The stress and nervousness that you feel coming up to and during a performance is vital to elite performance. This arousal is your body’s way of preparing to deliver a peak performance: dry mouth, sweating, wanting to throw up and shaking are all physical preparations by your body. We often confuse this physical state of readiness with anxiety, a fear of performing, of failing, of not producing our best game.
Why do we get anxious? Consider a ten year old boy, playing in his first big Little League game, the score is tight. He’s up to bat, winning runs are on base, everyone is looking at him. He swings mightily, one, two, three times and completely misses the ball, the game ends, he’s devastated at his failure. What do you think he will remember next time a high-stakes pressure situation comes up for him? He will connect those feelings of arousal with feelings of failure: “Uh-oh, last time I was in this situation, I completely screwed up”.
But what really happened there? His body was ready to go, fired up but he simply hadn’t mastered the skills to perform at the level he needed to at that moment. Hardly a huge failure for a ten year old. But he will carry the association of physical stress with failure and fear that arousal. In the future, he might deal with it in a variety of ways: pushing down the feelings of stress, mentally checking out, deep breathing exercises to bring his body to a calmer state or avoiding the situation altogether. Maybe he will never play baseball again to avoid ever having to face that situation. As he grows up, he never forgets that experience and makes sure that he avoids the uncomfortable feelings that come with stressful situations because he “knows” he performs badly under pressure. Away from the baseball diamond, he avoids taking on risks that might put him in situations where he gets stressed and nervous, his performance is limited and his potential is stunted. A story is created and reinforced. “I just can’t handle pressure”.
Consider a different ending to this tale. After his strike-out ended the game, he felt disappointed for a day or two. But then he grabbed his bat and began methodically working on his hitting with his coach, in front of the mirror, watching the pros, asking his mom to pitch ball after ball to him to hone his technique. He looks for boys bigger and stronger than he is to pitch to him so he can see what a faster more deceptive pitch looks like. He accepts his small failures, striking out and getting hit with pitches until he eventually makes contact with a ball. And then another.
Over time, he starts to read the pitcher and feel the pitch coming with his body, not his head. A big game comes up, he’s in another situation where he’s up to bat with the game in the balance. His heart is pounding, stomach cramped, mouth is dry. But instead of fearing the situation, he sees it as an opportunity to do something significant, to demonstrate what all his hard work can produce and to take his game to the next level. He readies himself in the batter’s box, goes through his preparation rituals, narrows his focus to the pitcher and the ball and allows himself to trust that his hours of training have prepared him to meet this challenge.
Funny how small things can lead to big results.
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