these moments. As we discussed above, it could be an everyday or a less frequent occurrence. So write them down now. A piece of paper, your laptop… What moments do you feel pressure and a lack of control? Past, present or that you know of in the future?#

Control the Controllables

It is important as we begin to recognise these moments that we understand the difference between what we can and can’t control.

This brings us onto the next step; CONTROL THE CONTROLLABLES. Yes, that age old phrase. But we cannot stress its importance enough. Why waste energy, effort and resources worrying or getting angry about poor weather, bad resources or the experience of the opposition (if there is one)? 

“You have to go back to the adage ‘control the controllable’… whether people do well or badly, I have no control over. The only thing I can control is myself, my equipment and my performance, and that’s what I’ll do”, Alex Coomber, Bronze Medallist at the 2002 Winter Olympics.

It’s worth writing down your controllables. Get clear on your game plan. These could be as follows: 

Critical moment Toughness
Control the Controls

What I can control:

  • I have done extensive research and I am clear on my sales pitch. I know my product inside out. 

  • I am living a sensible lifestyle in the lead up to my critical moment. Eating well, getting a good amount of sleep. I feel good.

  • The amount of long term/ongoing preparation I do, in addition to specific shorter term research and preparation you have done for your critical moment. 

  • Enjoy the experience. Often these critical moments are so high pressure because the stakes are high. They are an opportunity to succeed and could lead to other great things. It’s best not to approach them in the fear of things going wrong, but as an opportunity to win. That is the mindset of a successful person. 

What I can’t control:

  • If my boss has a dentist appointment and doesn’t turn up

  • If someone else is better at the job than you are, has a better idea or holds more experience (this can be controlled to an extent e.g. if you’re better prepared than them. See passage below)

  • My client may have other priorities, such as financial issues that stop them from buying into my product. 

In 2005, the final two candidates for the British leader of the Conservative party were David Davis (the early favourite and shadow Home Secretary) and David Cameron (the young inexperienced candidate with fewer than five years as a member of parliament). It is thought that the turning point in the leadership campaign was reached at the annual party conference in Blackpool. Cameron’s speech was relaxed but polished, he spoke with spontaneity but it was clear that this came from extensive preparation. It was impactful. 

In contrast, Davis admits that he ‘fouled up’ his speech by not paying enough attention to it. He had other commitments in the lead up to his critical moment and paid a high price for it. 

What can we take from this example? 

Cameron did two things here. He recognised how important the critical moment was, and secondly, he prepared for it. In fact, he prepared so well that it gave the impression of performing ‘off the cuff’. Planned spontaneity, also known as performance psychology. How you prepare is based around your controllables, and how you succeed is based on your preparation. 

“My big speech let me down through lack of concentration”, David Davis, The Times, 25th October 2005.

Actors are told that unless they know their lines inside out, they have no room to act because their focus is on what their next line might be. 

“We have to concentrate on the elements we can control. We are only human, some things are beyond us: I can’t control the weather, I can’t control the referee (although sometimes I may have tried!), or the bounce of the ball. But what you can control is your own performance”, Lawrence Dallaglio, member of the 2003 World Cup winning England rugby team.


Tiger Woods and Father


Bill Sweetenham explains the importance of preparation at the Athens Olympic Games; National Performance Director, Bill Sweetenham, claimed Britain’s swimmers had ‘Olympic phobia’ after they ended the Games with just two medals. But while Sweetenham insisted the swimmers were as well prepared as possible, he conceded they had failed to cope with the mental demands of an Olympics. “The team was physically as well prepared as any other team but we had Olympic phobia constantly present in our preparations”, said the Australian. 

It’s not about just reading through your notes until you know them like the back of your hand. You must create the environment, create the distractions and get used to all of the throw-offs. 

Take this story about Tiger Woods as an example. Tiger Woods is known as one of the greatest athletes of our generation. His father, Earl Woods understood mental toughness and how to prepare more than anyone. In Tiger’s early years, a friend of Earl’s recalls a game of golf he played with them both. While Tiger was taking his shot, Earl talked at the top of his voice and rattled the bunch of keys in his pocket continuously. After a while, the friend told Earl to be respectful and silent while Tiger took his shot. Earl told the friend that he was preparing Tiger for all of the distractions of a professional game. 

The most important message from the Tiger Woods story is that we mustn’t walk into a critical moment blindly. Prepare, prepare and prepare some more.



Now that you know exactly what you’re doing, set yourself up by visualising a second by second performance, unfolding exactly as you want it to. 

A great way to prepare is to visualise. It’s not about believing in universal attraction through visualisation (although if you do, bonus). It’s about preparing yourself for that moment. So your body and mind know exactly what they’re doing. We’re training them to withstand the moments of unfavourable pressure. Enough for your body to be able to do it on autopilot, although we don’t recommend losing consciousness in your annual board meeting!

“My visualization has been refined more and more as the years go on. That is what really got me the world record and Olympic medals. I see myself swimming the race before the race really happens, and I try to be on the splits. I concentrate on attaining the splits I have set out to do. About 15 minutes before the race I always visualise the race in my mind and ‘see’ how it will go. You are really swimming the race. You are visualising it from behind the block. In my mind, I go up and down the pool, rehearsing all parts of the race, visualising how I actually feel in the water”, Alex Bauman, Olympic champion.

Just like you might practice something physically until it becomes second nature, it’s about tying your mind in with that. If your mind pre-empts going into a state of performance and that performance is related to ‘X’ type of emotion and ‘Y’ level of excellence, you create the exact environment for it to thrive in those moments. Because it knows nothing else. 

Alex Bauman, Olympic champion

Self Belief and Perspective

“I have come to realise talent and a high work ethic will get you only so far. There are other people with a similar amount of talent who probably train just as hard producing comparable training times. Yet when I race them I know now I can beat them. It comes back to self-belief. The best way to gain self-belief is to be the best prepared that you possibly can, which will give you more confidence”, Susie O’Neil, Olympic champion.

If you are aware of your critical moment months before, try to look the tiger in the eye. Know that it is coming. Believe that you can do it and visualise yourself performing perfectly. Remember that there have been many people in the past who have faced immensely pressured moments, and they have lived a life afterwards. 

Sometimes looking back on all of the things you have achieved is a huge confidence boost. You have accomplished so much. You have withstood critical moment pressure and as a result, grown to be more resilient. At the same time, look at all of the really tough and unpleasant times you’ve been through. You’re still here. You got through it didn’t you? You handled it. So through all of these moments, remember to gain some perspective.

A great quote from Matt Biondi, Olympic Champion, helps us to remember just this:

“It’s not the end of the world. My dog will still lick my face whether I win or lose.”

Hopefully you will now go away with a sound understanding of your critical moments, and more importantly, how to deal with them. 


A quick summary:

Step 1 – Recognise your critical moments 

Step 2 – Get clear on what you can and can’t control

Step 3 – Control your Controllables 

Step 4 – Visualise

Step 5 – Self Belief and Perspective

The better you follow each of these steps, the more bulletproof you become – hence critical moment toughness. 

Good Luck (or should we say good preparation),


With references from ‘The Game Plan’ by Steve Bull