If you want others to believe that you are good under pressure, you must first persuade yourself. Michael Lewis
Super Bowl week is finally upon us. Who will win? Who might “choke” and be the goat? What strategies are the players and coaches using to manage the massive stress associated with the biggest game of their lives?
Big Short and Blind Side author Michael Lewis brilliantly captures the “penalty” paid by NFL kickers who choke: “At the end of Super Bowl XXV, in 1991, Scott Norwood, who up to that moment has enjoyed a wonderful six-year career, misses a 47-yard field goal for the Buffalo Bills. The Bills lose to the New York Giants, 20-19. Norwood retires after one more season and eventually becomes a real estate agent who spends part of his day selling houses and another part avoiding phone calls from sports journalists seeking either to mine his tragedy for pathos or to get even with him on behalf of the city of Buffalo. A decade after his missed kick, he tells a reporter that he dreads the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, when his failure is invariably revisited on national television.”
In many ways, workplace stress is no different than that confronted by NFL players. There is the day-to-day challenge of the job — stress caused by the proverbial grind. And then there is a different sort of stress upon which this articles focuses: acute stress which results from of a huge, watershed event at which we must perform at a high level, or fail.
For football players, acute stress escalates during last minute drives and in playoff games. For the rest of us, it can soar in job interviews, big meetings, and in a variety of other instances where it is seemingly “do or die.” Let us explore ways to manage this stress.
DID CARSON PALMER CHOKE?
Arizona Cardinals’ quarterback Carson Palmer played poorly on the Sunday before last. Did he choke or just have a bad game? Palmer is normally such a good player it is easy to say he choked. But, on the other hand, those around him — his lineman and wide receivers — did not play well. Did Palmer bring them down, or vice-versa? Or, was the lopsided score simply the result of fact that the Carolina Panthers are that much better than the Cardinals?
We will never know the answers to these questions with certainty. What we can confidently know is that there are many techniques and strategies to manage our stress before we enter the arena or boardroom.
CONTROL YOUR INNER ANIMAL
In 2003, I signed up to run the Hardrock 100 endurance run. Shortly afterward, waves of doubt and adrenaline burst into my mind and body after reading this article describing the event: It’s Gonna Suck to Be You.
I turned to my older brother, Dave, for advice. He told me that the adrenaline and other hormones pumping in my veins were a vestige of “fight or flight” wiring in my animal brain. This wiring causes us stressful, emotional reactions, as if we are being chased by an animal that wants to kill us. Its surge of power enables us to kill our would be predator or run like hell in the opposite direction.
Dave said that once I realized this I would understand that my hormone and blood pressure blow-up could be controlled by simply reminding myself of the truth: that I wasn’t being chased and I wasn’t going to die. Rather, I was pre-wired from birth with a “leftover” from my primal ancestors — a power booster that comes with negative side effects. This leftover was, for the most part, no longer necessary in the modern world.
I have used Dave’s reminder many times over the years to calm myself before trials and other stressful events. How do you control your inner animal? What strategies do you use, if any, to manage stress and how you perform? Let’s add a few to your toolbox.
TOOLS TO MAKE YOURSELF CHOKE-PROOF, OR CLOSE TO IT
Controlling your emotions is the best way to avoid choking at a business meeting or otherwise. But that begs the question: how can emotions be controlled in an otherwise fear-drenched environment? Here’s how:
- Rehearse and rehearse some more: this is a sure-fire way to gain confidence about your ability to perform
- Train under anxiety: as shown here, practicing your task under stressful conditions improves performance under stressful circumstances
- Do not over-scrutinize your upcoming performance — focus on a single word or idea that sums up your entire presentation (“smooth” or “forceful,” for instance)
- Be a stoic: direct all efforts your at to what you can control, and disregard things over which you have no influence
- Focus on process, not results
- Avoid building up the event beyond what it is (watch the short Hoosiers video at the end of this article)
- “Play your own game”: keep your focus on your strengths, your game plan and what you are doing, and not on your opponent
- When in a non-adversarial setting, understand the wants and needs of your audience to be sure you connect with them
- Put yourself in the “arena” as much as possible; then you won’t be so afraid to lose. As Hugh Glass said in The Revenant: “I ain’t afraid to die anymore. I’d done it already.”
- Practice relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation
- Engage in physical exercise as a pressure release valve
Your next business or personal challenge may be just in front of you. It may not be the Super Bowl, but if it is meaningful to you, why not perform at your best? Hopefully, this article has provided some tools to do just that.
Consider watching this short Hoosiers video the night before or morning of your event or presentation. Then go out and be who you are — a winner no matter the result:
My brother Dave’s advice helped me not to “choke” at the Hardrock 100. I overcame my greatest fear — not finishing. It turned out, however, that I had a hard day (or two) because my feet blistered-up only 10 hours into the event. As a result, the race turned into a 43 hour suffer fest. The lesson: self-confidence is great, but it’s no substitute for proper sock selection!
The prize for finishing? The chance to kiss the Rock and hang out with this mountain man from Maine: