A sense of urgency is an interesting phenomenon. It turns out there is an optimal amount of stress we need to achieve high performance. In his book Leading Well from Within, Dr. Daniel Friedland points out that if we do not have enough stress, we lack the energy necessary to fully perform. If we have too much stress, however, our brain can shut down on us. Urgency, a sense that we do not have enough time is one of the levers that can push upon a team's sense of stress.
We see this in American Football with the two-minute drill. Teams suddenly pick up the pace and start moving quicker. The clock contributes to a feeling of more energy. Likewise, we have seen defenses fall apart under similar pressure. Why the difference? First, the offence knows what's coming. The defense is also saddled with uncertainty. (I'll talk more about that next month). So, you can see an example where the right amount of stress gives one side an advantage but too much can detract from the other team.
So how do you get it right? The first step is to recognize it. Teams can execute high pressure plans when they have practiced them, and they are familiar with them. Very often the urgency produces a narrowing of focus. When I coached baseball, I could see my players enter "tunnel vision" when the pressure was high. They become extremely focused on the task at hand. This can be both good and bad. Good if you are skilled at what you are doing, bad if you need to collect additional information. I can still remember coaching in my first championship game. I had no idea there was a crowd of parents just outside the fence. I literally had not seen them walk up. My entire focus was on the players and the game. I noticed the crowd only after it was all over and I remember thinking, "When did they get here?"
Optimal stress can remove distractions and raise the sympathetic nervous system so that we can move quickly and efficiently. All our mental and physical resources can be deployed to solve the problem at hand. Excessive stress, however, is like climbing the performance hill only to slip down the other side. With excessive focus, you process little, but because the stress is so high, the brain begins to shut down the primate brain and redirect resources to the older mammalian brain, or lizard brain. In a nutshell, thinking is an expensive process, and it is slow. Our brains evolved to redirect resources to the fight or flight, so we can get away as fast as possible.
What this means in practice is that you lose your mind when you need it most.
So, what is the practical application of this knowledge? Three things. First, understand not all stress is bad. Urgency can be a powerful tool for marshaling the energy needed to perform at a high level. Second, recognizing when stress has exceeded its optimal threshold can help you recognize when you need to slow down (drop from the 2-minute drill back to the standard pace of play), or take a break to focus on developing better skills to handle the problems. Finally, simply being aware of the emotional and energetic context of your team will give you more options to manage it.