“When I am about to serve, I feel scared.” A student at our tennis academy admitted that he clammed up while getting ready to serve. At over six-feet, this talented youngster is a champion who has won several tournaments. So, his words sounded strange to our coaches and made me wonder how even a steady performer can fall prey to inner turmoil.
How does fear manifest in stressful situations? Physical symptoms may mean sweaty palms, a racing pulse or a parched throat. The face pales and the mind hark back to past errors and failures. Trained coaches often use simple breathing techniques to quell this problem.
However, it is much tougher to dispel hidden fears that could hinder performance, the kind that our tennis player (let’s call him MM) faced. A University of Chicago research conducted by psychology professor Sam Beilock found that high performers are often also the biggest chokers.
High pressure moments are often a double-edged sword. For some, the anxiety drives up their show while in others the stress simply shuts the brain down. And the results could be a bungled presentation, a lousy putt or an uninspiring speech.
All of us face pressure at work or even on a routine day at home. This is now an established fact of life. So, what we need to explore are ways by which we can use pressure as an ally to drive up our game.
Pressure on the mind depletes a part of the brain’s processing power known as working memory, which is critical to many everyday activities. Lodged at the prefrontal cortex, this acts a mental scratch pad that stores data on tasks at hand. Most of us have good storage capacity in here, but when worries begin, the bandwidth reduces, thus leaving them with lessor processing capacity.
High performers often put extra pressure on their brains, specifically relying on the scratch pad. Under pressure, this ready reckoner database lets them down as worries take over more of the available space, leading them to choke up when the world expects them to outperform.
Having appreciated the scratch pad syndrome, let us revert to the problem presented by MM. Technically MM has a few flaws needing correction. Supplemented with some simple breathing techniques he will show superficial improvement. But, will these standard methods sort out the inner demons lurking in his mind?
Executives at work are a lot more prone to this situation than sportspersons. Whether making presentations, creating budgets and reports, negotiating deals or worrying over deadlines it is not unusual for an element of nervousness or fear to creep in.
When these situations happen, it is best to take a few steps back and think through the thoughts that are overburdening your mind. From here, it is but a short step to continue achieving your usual high performance levels. Any thoughts you wish to share, please mail me on firstname.lastname@example.org .