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Managing Your Mindset

Very few of us are Olympic athletes, but we can all benefit from enhancing our ability to manage our mindset in high-pressure situations.

man on running field
Photo by Braden Collum / Unsplash

By Anna Batchelder, CEO of Bon Education, with Mary Ames

Did you catch any of the Olympics last month? There is nothing like watching athletes from around the world achieve the highest levels of human performance to fill us with inspiration. But the athletes who achieved the podium (or delivered a personal best performance) demonstrated not only physical prowess but also the mental fortitude required to perform under unbelievable pressure.

While Americans were captivated by Simone Biles, the legendary gymnast who excused herself from competition with a case of the “twisties” (before returning to win Individual Bronze on the balance beam), issues around mindset and mental health have been gaining attention in elite sports in recent years.

Today, hundreds of elite-level athletes and teams work with mental skills coaches. As of 2018, 27 of 30 MLB teams employed “mental skills coaches'' to help players deal with the mental challenges of the game. And a growing number of business executives are also enlisting the help of sports psychologists to help hone the mental skills required to perform under pressure.

Very few of us are Olympic athletes, but we can all benefit from enhancing our ability to manage our mindset in high-pressure situations.

The Psychology of Choking. The most dramatic example of a mental skills break is the “choke,” the moment when an athlete seemingly freezes up, and everything starts going irreparably wrong. Watching an athlete choke can be even more excruciating than seeing an athlete get injured, because we have all been there.

A choking trigger, such as anxiety, pressure or something just plain going wrong, can cause an athlete to misdirect their mental focus in a crucial moment, whether to external stimuli such as a roaring crowd or to focus excessive attention on the execution of a skill. Unfortunately, a poor performance, such as a missed shot, can increase the anxiety and make the situation worse.

In a recent conversation with psychologist and author Dr. Sian Beilock, Shankar Vedantam, host of the Hidden Brain podcast, offers this explanation: “All of the things you know how to do really well are saved in your brain as procedural memory. If you take a skill that has been coded in procedural memory and start to think about it deliberately using working memory, you go back to thinking like a beginner. This is when you choke.”

Flip the Script. High-performance professionals, such as athletes, doctors or pilots, are able to overcome a choke by rewriting their mental script to shut down the cycle before it starts. The physiological signals for anxiety - racing heart, sweaty palms - are the same signals for excitement. In a high-pressure scenario, professionals who can shift their mindset from “I am afraid, I might mess up” to “I am excited, I’ve got this” are successfully able to channel their mental energy away from disruptive thoughts and towards a positive and confident performance.

Shifting your mindset from a state of anxiety to a state of excitement is no easy feat. But as with any skill, with regular practice you can develop your ability to perform under pressure. Here are some exercises that can help you prepare for your next high-pressure event:

Whether it's toeing the starting line for a race or delivering a pitch to a potential client, we all feel pressure to perform at our best. Simply accepting that performance anxiety is real can go a long way toward alleviating the negative effects. Everybody chokes; it’s how we recover that defines the outcome.

Anna Batchelder is CEO of Bon Education and Co-Founder of interstory. She has designed and led programs for clients across the Middle East, Asia and North America. Outside of work, Anna is an avid yogi, traveler and podcast lover. Anna resides in the UAE with her husband and three children.