Forcing the body to relax under pressure is really powerful. But it takes practice. And focus.

The five mile road race I ran this morning had me thinking about this. At mile three my muscles start to tighten and I began, as people often say, “grinding.” But today I focused on using my mind to fight against this muscular tension as I carried my pace over the final miles.

it seems like impulse pushes us to meet pressure with pressure but experience tells me to, at times, resist this.

In today’s race I maintained and accelerated my pace over the last few miles while working hard to override this impulse to tighten– and to relax my muscles instead. It was a transfer of pressure from my muscles to my mind. My mind now had to work harder to improve the performance of my body by calming it down.

In this way, tense running becomes mindless, lazy running. Coaches tell you not to “fall asleep” during a race and this essentially means turning off your mind’s power as force to keep your body relaxed as you push forward towards the finish.

Martial arts disciplines try to teach these principles of relaxation under pressure as well and Yogis likely become accustomed to forcing relaxation under the tension of a stretch.

But I also think this relaxation under pressure can be generalized to produce benefit outside of running and athletics–and that’s the purpose of this post.

Business dealings and relationships can benefit as well. I remember listening to a tense Senate inquiry of Apple CEO Tim Cook a few years ago that highlights this. The senators were, at the beginning, grilling Cook and, amazingly,  it seemed that the more pressure they put on him the softer and more calmly he spoke. It was masterful. After a few minutes his relaxed but professional demeanor diffused their tension completely. He knew he could not meet fire with fire. He had to meet all levels of increased pressure with increased focus on relaxation.

I’m sure it was hard for Cook to do this. Just like my legs started to tighten today at mile three, I’m sure Cook’s temper started boil a bit when Senator’s really started to dig into him. He figured out a way to override his default and created a better personal outcome as a result.

Cook was such a master of this it seemed he’d had a lot of practice with being “calm in the storm.” This ends up being the mark of a great leader and it’s something you can learn with practice and study. Engagement in challenging physical activities can be instructive and merely the general awareness and acceptance that relaxation under pressure can help one achieve better performance goes a long way towards moving one closer to a Tim Cook-like mastery of this art.