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:
- Visualize. Studies have shown that visualizing a task can improve performance as much as physical practice - without the physical fatigue. If you are preparing to deliver a keynote to a large crowd, visualize yourself standing on stage. Imagine yourself giving a knock-out presentation. What are you seeing, hearing and feeling?
- Put the Pressure On. One reason elite athletes perform so well under pressure is that they have done it thousands of times. Learning how to be comfortable with the feeling of pressure will help you manage your response when it comes time to perform since you will be able to recognize the feeling and confidently apply the correct tools from your performance toolkit. If you are prepping a new workshop, run your family members through it first (we’re guilty of this one!). Enlist a friend to role-play a difficult conversation with your boss. Practice delivering an upcoming speech to your dog on your evening walk.
- Breathe. Breathing techniques are a go-to tool for mental skills coaches. Changing the rhythm of your breathing can signal relaxation, slowing your heart rate and helping regain your ability to think rationally. Box-breathing (breath in for four, hold for four, breath out for four, hold for four, repeat) is a popular technique, although it is important to find the technique that works best for you. One rule of thumb: when you feel agitated, lengthen your exhales.
- Ask a Question. When your brain starts going into hyperdrive, having a friend ready to ask you a question can help you reset by literally making you stop and think. Keep the questions simple (“What color socks are you wearing today?”) to give you a quick mental reset. Skeptical? Try saying “huh” to yourself and feel how your body relaxes. Tell your co-facilitator about this trick, and have her come ready with a handful of questions to toss at you when she sees you starting to lose your focus.
- Make a Joke. Have you ever noticed athletes hopping up and down or shaking out their arms on the sidelines? Moving the body can release tension that creeps in when we begin overthinking. Giving yourself a good shake can disrupt negative thoughts and give you a chance to reset. Another great way to relieve pressure? Laughter. Laughter releases feel-good chemicals while making us feel happy and confident. About to head on stage for a panel discussion? Have a good joke ready to get everyone laughing - then go out there and have a great time!
- Check in with Your Team. Choking, whether as an athlete or a surgeon or a program professional, can impact the rest of your team as well. Dr. Beilock explains, “In stressful situations, people stop communicating. We are often very confident that we have communicated what we needed to communicate because we know what it is in our head. But our ability to gauge whether someone else has understood is what gets diminished.” There is a good reason for time-outs and half-time breaks in team events. So when you are in a stressful situation with your team, be sure to regularly pause to check in, and try some anxiety-reducing exercises!
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.
Good luck out there,
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.