Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.

3 E-ssentials for Excellence at Olympic Trials and Beyond

3 E-ssentials for Performance Excellence

3 E-ssentials for Performance Excellence

Energy management. All the preparation and hard work is behind you at this point; the key is to manage your energy at the venue so you can perform at your optimal level when it is your turn to compete.  While high intensity focus is a key ingredient of successful performance, sustaining performance over a prolonged period requires alternating intense focus with periods of relaxation and shifting attention.  Mental and emotional recovery between events is as crucial as physical recovery.  If you’re really serious about performing well, take time to be “not so serious,” kick back and relax.  You’ll have more energy when it’s time to ramp up for your event.

Execution.  By now you should have a well-developed performance plan that you have rehearsed countless times.  Your body knows exactly what to do, even if your “thinking mind” may wonder if there is something different that might tweak your performance even more.  You do not need to do anything new or different; simply do what you know and do it well.  Trust your training; trust your body; execute your plan.  Anything new or different at this stage of the game is a recipe for disaster.

Embrace the experience.  Whether you are a seasoned Olympian or a first-time qualifier, you’ve been preparing for this moment all your life. You have earned this opportunity. Embrace the excitement, uncertainty and possibilities that it offers.  Make memories that you can Enjoy for a lifetime.

Options for Uncertainty: Worry, Planning and Curiosity

Worry Is A Waste

Uncertainty is widely accepted by performance experts as one of the most common factors contributing to stress.  The irony is that everything in life is uncertain, except for “death and taxes” (according to Ben Franklin). Whether you are an athlete preparing for the Olympics, a business person attempting to land a major account,  a surgeon preparing to operate, or a young lover contemplating a lifelong commitment — you can feel confident; but there are no guarantees. Not knowing is a part of life.   The attitude and emotion that you bring to the unknown has a major influence on how you perform under pressure.  Consider the emotions driving the three primary paths through uncertainty:  worry, planning and curiosity.

Worry is fueled by fear. It is a succubus to the energy that is required for excellence, and will drain a person of creativity and confidence in dealing with uncertainty.  Worry is a waste.

By contrast, if you take the same uncertainty and wrap yourself in cool, dispassionate logic, you can enter the realm of planning.  You never know exactly what will happen; but  you probably have an idea of situations that would be challenging.  For each situation, decide in advance how you ideally want to respond; then practice that response either by mentally rehearsing your deftly dealing with the distraction, or actually seek out opportunities to practice in real life.

For example, the upcoming US Olympic Team Trials for swimming will be held in a venue rarely experienced by swimmers.  The competition pool has been constructed in the center of the CenturyLink Center, an arena in Omaha that is complete with jumbo-tron scoreboards, spotlights and poolside pyrotechnics whenever a world record is broken.  The swimmers with whom I work have been mentally rehearsing being on center stage, refocusing after fireworks, and preparing for the “long walk” rather than the more familiar short trek from the ready room to the swimming blocks.  A business person may mentally rehearse dealing with a less than cooperative audience, and even recruit colleagues to role play the scenario in a practice situation.  Research has shown that mentally preparing for adversity and distractions improves confidence and performance.  Great performers typically are great planners.

Where worry is fueled by fear, and planning is more dispassionate logic, curiosity has the potential to tap the delightful emotions of anticipation and wonder.  Remember what it was like to see a present wrapped with pretty paper and a bow, not knowing what was inside, but excited with all the possibilities?  At some point in time, your anticipated moment of performance will be your present.  There is a fine yet powerful distinction between worrying how you will perform and wondering how you will perform, fueled by the optimism of curiosity.

Take a moment for this little experiment: Think of an upcoming performance situation, and now start worrying about it. (okay now, don’t just read this; I want you to actually experience this exercise).  Study the muscle tension in your face and brow as you engage in worry.  Now take the same upcoming situation, and mindfully think of it with curiosity.  Study again the muscle tensions in your face and brow.  For most people, there are marked differences between the furrowed brow of worry and the wide-eyed wonder of curiosity.

