In my late teens I had a brief and deeply wounding love affair with sport.
I loved it.
My body didn’t.
My legs gave up.
End of whirlwind romance.
I have touched upon my fleeting career in the upper echelons of the sporting sphere here, with relation to confidence and performance. But nevertheless, my time on the track taught me a few valuable life lessons. Firstly, sport and business have a lot in common. Secondly, people who say ‘it’s the taking part that counts’ have generally never really experienced success. And thirdly, unless you can balance drive and ambition with physiological relaxation you’ll burn out pretty quickly.
Success on the sporting field revolves around some pretty basic principles: -
Be good at what you do.
Make sure that thing matters the most to you.
Pay your physical dues.
Work on your mental toughness
Mental toughness, whilst being a somewhat ‘floaty’ and vague term is the important one here. It’s the one that’ll help balance out your intense drive and physiological looseness, which is key in our ever-present pursuit of success. I consider the following 7 traits as the basic foundation of what can be considered mental toughness:
1) Staying calm under pressure
2) Rebounding quickly from mistakes.
3) Mastering adversity
4) Effectively handling self-doubt.
5) Self-belief. Always. Even when other people have written you off.
And yes, I know, very few people are born with these attributes. Being able to balance ferocious drive with a nonchalant looseness is quite generally an exception to the rule. The people that are naturally laid-back, unshakable under pressure, confident, and tenaciously driven are exceptionally gifted.
That person isn’t most of us.
Most of us struggle with several of the above facets of mental toughness. On the track we used to call these people spooks. They used to suffer from a crippling sense of anxiety and nervousness right before a competition and consequently would markedly under perform. Spooks where characterised by the self-flogging they’d administer for mistakes, and constantly used to pre-occupy themselves with the strengths of their competition. They’d lose far before the race actually began. They where overwhelmed. Intimidated. Psyched-out. They were spooked.
On that topic my mentor often likes to quip that:
‘The people that miss penalties are exactly the same people that are shit scared of missing them. The people that put the ball in the back of the net are the people that just walk up to the spot and kick the fucking ball’.
And being the wise thinky wordsmith he is — he’s right, of course.
Every athlete experiences stressors in the competitive environment differently. Genetically I was disadvantaged. I lacked the pit bull-esque physique of my competitors and the raw unrestrained power that accompanies such dense muscle composition. I was of average height, frightfully underweight (an anomaly that has now been somewhat over-corrected), sported gangly, uncoordinated limbs, and had the posture of an elderly woman. But unlike most others I was pitted against, I knew how to effectively regulate my emotions and weaponise anxiety. That’s how I managed to compete at the highest level. I was one of the guys that just kicked the fucking ball.
So how did I maintain that level of mental looseness without compromising my drive?
By learning to adopt the traits of mental toughness that I didn’t already possess by learning to relax.
That’s it. It’s simple. Once you learn to relax when shit is really going down the there’s little you can’t conquer. And it’s pretty easy, its basis rooted in two simple steps:
How we preform is directly linked to our pre-performance level of physiological arousal. Over arousal means our bodies respond by tightening up and psychologically we go into meltdown and choke. I call this state ‘negative nervous’. The key to overcoming negative nerves is simply by altering your approach towards anxiety.
Accepting that being nervous is an inevitable and unavoidable part of the competitive process means you can use this heightened state of physiological arousal to fine-tune your focus. Whilst my competitors were allowing the butterflies in their stomach to flutter freely until the point their bodies rejected their semi-digested lunch, I focused on the mechanical process of getting my body from point A to point B in the shortest amount of time possible. I focused on all of the obstacles that stood in the way between first place and myself and systematically dismantled them.
I was fully aware of my anxiety. It stemmed from a desire to win.
And that was fine. I just didn’t allow it to define my performance.
I had knew if my breathing rate increased, if my concentration was focused on factors outside of my direct influence and manipulation (a subject I’ll talk about a little later on), or my normal talkative and jovial behaviour altered I was slipping into a zone of ‘negative nervousness’. I knew I needed to distract myself for a couple of minutes to calm down and refocus my energy.
#2) Concentrating on the ‘Controllables’
What are ‘controllables’?
The factors of a performance you can control or manipulate.
When we are intensely focused we try and analyze everything that could potentially affect our chances of success. Paradoxically, that regimented deconstruction of our mental and physical environment is one of the main contributing factors that’ll make us choke and tighten up. We over focus on the uncontrollables.
One of the main causes of poor performance and mental anxiety is a disproportionate focus on factors that you cannot control, such as environmental elements, the form of your competition, the fact that your other half won’t talk to you, your academic performance, etc. You get my drift — anything that’s going on that you can’t directly control at that precise moment in time. Note the word direct.
Overthinking these aspects of any competition will make you nervous, undermine your confidence, and severely hinder your ability to perform as required. So how can we control the uncontrollables? Well, we can’t. But we can identify what they are likely to be, and, more importantly, we can avoid wasting energy by worrying about them.
Once we’ve learned to relax by being self-aware of the triggering factors of our mental anxiety and by channeling our focus on the elements we can control, being loose comes naturally. We remain intensely driven, except we now know how to manage the stress that comes hand in hand with that fiery intensity. Pressure and stress become our optimal performance environments.