Working with athletes, especially elite athletes. There are tools they use to perform at high levels under stress, and a lot of those can be applied to areas outside of sport. Especially business.
A typical thought in the sports world is more is better. Especially from athletes who want to be at that elite level. To get that edge they put in more high intensity work outs and longer hours. Eventually improvement slows down to very small and gradual gains. In response, they go even harder and take away time from personal life to train more. There comes a point where training will see negative changes; they become slower, less productive and less responsive. Not only are they getting less from the same amount of time but the performance starts to decline.
Similarly, with business there is a ‘more is better’ mindset. Adding more time by taking it out of your personal life will get you there faster. However, just like an athlete you will see smaller gains and productivity will drop. You may stay 2 hours every day after work to get something completed. However, before you were overworked that same task was done in a much shorter time.
Resetting the system is best done by adding balance. With athletes, I would suggest non-physical activities. With business professionals adding exercise is one of the best ways to reset the system. Even 10 min a day can have an impact.
In preparation for games something I do with athletes is called visualization (also known as guided imagery, or mental rehearsal. Basically, it is a form of practicing without practicing. This isn’t the same as daydreaming and it can’t take the place of actual practice. One can’t visualize being a hockey player and go out and join the Oilers without picking up a stick. However, it is something athletes use to relax, reduce stress in certain situations or enhance skills.
When done right, research has found similar brain activity as when they physically completed the skill. Athletes will go through certain plays, moves and adapting to situations. When game time arrives, it is more familiar to them, they are more relaxed and they perform better. Or they use it to relax before or after a game. Russell Wilson, Tiger Woods, Conor McGregor are some athletes to look up if you are interested in their experience with it.
For business, I believe mental rehearsal has the same applications. For a presentation or a meeting, visualizing different scenarios and how you respond to them. It is a performance and the main idea is you are calmer when you it is more familiar to you. In addition to performance, guided imagery that focuses on relaxation can help you reduce stress before or after work. One tip I like to give people, is that you want to involve all your senses in the imagery. This provides a more “real” experience for your brain and you get more out of the visualization process.
Self Talk
A major area I work with athletes on is their inner dialogue/self talk. What are they telling themselves in a competition/game? This has a huge impact on the stress and anxiety a person feels, not only in a game but in life.
I find that usually it is not the situation, but what we are telling ourselves about the situation that causes our reaction.
For example, a kicker goes up to kick a game winning field goal and is thinking, “if I hit this wide right again, I am going to lose my job”. He has created a ton of pressure on himself for a physical motion he has literally done a thousand times. The only thing that has changed is his inner dialogue.
In business, the dialogue can be the same, “I must sign this client or else my business will…” or I have to close this deal because I may not get another one”, generally any “if I mess this up, then…” statements. This dialogue creates unnecessary stress on you.
In general, you want to stop those thoughts but typically you can’t just tell yourself don’t think about that. If suddenly you told yourself to not think about elephants, you would start to think about elephants. If you tell yourself don’t think about stress, you are likely going to think about the stress.
There are different techniques to control this self-talk. We may think we are good multi taskers but we are not. Both tasks are done at lower efficiency. We can take advantage of that by focusing on something else, diverting our attention away from the negative. It can be as simple as focusing on a word that has meaning for you and breaks that negative talk. Going further, one technique is to challenge/re-frame those negative statements. “This is an important client, but I have signed others in the past.” You want to concentrate on the work you have put in or the process. The outcome takes care of itself when you focus on the process.

Things to remember:

Before the game (on a regular basis and before the stress hits)

  • Sleep
  • Balance your life
  • Practice good self-care
  • Pre-pay your “happy bank”
  • Eat
  • Take 60 second mini-vacations (grounding)

During the game (when you’re stressed)

  • Remember to Breathe
  • Think long term
  • Know the stress reaction and accommodate for it so you don’t make things worse
  • Pay attention to your senses
  • Pace your self
  • Remember you can always say “NO”

After the game

  • Give yourself time to recover
  • “Debrief” the event
  • Sleep
  • Pay back your “happy bank”
  • Eat
  • Take more mini-vacations (grounding)

Develop your own “emergency stress management menu” (ESMM)
This is a list of things you can do to look after yourself and manage your stress when it gets out of hand (or better yet, before it gets out of hand). Once you have your ESMM , you don’t have to add more stress by thinking about what to do, you just have to pick a few things off of it and do them.