Olympic Pressure

I spent part of last week with a small group of athletes trying to qualify for the Summer Olympics in London. These are the final days of competition, often with current training partners and future teammates. My topic was “The Role of Emotions in Performance” and I got to talk to many athletes for several hours prior to my presentation. Everyone seemed to be looking for that one nugget that might help shape their thinking in these last few days before knowing whether they’ve made the team or not.

I often throw out these questions in the early part of discussions:

  1. What will be different about you an hour from now? Or what will be different about you from say an hour before competition and the point at which the competition starts?
  2. What is the difference between a competition which you won (or performed very well at) and a competition that you lost (or did not perform well in)?
  3. How much training time have you spent on managing your emotions?

To the first question (and after a puzzled response process) the answer is invariably “not much.” That is, very little in terms of physical ability or strategy or weight/height or new knowledge changes. The only change an hour from now (or start time versus an hour prior) is the emotional construct of the athlete. We call this anxiety or jitters or butterflies. Whatever lay term we have used, physiologically, the body–which the athlete needs to perform at a very high level–is in fact filled with all kinds of new chemicals (hormones) which collectively constitute that anxiety.

Pre-race rituals are famous for helping athletes calm themselves down and dilute these chemicals which can impact heart rate, vision, muscle tension, sweat, etc. These chemicals are what we call emotions, and their role at the beginning of a race and during are just as important for the athlete to train for in order to perform at a high level.

To the second question–almost always–the athlete says that on days that they performed well, they were calm and in a zone… but they do not know how they got there or how to replicate it. And to the last question, many of the athletes spend less than 10% of their time training themselves to manage their emotions. In others words, they spend 10% of their time preparing for what they attribute as the difference between them performing well and not performing well.

Mantras such as “stay present” or “focus” or “you can do it” are great, but unless they can impact your emotions, they can actually have a detrimental impact. This is why it is so important for coaches and teammates to know what exactly might have an emotional impact on an athlete before and during competition. As an example, for one athlete saying “come on, you can do it” might work great because it reminds her of what her Mom used to say to her, whereas for another athlete it may have a negative impact because it reminds him of something a former coach he no longer trains with used to say.

What we use to motivate us before or during a race must have a direct connection to our emotions, which usually means a special person or memory. As an example, what I often have my athletes do is write down the name or venue of the place where they performed their best and simply look at that one word or two to manage the emotions. Better athletes have several of these that they use.

For you at work, you are no different. What is your “pre-game” ritual? What do you do before a big presentation, or client/customer meeting to calm yourself down? What are your emotional triggers? Do you have them? How often do you use them? Make a list this week of places or situations from the past when you have been at your best. Use these later this week in situations where you again need to be your best. It may not guarantee you will be at your best, but will certainly enhance the probability of it… which is much better than leaving it to chance.


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