Objective Humans are often required to perform demanding cognitive and motor tasks under pressure. However, in such environments there is considerable interindividual variability in the ability to successfully execute actions. Here, we consider how individual differences in self‐reported sensitivity to punishment influence skilled motor performance under pressure and whether this relationship is moderated by the temporal detection of threat. Method Across two studies, 160 UK participants (Study 1: N = 80, Mage = 21.6, 52 males; Study 2: N = 80, Mage = 24.95, 45 males) performed a precision‐grip task and received either early or late warning of an upcoming stressful manipulation involving social evaluation and performance‐dependent incentives. Results In both studies, we report an interaction where punishment sensitivity was adaptive for motor performance only when threats were detected early and there was opportunity to prepare for the upcoming stressor. Further, our results suggest that the benefits of punishment sensitivity are likely underpinned by the effective use of cognitive strategies. Conclusion Heightened sensitivity to punishment is adaptive for performance under pressure, provided threats are detected early and effective cognitive strategies are implemented.