In my previous article, I described what it means to be “mentally strong”: To know how to control one's body, emotions and thoughts to achieve an internal balance that propels peak performance under pressure, and to persevere for extended periods of time.
Here are 14 things anyone can do to perform well in situations with high stakes - in sports, business, musical presentations or exams. You can try them all, or only those you find particularly applicable to yourself. I recommend choosing them according to how they feel to you. As you adopt each of these strategies, pay particular attention to changes as they happen to you. Those will serve as your milestones for progress.
1. Use your Body to Better Master your Mind: Pay conscious attention to your body's signals. When I ask one of my clients, as I often do in the heat of the moment: “Are you feeling stressed by this?” The usual answer is “No, no I feel ok”. Too often that's not really true. While it's usually a good thing to resist weakness or fear, that doesn't mean it's ever a good thing to deny what's really going on in our bodies. When your body sends you important messages, listen up. The messages come in readily recognizable forms. The body communicates with posture, aches, constrictions to motion and breathing. These are valuable indicators about what's going on. If you respond appropriately to the body's messages, you can change what's happening. Pay attention to your breathing, and you can calm it. If you feel frustrated or angry, in extreme cases yelling can relieve the tension your body needs released. More often, when you have the luxury of time, your best option will be to relax, so that when you're rested your thoughts and emotions will have returned to balance. If you wake up with pent-up anxiety causing you stiffness and muddling your thoughts, exercise to clear your mind, enabling you to see things in a more focused way, to feel more relaxed and move more flexibly. When your muscles feel tight or sore, stretch them to enhance your range of motion. Your body reacts positively in concert with an attentive mind. Learn to harness that power. When your body communicates, heed it and respond mindfully. This is a fantastic alliance for peak performance.
2. Practice Being Present: Sophrology, yoga, tai-chi, mindfulness... these techniques help to get us more in tune with our bodies. They help us modulate how we breathe and enhance the muscles and ligaments to extend our physical capacities. And they're equally good for our minds. They help usl relax while in motion, and to learn how to focus on the present moment. They give us unsolicited tools that make it easier to focus on what you are doing while you are doing it. They train you how to put away thoughts that take you out of the present (eg. thoughts about the stakes of upcoming events, past disappointments…). Some therapy techniques also help reduce the negative emotional intensity of the past, reprogramming the mind to overwrite the positive experience of the present to supplant what happened in the past
3. Ignore the Stakes to Increase Your Resources: A mental golden rule is to think about what's at stake before an event, but never during the actual performance. Why is this important? Because fear is the enemy of peak performance. Pressure to do well is an inhibitor, whether coming from inside yourself or from the outside. Identify all means and resources (time, rehearsals, people…) which can help you to well perform. To do our best we need the opposite of pressure: we need freedom - freedom of motion, freedom to be totally in the moment, freedom to muster all our abilities to their maximum capability.
4. Act on your Self-Talk : What you tell yourself in your head defines the upward limits of your performance. If you talk to yourself about your doubts, or worry if you prepared well enough, or fret whether you've got a sinus headache coming on, you feed the parasite of performance anxiety. Don't put yourself out of the game before it even starts. So how do you modify your self-talk ? Which words have the power to put disturbing thoughts at bay? Just good, old-fashioned affirmations. "I'm prepared for this challenge." "Today I will do my best ever." "I have what it takes." But you need to personalize them: everyone works differently. Use self-talk as self-actualization.
5. Write and Repeat your" Assertiveness Speech": Prepare a written list which starts with "I know…”. This will recap your mastery. Then commit this list to memory. Make it your mantra that you recite to yourself daily
6. Train and Anticipate. Invest time to rehearse, to train. Anticipate different scenarios for D Day. Use this to limit the negative emotions that can arise from unwelcome surprises. What if things are delayed? What if my wingman gets sick? What if ....? If you have a plan for a variety of scenarios, you maximize your strengths. This leaves your brain focused on the task you need to accomplish when the time comes.
7. Project Success. Visualize images. Repeat gestures. Identify feelings and words which will help. Learn by heart and “by body” how you are going to start out - what will be the first thing you're going to do or say. Program your brain to save and create automatic positive reinforcement, thanks to rehearsals.
8. Program for Improvement Resist to the temptation to begin with the goal of exceptional performance. Target an achievable level of performance at the outset. There will be time to increase performance after initial goals are achieved.
9. Identify and Connect to your Deep Motivation. Work on your Why, what for ? Why do I want to succeed? What is the meaning of this action, what am I feeling deeply inside ? What do I really want (besides success)? This will be essential if you are ever caught in a tempest of doubt and emotion. You will know why you are where you are, and nowhere else. This will be the source of much needed energy and resolve.
10. Label Felt Emotions: What emotions am I feeling and with what physical sensations? Identifying feelings is the first step to preventing their hijacking your performance. Deeply introspective work will help you do this: where do my feelings come from, what are they doing to me or for me, what are the likely consequences of them, how should I respond to them?
11. Manage Your Energy: We frequently work on improving our time management, a limited, known resource. Another equally important limited resource but often less consciously managed, is our energy. Of course, it is no fun to accept that you have limited energy. But it is crucially important to building mental toughness. You need to build awareness of the difference between pushing yourself to new limits and feeling the joy of self-surpassing attainment, versus going too far, beyond your capacities. (It's a personal cultural revolution for some of us to accept that recovery is part of performance.) Learn to identify your energy levels. Develop not only the ability to identify your energy state but also how to act on that knowledge to prevent physical, emotional, cognitive or aspirational fatigue. Be aware of who or what gives you energy and what drains it. Get in the habit of taking time to recharge without guilt. That way you'll ensure the highest level of mental and physical energy for your upcoming D Day.
12. Curate Your Entourage: Know who is helping you and who is hindering your performance. Dare to tell those around you what they need to do and say to help you, and just as importantly, what they need to not do or say
13. Confront Yourself and Welcome Feedback. There is no resource more effective for enhancing self-knowledge, clarifying deep aspirations and career planning than open and honest exchanges with knowledgeable people who have your best interests at heart. They are an indispensable source for feedback on your progress and your roadblocks. Count on them to help you clarify where you want to go and how best to get there. A relative, a close friend, and/or a professional support person should be selected with great care to provide this essential role.
14. To be found by everyone 😉
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