If you want to replace worry with curiosity, use these physical cues to help develop the habit of curiosity.  It begins with mindfulness.  Periodically check out the muscles in your face when thinking of performance situations.  If you discover any tension that is associated with worry, pause, breathe, and gently raise your brow while wondering about the event in a non-judgmental, inquisitive manner. Enjoy the unknown and all the possibilities the future might bring. Once you master this sequence, practice, practice, practice!

Curiosity didn’t kill the cat; worry killed the cat. Planning helped the cat deal with distractions, and curiosity helped it enjoy the journey.


The Olympic Trials are here; FACE the challenge!

Great performers FACE the challenge

This afternoon the Olympic Trials for the whitewater slalom team of USA Canoe & Kayak started at the US National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, NC.  The temperatures were crisp and the skies a brilliant clear Carolina blue as the top paddlers in the US started the three-day process to determine the 2012 US National Team and earn points to represent the US at the London Olympics.  The outcome of years of training are determined on a frothy whitewater run that lasts less than 120 seconds. This is the epitome of a pressure performance situation.

The key to performing well under pressure is having a clear “target” of what you want to be doing, and keeping your attention on that target.  Athletes, performing artists, physicians, and business people are quick to identify what they don’t want:  don’t choke, don’t freeze, don’t blow it.  Unfortunately, focusing on what you don’t want often inadvertently increases the probability of what you hope to avoid.

So what is the optimal target in these pressure situations?

Race “free.”

I first heard this term used by Canadian sport psychologist, Terry Orlick, and immediately knew it captured the “target” for anyone attempting to perform under pressure. The key to being able to race free is to FACE the challenge:

Focus totally in the moment.

Activate to your ideal performance level; calm down or pump up if needed.

Commit fully to your performance plan.

Embrace the experience.

Let the games begin and FACE the challenge…



Sport psychology lessons from Bubba Watson

Bubba Watson’s physical routine and mannerisms may seem a bit quirky to those who have taken countless lessons and strive for a Teflon demeanor on the golf course; but his mental skills are golden.  Let me begin by saying that I have never met the 2012 Masters champion, and have no knowledge of whether he has ever worked with a sport psychologist; I just know from his inspiring interview following Sunday’s victory that his mental skills are both exceptional and a model of what sport psychology research knows to be effective.

Bubba is a genius at not being confused by thinking. “I hit the shot I see in my head.”  Sport psychologists know that imagery is perhaps the most powerful of all mental skills.  The logical conscious mind knows all about critiquing and analyzing a shot, but is pretty inept when it comes to executing that shot, or any other physical task that requires coordination.   The part of the brain that deals with images, rhythms and sensations is supreme when dealing with the fine-motor movements of sport.  Many people believe that sport psychologists “teach people to think positively.”  In my experience, I teach people not to think, and instead focus their attention on the images and rhythms of what they want to experience.  Bubba is a master at trusting the “unconscious” part of the brain that knows how to put all the pieces together and perform under pressure.

Bubba is a model of paying attention to where he pays attention. Shortly after his win, commentator Tom Rinaldi asked him, “What did you most overcome today?” Bubba’s response:  “Thoughts that weren’t on the golf course; thoughts that were about other things…”  Ever since the 1970’s, sport psychologist Dr. Bob Nideffer has advocated that the key to success in any endeavor is to: 1) know what is essential for success; 2) keep your attention on what is essential; and 3) ignore the distractions.

If I had any reservations about Bubba Watson being a role model for sport psychology, it vanished when I learned of his tweet first thing Monday morning after the victory:  “Up early can’t sleep, don’t want to miss any part of being a dad . . . . ”  He understands what is important in life.

Bubba may have never taken a golf lesson in his life; but we can all take a lesson or two from Bubba.

In pressure situations, remember to “P”

Business confrontation

I recently had the opportunity to contribute to Sue Shellenbarger’s Q&A column in the Wall Street Journal (click here for her original column).  It was a great question, and Shellenbarger crafted a thoughtful, concise response using my input combined that that of my good friend and colleague, Dr. Kate Hays.

I confess that my writing style is more quirky than what was reflected in the column, and decided to offer my unabridged response to the question of how to handle confrontational situations in the workplace.

