We are not fit to lead an army on the march unless we are familiar with the face of the country-its mountains and forests, its pitfalls and precipices, its marshes and swamps.
The Art of War
When performing and competing, your “stress-response” system -called the fight or flight response- jumps into action. Stress hormones, including “catecholamines”, are released to mobilize energy, strength and increase reaction time.
But, there’s a trade-off.
If left unchecked, these hormones can suppress the calm, rational parts of the brain that help you to focus and perform well under pressure. Emotions take over. You tense up, become anxious, self-conscious, distracted, and more likely to make a mistake.
Analogous to Sun Tzu’s “pitfalls and precipices…marshes and swamps”, these distractions (termed "Negative Conditioned Responses”) include:
-increased heart beat
-always feeling tired
-loss of energy and motivation
-loss of appetite
-tense muscles (e.g. neck, shoulders, lower back)
-excessive blinking of the eyes
-difficulty in breathing and swallowing
-sharp pain in chest and heart areas
-potentially severe lower back pain
-repetitive bouts of anxiety and worry
-a feeling that something has been left undone
-difficulties with focus
-repetitive bouts of frustration, irritability, anger
-a lack of interest for things one usually enjoys
-feelings of jealousy, regret, guilt
-intense feelings of loneliness, isolation, worthlessness
-avoidance of social contact- e.g. a reluctance to answer
the telephone, to go shopping
-increased self-consciousness with a magnification of self-perceived imperfections and shortcomings including physical appearance, clothes, etc.
-repetitive thoughts that one’s efforts are inadequate and will never be good enough
-falling into the "shoulda-coulda" cycle; mentally returning to scenes of self-perceived past inadequacies and failures accompanied by negative thoughts such as, "I could have done more," “I let the pressure get to me”, “I’m not as talented as other people”
-feelings that others don’t like you and/or are being unfair to you
-loss of confidence and self-worth
-impaired concentration and memory (e.g. difficulty in remembering names and dates)
Understanding and accepting how Negative Conditioned Responses can affect you is critical.
By way of example, in traditional, full contact, karate, to advance to the next level, a student has to pass a test, called a “grading”. Gradings can last from 6-12 hours long. They are designed to take the student to the exhaustion point, both physically and mentally. At the end of the grading, the student has to fight three senior students, including those with black belts.
During these sparring sessions (“Kumite”), students typically experience Negative Conditioned Responses like acute anxiety, self-doubt, shortness of breath, a rapidly beating heart, problems swallowing, increased self-consciousness, and feeling that they can’t do anymore, that they need to rest.
Which illustrates the real purpose of these gradings- by enabling students to experience these types of Negative Conditioned Responses, the instructor can explain to them why they happen and what to do the next time they occur.
I've seen too many talented people who, after disappointing results, thought that they had choked. It's too easy to fall into this negative cycle of self-criticism and self-recrimination, which adds that much more pressure and stress the next time they have to perform.
Rather than denying or feeling embarrassed about how you responded in a pressure situation, a basic technique to regain control is to write down how your body and mind were affected emotionally, mentally, and physically. With this information, the targeted techniques described in this book can help put you back in charge. By way of practical example, during an interview (on the Charlie Rose Show on PBS), Steve Nash, the two-time M.V.P. for the world leading National Basketball Association, said:
“Learn your lessons. If you make a mistake or something worked for you, that’s got to go into your memory bank. So, the next time you’re more equipped to deal with that situation…take note of everything that happens. Take note of why you failed on this particular play or this game or this season. Take note of why you succeeded on this particular play or this game or this season. And then use that. That’s all free information for you for next time, so when the test comes around again and you’re in that situation you have a better chance to succeed. That’s what it is for me. Continually taking notes and then using that information.”
In the next chapter, for the techniques we've discussed so far, you'll have the opportunity to immediately put them to work!