If you are a licensed psychologist or professional counselor interested in becoming a performance consultant, on August 3, 2012 Drs. Charlie Brown and Kate Hays will be leading a 7-hour CE workshop, “Consulting for Peak Performance – New Venues for Professional Practice,” at the upcoming American Psychological Association Convention in Orlando, FL. The program provides an overview of performance consulting and how it differs from traditional therapy; core skills required for competency; ethical challenges; and a look at the pragmatics of the business of performance consulting. CLICK HERE for details.
If you are a die-hard Olympic fan and concerned that the program conflicts with the London Games, arrangements have been made for a live stream of the games for updates at every break throughout the day and it is rumored that the workshop may have a “pre-emptive break” for 22 seconds at 3:09 pm to view the finals of the men’s 50-meter freestyle.
Athletes consistently report that mental preparation for Olympic competition separates the good from the great. With that in mind, I want to share what U.S. Olympic champions have identified as the top 10 lessons for Olympic success. This information comes from the DVD, “Success at the Olympics,” produced by the Sport Psychology Services at the USOC. The lessons here are not restricted to athletes, but apply to anyone who wants to perform under pressure in business, performing arts or high risk occupations.
For ease of reading, I’ve broken these into two parts: five are covered in Part One (CLICK HERE for Part One); the remaining five in Part Two (CLICK HERE for Part Two). These links lead to recent issues of our Pressure Points newsletter. If you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to take a moment to subscribe to the newsletter and other “Good Stuff” from Get Your Head In The Game, that way you will be assured of getting great tips and offerings “hot off the press.”
As always, I welcome your comments and feedback on Pressure Points and any other aspect of our site.
Charlie Brown, PhD
Director, Get Your Head In The Game
Congratulations to Nick Thoman, who has now earned at spot on the 2012 US Olympic team! Here’s a portion of an interview with Gold Medalist Mel Stewart of SwimSwamTV in which Nick discusses his mental preparation for the Olympic Trials. The interview was conducted at the 2012 Charlotte UltraSwim. Check out SwimSwam.com for more information, video and news of the swimming world, and SwimOutlet.com who sponsored the video. BTW, Nick, thanks for the endorsement!
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.