Secrets of a high-performing mind and 5 tips to develop yours
It was down to just me and one other kid now. I was fifteen. The bar was set at 1 meter 85; I'd never jumped more than six feet before. I'd failed it twice. He'd failed it three times. I had one jump remaining. Could I do it?
Suddenly, time seemed to stop; everything disappeared except that bar. Then the bar disappeared. The one remaining reality for me was the space above the bar. I approached and launched myself upwards. I felt suspended in air. Clearance didn't feel shocking to me, but inevitable. I'd won the competition, but that didn't seem that important now. Winning was not as amazing as the incredible Zen-like focus of mind I'd just experienced.
Before this inter-schools contest, I'd worried about how I might do. Would I jump my best? How would I compare to the other competitors? All that lessened as the contest progressed. I was doing well; I could start to focus not on the outcome - the winning or losing - but on the process - the action of jumping as distinct from any artificial ideas of 'contest', 'winning', or 'losing'.
What stops you performing at your best in whatever you do? To start, it's not just performance anxiety that can block you from performing well.
The art of travelling light
Performance anxiety gets in the way of performance because it clutters the mind just when your consciousness needs to be clear and 'light'. Too much baggage slows you down and hampers performance. Even thoughts of performance are too 'heavy'. To clear that bar, I had to be light. Not just physically, but psychologically. Too much
- Desire to succeed
all weigh you down and stop performance. 'Positive thinking' - the will to succeed - of course needs to be there before you begin your activity, but also needs to be gently put aside whilst you actually perform. Less becomes more in the moment.
There are of course different kinds of performance (see the Sexual Performance Anxiety section). And what is good prep for one type of activity, such as testosterone-boosting chest-beating and stamping before attempting a world record weight lifting attempt, wouldn't be so good for, say, preparing to walk a tightrope over the Grand Canyon or checkmate your chess opponent. So we need 'lightness' of mind which includes less concern with the future focuses of success and failure than with immediate awareness.
But what of performance anxiety specifically? After all, anxiety weighs you down much more than, say, optimism or self-belief.
How performance anxiety drives out performance
Let's look at sports: The ability to deal with anxiety is integral to success. When we become really anxious, it gets harder to make subtle or minimal movements (try doing up your zipper with chronically shaking hands). Anxiety stops us thinking clearly, which is why panic makes people feel confused. Also, what we are anxious about will impact performance.
If you are anxious about how you are coming across when public speaking, you may focus more on that concern than on what you are actually saying. Of course that will damage performance. Being in the moment and just enjoying a sexual encounter as it unfolds is a world away from worrying that you're 'doing it right'. Sex is not something you do to someone, but an experience you have with them. Watching a movie whilst wondering how much it cost to make, how many people auditioned for the roles, where the scenes were shot, and so on gets in the way of just enjoying the movie. Again, sometimes less is more.
So what can you actually do to keep performance anxiety from stopping you doing what you want in the best possible way?
1) Prepare your mind
Before a sporting event (or any event where you feel performance anxiety is an issue), you should prepare. If you have done enough positive mental rehearsal beforehand, then you'll feel naturally comfortable and 'in the zone' when the situation comes around.
Decide how you want to feel and at what point you want to start feeling like that. For example, I might have decided before my high jump contest that I wanted to feel calm but energized and totally focussed away from distractions. I might have wanted to start feeling this way during registration before the jumps and feel this more intensely as each jump approached.
Next imagine how it feels to feel like that - just for a few seconds. Then close your eyes and as you breathe relaxation around your body, visualize yourself looking the way you want to be in that situation, then doing whatever it is looking just the way you want to be. Now 'drift into' that image of you and notice being totally calm yet focussed in the situation itself.
The more you do this, the more probable it becomes that you'll just naturally feel the optimum performance state when the situation comes around.
For a taster of this exercise, click on this free audio session:
2) Remember to breathe
Yes, I too studied biology at school and know that breathing is pretty important 24/7! But you'd be amazed how many people hold their breath for longer than is actually helpful to them when they become anxious (holding your breath for a few seconds can actually help you stop hyperventilating during a panic attack). People will also start breathing in whilst forgetting to breathe out, which is a fast track to more anxiety (if you were looking for a quick way to get anxious!). So if you do find yourself starting to feel anxious - and remember this is much less likely to happen if you've done your prep - then simply focus on slowly breathing out a few times and you'll be amazed how fast you calm down again.
3) Always seek to do your very best
The mark of a professional attitude is to always try your best, whether you're playing tennis down the park or in the Wimbledon final; whether you're presenting to a group of five or five hundred. This not only means you'll improve your general performance as excellence starts to become the norm, but you'll have less of the: "Oh my, this is really important! I have to perform my best ever!"
4) Consciously get some perspective
Whenever I'm 'put on the spot' and find myself, for example, treating an intensely phobic person in front of many other people on a workshop, that little voice in my head might try to tell me: "Hey, what if this doesn't work? You'll look a real idiot!" If that happens, I remind myself that:
- I've done this successfully hundreds of times.
- It's more important that this person gets the help they need - my feelings can butt out.
- This is a tiny part of what is happening in the world, much of which is actually far more important. Evaluate the situation and ask yourself: How important is the event in the context of the entire world? How much will it matter in one hundred years?
5) Be a team player
Remember the onus isn't all on you. If I am helping someone overcome a phobia, they need to work with me. The people watching need to be quiet. We are all in this together - it's not just me. Whatever you do, other people will still play a part somehow. Don't shoulder all of the responsibility all of the time.
And remember that 'to err is human'. We all make mistakes; being able to understand that in ourselves and others makes us all more human and humane.
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