Q: I enjoyed your article on stress. I do face-to-face customer service in my job and frequently must deal with irate or abrasive customers who make stressful demands. My body responds just as you described; my heart speeds up, my hands get extremely cold and my mind goes blank — then I get even more nervous. I have never liked confrontations but I must try to stay calm and think on my feet. Can you offer any advice? –J.W., Boston, Mass.

There are 3 key ingredients to performing successfully in pressure situations: 1) a clear “target” of how you would like to handle the situation; 2) specific strategies for staying “on target;” and 3) practicing the process of staying on target when confronted with distractions and rising emotions.

Have a clear target.

When dealing with challenging situations such as you describe, it is easy to slip into the habit of focusing on what you do not want to happen: you don’t want to become upset, you don’t want your palms to start sweating, you don’t want your mind to go blank. Unfortunately, the brain does not incorporate the concept of “not” and instead engages in mental rehearsal of what you’re trying to avoid. It is far more effective to focus upon what you would like to actually do in those situations to provide a mental target for your attention. For example, in the situation you described your target may be staying calm, relaxed and poised.

How do you get a clear target?  Look for exceptions to the problem. When have you been most successful at handling confrontation? You learn more from the one time that you have been successful than from 99 times that you have failed. If you cannot think of any times that you have been effective, find someone whom you believe is handling confrontation well and use that individual as a model for how you would like to behave under pressure.

Have strategies for staying “on target.”

Just as in playing darts, you may not hit the bull’s-eye; but your goal is always to come as close as possible. If “off target,” you make adjustments and keep refining the process. In pressure situations, it is easier to stay on target if you remember to “P”: Pause; get your Pulse down; and put things in Perspective.  Put these together and they become your “P routine.”

Pause. In dealing with an irate customer, it is easy to get caught up in a reactive verbal interchange. Slow the process down by taking both a physical and mental break in the action. This can be accomplished with a simple gesture such as leaning back in your chair, taking off your glasses or picking up a notepad, and then continuing with your “P routine.”

Pulse down. Use your breathing to lower your pulse and counteract the flood of adrenaline. Adrenaline involuntarily triggers short and shallow breathing (along with all of the other physical symptoms that you noted). Disrupt the involuntary response with slow “belly breathing.” Start a long slow breath by relaxing the diaphragm and letting the air fill your lungs from the bottom or belly up. Some people find it helpful to imagine the lungs filling in the same fashion as a water balloon. Inhale for a slow 5 count and then exhale slowly through your mouth for a slow 7 count. Repeat as needed.

Perspective. Plan now for the things that you would like to remember in pressure situations that help you maintain perspective and a sense of balance. This may include things such as “Stay calm;” “My job is to understand the person’s concern, convey empathy, and explain the company’s policy even if the customer does not like the policy;” or “This person is upset with the policy, it is not about me personally.”  It is important for your reminders to be in words and language that are comfortable and familiar to you, and that they are believable rather than a lofty ideal. If you want to remember something under pressure, don’t just think it; ink it. Writing it down improves your ability to recall it later. It can be particularly helpful to write these reminders on a note card where you can view it during your “P routine.”


Staying calm and focused under pressure is a skill that can be developed and improved with practice. The key is to start with low-pressure situations and gradually increase the intensity. The easiest way to begin is with mental rehearsal, which allows you to control all of the elements and the intensity. A good first step is imagining the ideal emotional state that you have defined as your target. Focus initially on experiencing the sense of calm, relaxed focus in a setting that is safe and free of any threats or distractions. Then use your imagination to gradually increase the complexity and challenge of the situation. Imagine staying “on target” while talking with a trusted friend. Progress to mentally rehearsing a minor disagreement with a colleague. Mentally rehearse starting to become upset and then using your P routine to calm down. Once you have been successful in your mental rehearsal, look for opportunities to practice using your skills in real-life situations.

