Most of us have experienced, or at least witnessed, performance anxiety, be it in sports, exams or work presentations.
Take sport; I've learned much from athletes and their focus. However, even the very top ones, have been known to 'choke', which is, in essence, 'losing it under pressure' or being 'unable to act/react at the appropriate level'.
Team sports fans know that playing 'home' is usually an advantage. However, it is not always easier having your fans around you. Studies done on biathlon show that while there is indeed a small measurable benefit during the race part when the physical is dominant, it becomes a bigger hindrance during the shooting part when the mind takes over, trying to make abstraction of the environment. As a result, bi-athletes tend to perform worse on their home turf.
Keen golfers are probably familiar with Jean Van De Velde. Back in 1999 he was a relatively unknown golfer, ranked 152nd in the world. At Carnoustie, the largest and most difficult tournament of year, out of nowhere, he was leading by three strokes before the last hole. So obvious was his win that his name had already been engraved on the cup. Yet he made mistake after mistake and managed to lose. He had 'choked', or you could say it was self-sabotage. So what's going on?
Basically, when people 'lose it', they are paying too much attention to their internal talk, wondering what people might think of them. Their focus is usually all over the place. Choking often affects "intelligent" people the most, because they tend to over-analyse.
Often the higher the stakes (money or kudos) the worse people become in executing their particular 'task'.
US economist Uri Gneezy conducted an experiment in India where he got people to do certain manual tasks, rewarding them for each success. He split them into groups and paid 10 cents to group one, $1 to group two and $10 to group three. Knowing that $10 was also the average monthly wage, you can imagine what it meant to them.
The outcome was basically that the larger the stakes, the bigger the reduction in success. There is even a task where the success rate dropped from 25% to 0%.
When you want to do something really well, such as winning something or be seen as 'the best', it's really important that you have the right mind strategies, and muscle memory, so you are able to turn off the cognitive negative brain; basically, get out of your own way.
The mind doesn't know the difference between a real and an imagined event, yet most people are visualising the very thing they don't want (that's true in most areas of life by the way) so it's important that we do very precise visualisations on the desired internal state.
That's exactly what successful sports people do, they rehearse in their head thousands of time. There's even a study in basketball showing that visualisation alone can be almost as good as physical training. Doing both mental and physical training is the key to success.
When you visually engage all your senses, see what it is you need to be doing in detail, in full colour, hear the sounds, feel how you want to be doing it etc.
Where appropriate, engage your body, move and rehearse physically, so if you are going to be doing your 'task' on stage don't rehearse it sitting.
Rehearse all this again and again, until it is hard-wired in your nervous system and becomes a 'habit'. Why do you think actors and musicians rehearse so much!
Remember when the stakes are high, be they external or internal, that's when we tend to go off kilter. Our mind wanders and we end up sabotaging ourselves.
This also applies to giving a talk in a meeting or a presentation, or for entrepreneurs pitching their latest idea; the same rules apply. You may have seen Dragon's Den and some of the entrepreneurs pitching who 'choke'. You have to be able to communicate your message sincerely and engagingly even when all eyes are on you. Your focus should be on:
- What you are doing or saying rather than 'how am I coming across'. Doing that disconnects you from your 'audience' or 'task', be it to one person or several.
- It's also about getting the correct beliefs in place too in order to be able to deliver what you want to do and how you want to do it, e.g. "I'm just focusing 100% on the ball and where I want it to go", "I'm delivering this information to this group of people because I think it's useful and valuable."
- Your audience doesn't have to like you. You must accept you have no control over that.
- It's essential that your whole mind and body are on the 'same page', working seamlessly with the task.
- It's never about 'winning', it's about the process!
The good news is that anyone can be trained to do this, in any situation, business or leisure and it's actually fun and liberating. After all, no one wants to choke!