Emotional Intelligence: Stress Tolerance

Lou Holtz had a long and highly successful career as a college football coach at several prominent institutions. In that capacity he had a responsibility to attend press conferences and, in general, act as the face and the voice of his university’s football operations. Suffice to say, few in the history of the sport were more informative, inspirational or entertaining fulfilling that role. There are many documented examples, but here is one that I believe “cuts to the chase” in its description of the Stress Tolerance dimension of Emotional Intelligence.

When Coach Holtz was at Notre Dame, his team was practicing for a season-opening big game (Notre Dame fans will tell you that every game is a “big game” … but in this case the national media agreed!). He was on the primary practice field observing the offense and defense and decided (as was his prerogative) to make an impromptu visit to an adjacent field to check in on what was happening with his special teams (punters and placekickers). As he approached, he noticed a placekicker that was apparently taking a break of some sort. This garnered his focused attention, so he continued approaching! As he arrived, he walked up to the kicker (a true freshman) who was noticeably uncomfortable, and had the following exchange:

Coach Holtz:       “What’s going on over here?”

Kicker:                  “Just practicing, Coach”?

Coach Holtz:       (Impatiently) “So, let’s see some practice!”

Kicker:                  (Timidly) “Coach … I get really nervous when you are around.”

Coach Holtz:       “OK … I can appreciate that, I guess. But I do have news for you. I plan on attending every single one of our games this year … along with 70,000 other highly interested observers!”

The message was clear in that setting, and I would suggest it has applicability to all of us (no matter what we do). Effectively responding to stress and mounting pressure distinguishes people with talent or potential from people that are currently performing at a sustained and acceptable level. And when you find yourself in a discussion with any top performer from any field, the one thing they typically have in common is their ability to perform under pressure. It’s like they welcome the stress that accompanies trials of many kinds, because somehow, although difficult, they know that those trials are the true tests that will distinguish their contributions.

Putting yourself in situations where you can respond to escalating levels of stress can have ancillary benefits as well. If nothing else, it decreases the number of people in our increasingly connected world you need to pay attention to! No one (perhaps ever) has brought this reality to life more effectively than Brené Brown. You know who she listens to and welcomes critique from? Others that have agonized for years with research … then published the findings … then written what turned out to be best-selling books … then walked out on stage after stage in front of thousands (which turned out to be millions) to talk about it (must be a very short list!).

“Net-net”? No matter what you do, if you are going to turn your talent into tangible value, welcome the stress that comes with distinction and learn how to manage it.