It is spiritless to think that you cannot attain what the masters attain. The masters are just people. You are also a person. If you think that you are inferior in doing something, you will be on that road very soon.
Hagakure- The Book of the Samurai
Harmful stress results from thinking about the "uncontrollables" (“anxiety” is from the Latin term meaning “anticipation of problems”) such as what is at stake, the audience, strengths of the other competitors and so on.
You can’t control everything; in reality, you may be able to control very little.
Sometimes you prepare as hard as you can, but things don’t work out the way you want them to. Sometimes you perform as well as you can, but still fall short; there are simply too many factors outside your control. Sometimes, you commit no errors and still lose.That's why there's little to be gained by worrying about winning or losing. As world famous poker player Daniel Negreanu remarked, “I prepared the best I could, played as good as I could, but sometimes even that isn't enough…All you can do is try to be as prepared as well as possible and hope to catch a few breaks."
What you can control is your approach to the event. Sometimes, your perceptions about your chances for success and/or the strength of the competition and/or the amount of work required to attain your goal may seem like massive mountains, impossible for you to climb. These are your worries and fears talking. To manage these stress-triggered emotions/thoughts, break your goal into long, intermediate and short term steps. Break the short-term steps into what you want to accomplish today, tomorrow, the day after, and so on.
Of course, when following this schedule, understand that the unexpected always will occur, such as a poor night's sleep, sickness, distracting telephone calls and texts, other sudden pressing responsibilities, cancelled meetings, etc. Therefore, break your schedule down into those items that are the most important and must be taken care of today. Remember the famous 80/20 "Pareto Principle" (named after Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist) that 80 percent of your results come from 20 percent of your time. As long as you can manage the most important daily steps, your momentum and development will continue to move forward, building a firm foundation of strength upon strength.
When unexpected setbacks occur, apply the following three questions to refocus and get back on track.
(i) What Am I Doing?
This question shows where your focus is. Are you focused on what you’re doing or thinking about other things?
When you perform, two mental states can control your performance. The positive "Implicit" state is acting without conscious evaluation, such as walking. The negative "Explicit" state is acting with thought, such as a carrying a bowl of soup while trying not to spill any.
When you are performing well, this is the Implicit state. However, as soon as you become self-conscious, the Explicit state springs into action and your concentration and confidence begin to waver. That’s why coaches call a timeout before a critical free throw in basketball or a field goal in football (American). They want the player to start thinking about what is at stake.
Neil Young (in an interview on PBS's Charlie Rose) explained how "thinking" can interfere: "When I fail, I get distracted...Thinking gets in the way. When I'm doing something, when I'm creating something, the last thing you want to hear from is your commentator, the guy inside your head going 'Oh that's good, that's pretty good, oh I don't like that'...a very big distraction to me."
The greater your external focus, the higher the level of performance. In other words, the more you focus on interior thoughts and emotions, the more likely you’ll fall short.
Remember the “red flags” discussed in the chapter “Distractions”? Focusing on the “uncontrollables” is a recipe for disaster.
The most common mental distractions are:
- wondering what people may be saying about you
- thinking about potential outcomes and what is at stake
- worrying that fear, nervousness and anxiety will cause you to fail, instead of acknowledging that they are normal responses of the body/mind to get you ready to perform
- focusing on past mistakes and setbacks
- thinking about what you perceive to be the strengths of competitors (which are always magnified while at the same time, your own strengths will be ignored or considered inadequate).
To perform your best, focus on the "controllables"– your preparation- and let the rest go.
When mistakes happen, accept them and move on. They are a normal part of competing and performing. You take the good with the bad. If you fail, that’s in the past behind you. The next challenge is just around the corner and if you aren’t ready to give that your full attention, you’re likely to fall short.
(ii) Why Am I Here?
To better maintain focus, imagine a box is resting beside you. Mentally make a list of what is distracting you and place the list in the box. Don’t evaluate what you’re writing. Whatever is passing through your mind, mentally write it down.
Remind yourself that right here and right now, nothing can be done about the items on your list. If you like, promise yourself that after finishing the task at hand, you will return to the list. For now, the only thing you can control, the only thing you need to focus on, is what you are doing.
When mistakes happen, accept them and move on. A new situation is about to present itself and if you’re still thinking about a past mistake, your concentration and performance will be affected.
(iii) Am I Having Fun?
It’s important to keep things in perspective. One of the greatest sources of stress is the fear of not meeting expectations. If you perceive an upcoming event as a validation of your reputation and self-worth, this is putting far too much pressure on your shoulders.
During the Olympics, how often do we hear a competitor say that they feel like they’ve let their entire country down? How can anyone hope to perform well with this type of self-imposed pressure riding on the shoulders?
It is critical to distinguish between who you are as a person from who you are as a competitor/performer. A great result does not make you a great person; a disappointing result does not make you a failure as a person. The ability to distinguish between what you can and can’t control is critical.
Trust in your ability and training.
Prepare the best you can. Perform the best you can.
The rest is outside of your control.