As with all performance psychology interventions, these principles and suggestions need to be tailored to your unique personality, strengths and situation. You may find it helpful to consult a psychologist, therapist or coach if you encounter any difficulties with the process, or simply would feel more comfortable with professional assistance.  All skills must be practiced to be effective. And finally, remember that when you initially begin practicing new behaviors it is common to still be a bit apprehensive and uncertain. Confidence comes after mastering skills, not before.

Don’t just set goals, GET goals

Ever notice how setting goals is typically a lot easier than actually getting those goals?  Typically around this time of the year, people begin struggling with all those goals that were so optimistically set with the entrance of the new year.  If you are beginning an exercise program, check out this recording

of a presentation on 11/1/11 at Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC. It provides tips and insights for not just setting goals, but actually getting your goals. In this 50 minute program you’ll find humor, examples and practical advice on the benefits of thinking in stages as you embark on change, and tips for dealing with discomfort during early stages of an exercise program.


Best idea of 2011? Create your own “Top 10” list

Start the New Year right

Start your New Year right

With the completion of another year and the promise of 2012 ahead, it is time for reflection of things past and things to come.  The ubiquitous “Top 10” lists are staples in magazines and newspapers, noting everything from the major news events of the year to the worst dressed individuals.

Here’s an idea from Robert Pagliarini of the  Chicago Tribune that can be both personally meaningful as well as a great conversation topic at a new year’s gathering:  Create your own “Top 10” list for 2011. What were your biggest accomplishments?  toughest challenges?  funniest moments? or simply what you consider your personal major events?  After you’ve reviewed 2011, turn your attention forward and imagine that you are having the same conversation as 2012 rolls to an end.  What do you want to be listing as your top 10 events of 2012?  After you’ve identified your 2012 list, don’t just think it; INK it!  Write it down where you can use it to navigate your efforts this year and review it next December.

On a personal note, one of my top 10 accomplishments of 2011 was launching the new Get Your Head In The Game website (yea!!!!).  One of my goals for 2012 is to have at least 1,000 people following Get Your Head In The Game on Facebook.  If you’re reading this and and think it is of value, I’d like your help:  take a moment to click the “Like” button and share this post with your friends.  If you sign up to our mailing list, your name will be entered in the monthly drawing for a free gift from Get Your Head In The Game.

Thanks and Happy New Year!

Charlie Brown PhD (a.k.a., Dr. Charlie)

How much would you pay to be healthy?

A growing number of companies are discovering that paying people cash to exercise and lose weight yields big financial dividends in the long run.  Working out just 1-2 times a week can lower an individual’s medical costs an average of 8%.  If a person works out 2-3 times weekly, the savings rise to 28%; and if a person works out an average of 3 or more times each week, the savings rise to a whopping 44%, according to a recent article in USA Today.  These potential savings are catching the attention of businesses.  One major US company has set the goal of it’s employees losing 20 tons of weight during the it’s fiscal year, and is linking employees’ annual bonuses to the goal.

One of the greatest challenges of any health and exercise program is remaining committed when motivation wanes.  There is ample research supporting the notion that people change in stages. When an individual gets to the Action stage, simple behavioral principles (such as having a clear behavioral goal and reward) are most effective.  While it may irk some to pay cash to people for doing something that they should want to do because it is beneficial to them, the bottom line is that the external reward (money) is more effective than all the “shoulds,” “oughts” and other idealistic intrinsic (internal) motivation principles.

If you want to stay the course on your health routine during this upcoming holiday season, I encourage you use the same approach that the companies are finding successful:  pay yourself to remain committed to your program.  There are a number of variations of using an external reward to sustain commitment, but they all include these key elements:

  • Have a clear behavioral goal of what you will do rather than what you will not do, such as exercising 3 times each week, having small portion size, eating desert only on Sunday, etc.
  • Ante up.  Make the reward real where you can see it at the beginning of the program.  For example, get a crisp $100 bill, an envelope of cash or a written check at the commencement of your program. It makes a difference if you can actually see your reward rather than thinking of it as a draft from your bank account.
  • Follow the rules. Have a clear structure where you get the reward only by adhering to your commitment.  No fudging allowed.  If there is a risk that you might fall to temptation and give yourself the reward without adhering to the program, enlist the assistance of someone else to hold the stakes.  Be certain that person commits to giving you the reward only when you have earned it.  If there is a chance that you may fall short of your goal, clarify a contingency plan for  the money, such as giving it to charity.
Remember, motivation is over-rated.  Motivation changes like the weather.  Commitment is the key for long-lasting change.
Let me know how it goes…

