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Anybody who has ever had to perform under pressure knows the physical commotion and symphony of feelings that course through the body. Whether a long planned sales presentation, a speech in front of the top brass, or pitching in your softball league, you know the many ways your body can signal that this time counts more than others. In these situations, some are able to bring their best. For the rest of us, the brain and the body, the words and the thoughts become disconnected, and something that seemed so easy in practice suddenly becomes impossible.
After getting hooked on water skiing in my mid-40s, I started skiing in tournaments. The stakes were low, but the pressure was enormous. Skiing is a single elimination sport. As soon as you quit scoring, your turn is over. Standing on the dock at one of my first tournaments, my arms and legs were rubber. My heart was pounding. My head was foggy. I used every meditative technique I had (and I have a bunch) to calm my nerves. And I skied like crap.
I left that tournament wondering where I went wrong. Then on my way to ski during one of my winter trips in Florida, I lucked into something that seemed to explain it. It seems that trying to calm myself just provoked more nerves. Telling myself I should be able to perform because I should be able to calm myself knocked my mind out of alignment with my body.
What the researcher found was this: When we go against what our body already knows –that it is time to rise to the occasion – we actually set up an unresolvable conflict. Allowing the feelings to exist – and calling them excitement – frames the bodily hullabaloo as a productive source of energy.
And guess what? It works. On the same trip where I learned about this trick, I stood on the dock feeling great pressure. The nonsense in my body started knocking me around as I buckled my boot. I unconsciously said out loud, “I’m so nervous.” Then I caught myself, and happily shouted at my driver, “I’m so excited!” For the first time in memory, I ran that first pass off the dock and had a great set.
I’ve reframed those crazy bodily sensations ever since. Perhaps the biggest pressure of my life was speaking at TEDxTryon, where I was aware that whatever my performance, there would be no do-overs, and that whatever I said would reside on the web forevermore. While standing backstage among the other wildly nervous speakers, I decided to have fun and be excited. It was a blast!
The science of performance has been around for a long time. Top-level performers in all fields have found a way to use their nerves to their advantage. That’s why they win.
It is not the nerves; it’s what you say about the nerves that decides performance.
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