Wanting a bit more willpower? Try a bite of chocolate…

If you are struggling with self control, a little bite of something sweet may be just the thing to boost waning willpower. Researchers have been studying what actually goes on in the brain when a person is exercising “will power” or self-control.  The part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex is responsible for will power and self-control, and different regions of the prefrontal cortex influence different aspects of will power. The left side gets things going and energizes your attention on the tasks and behaviors that are your goals, while your right side acts as the brakes and keeps you from falling victim to temptation.

It also turns out that will power requires a goodly amount of energy, primarily in the form of glucose.  If your glucose levels are low, either due to not having enough “fuel” or the body simply not processing the glucose efficiently due to stress or lack of sleep, then your will power is more apt to run out of gas.  Psychologist Roy Baumeister of Florida State University conducted studies where a small number of jelly beans or half a can of soda provided the brain with a boost in glucose to produce more self control.

Members of AA have long advocated the “HALT principle” when undertaking one of the greatest challenges of will power: abstinence from alcohol.  HALT is a reminder to never get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired.  Modern brain imaging research validates the HALT principle.  If you are hungry and struggling with will power, a bite of something sweet may provide the sugar boost that you need to sustain self control (just make certain is is only a bite!).  Likewise, engaging in pleasurable activities that promote emotional and mental recovery, can help restore one’s will power “muscles” and strengthen them in the process.

These current findings also give insights as to why eating several small meals throughout the day is typically more effective than restrictive crash dieting.  By eating throughout the day, a person is better able to maintain the glucose levels needed to fuel the parts of the brain that exercise self-control.  That means making better choices as to both types of foods and portion sizes.  By contrast, if a person restricts food for an extended period and experiences a drop in glucose, will power crashes and the probability of binge eating skyrockets.

To learn more about recent findings on the neurological basis of will power, check out this article from the Boston Globe: click here.

So now about that chocolate… The researchers used a small number of jelly beans to boost glucose levels. Personally, if I’m going for an energy boost, chocolate is my “fuel” of choice.  The challenge is to stop with just a bite.  If you eat it slowly (and good chocolate should always be savored slowly), the added glucose can help you say “enough.”  Sounds like a “win-win situation” to me.

So what have you found that helps your will power?

Is Adult Anger in Youth Sports Spiraling Out of Control?

Youth Sports Perspective

Is Adult Anger in Youth Sports Out of Control?

While the experience of anger in youth sport is not new (the Rutgers Youth Sport Research Council has an excellent article on-line documenting adult violence at youth sporting events occurring 25 years ago), there are factors that make the matter more volatile today.   One of the major concerns is when parents begin seeing their child’s sport participation as an “investment.”  Rather than encouraging a child to play for fun and to learn life skills such as teamwork, leadership and discipline, sport participation is viewed as a way to get a scholarship or a big paycheck as a professional athlete.  Too often this can lead to thinking in terms of “ownership” of the athlete and wanting to protect the investment, rather than pride in your child.

It is natural for a parent to want his or her child to play well and perform at their peak ability; however there are times that this goes overboard.  Over-emphasis on winning and “being a good investment” easily leads to burnout of many talented young athletes.  One of the antidotes of burnout is to make certain that the young athlete has an identity beyond sport.  The challenge is to broaden the yardstick by which success is measured.  If the sole yardstick is “winning,” “showcasing talent” or “scholarship offers,” a parent may be short-changing their child.  If the yardstick is broadened to include relationships with others, relationship with self (understanding oneself and one’s emotions), and relationship with a higher power (e.g., God, not a Division I coach), then a parent can make decisions (and behave) in a manner that prepares the youth for true success in life.  Has a parent really been successful if he or she has a child that earns a scholarship, but is miserable, has no friends, and doesn’t have a clue how to sustain relationships?