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Lessons from Rio: Being your best under stress

The Olympics is one of the highest-pressure situations in sports


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When is it most important for you to be at your best? Typically, it’s when you’re under stress in a difficult situation. We all have circumstances that are highly challenging. It might be when promoting an idea that’s important to you; when selling; when dealing with a family conflict; when interviewing for a new job. For an Olympic athlete, it’s competing at the Olympics in an event that might only last 10 seconds, such as the 100-meter sprint.

Competing in the Olympics is one of the highest-pressure situations in sports; it’s a weight greater than most of us will ever experience. The techniques that athletes often use to perform their best under pressure are ones that we all can use to be our best under stress. In this series of articles, you’ll learn several techniques that the Olympians I’ve mentally trained have used to be their best when it counted the most — at their Olympic competition.

Mental rehearsal. Mental rehearsal is an extremely powerful technique that more than 100 scientific research studies have shown to be highly effective at improving performance. Sports psychology has been at the leading edge of using mental rehearsal since the 1980s.

Almost all world-class athletes use mental rehearsal; it’s a skill taught at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. It’s a form of mental imagery, often referred to as “visualization.” Athletes learn to use imagery to mentally rehearse as many scenarios as they can imagine so that no matter what happens at a competition, they can handle it.

Mentally rehearsing events paid off for Michael Phelps at the 2008 Beijing Games. He imagined water leaking into his goggles — a mishap that would severely blur his vision. And when he dove into the water for his 200-meter butterfly, he experienced what all swimmers fear — his goggles sprung a leak. During his last lap, all he could see was a blur, so he relied on the feel of his imagery to know where he was and when and how to stretch for the finish. He finished strong and not only won another gold medal but also set a world record. When asked about the effect of his leaky goggles, Phelps replied, “It felt like I imagined it would.”

Another example is Jason Day, currently the number one golfer in the world. Day stands behind his ball and visualizes the perfect shot. He relaxes so deeply that his eyes flutter, making it look like he’s falling asleep.

How mental rehearsal works. Brain imaging studies indicate that blood flow in the brain reacts the same when you think about doing something compared to when you actually do it. Thus, the images and thoughts you give your brain become your subconscious programming. The more often you repeat the same image, the stronger the imagery imprints in your conscious and subconscious minds, and the more likely you’ll be to live out this image in reality.

Surgeons and special operations military personnel also use mental rehearsal to help them succeed. Mental rehearsal includes using any or all of your senses: sight, emotion, hearing, taste and smell. Everyone images a bit differently; some people see images well, and others don’t but may feel them or have a sense of them. However you image, it will work.

Three levels of mental rehearsal

As best you can in the following three mental rehearsal exercises, imagine doing something that’s challenging and really important to you. We’ll call it “your event.”

Level 1 mental rehearsal: The basic practice

Choose your event to mentally practice.

Take a slow, deep breath and exhale about twice as long as you inhale.

Imagine (see, hear and feel) doing the event to the best of your ability.

Level 2 mental rehearsal: Connect with being your best.

Choose your event to mentally practice.

Take a slow, deep breath or two, exhaling about twice as long as inhaling.

To create the right mindset and program the correct part of your brain, remember a time when you were at your best in an event extremely similar to your event. If you don’t have such a memory, recall any challenging event in which you were at your best. This stimulates the neural network — the part of your brain that knows how to be your best.

Notice the emotions and physical feelings you have being your best. Now imagine being your best in your event.

Level 3 mental rehearsal: Connect your emotions and use your body.

This is the most sophisticated and powerful mental rehearsal process. You may want to practice Level 2 for a while before moving to this level.

Choose your event to mentally practice.

Take several slow, deep breaths, exhaling about twice as long as inhaling.

To create the right mindset and program the correct part of your brain, remember a time when you were at your best in an event extremely similar to your event. If you don’t have such a memory, recall any challenging event in which you were at your best. This stimulates the neural network — the part of your brain that knows how to be your best.

Notice the emotions and physical feelings you have being your best. Now imagine being your best in your event.

Now, while feeling the emotions of being your best and imaging your event, consider adding these to enhance your imagery:

  • Your body. While mentally rehearsing, replicate as closely as possible your body position and the movements you’ll make in your event. For example, if you’ll stand during your event, stand during your mental rehearsal.
  • Environmental conditions. Imagine the environmental conditions that you’ll be in. Is it noisy, hot, cold, indoors or outside? The more realistic the better.
  • Focus. Imagine focusing your attention on the same things you would when in your event. If you’re selling or in any conversation, imagine focusing on and looking at the people you’re talking with, just as you would in person.
  • Imagining in real time. Imagine part of your event or the whole event in real time. Don’t slow it down or speed it up.
  • Emotion. To re-emphasize, stay connected to the emotions of being your best if you add these other strengtheners to your imagery. Your mental rehearsal should involve the emotions that you’d feel when engaged in the real situation.

These are the longer forms of imagery. To see how quickly elite athletes are able to use imagery, watch world champion gymnast Simone Biles before any routine or in between tumbling runs on the floor exercise. She, like all elite gymnasts is a master in the use of mental rehearsal and when dong a her floor routine, she does a quick mental rehearsal using a single breath and then images the one key move in her next tumbling run, all in about two seconds.

If athletes can learn to stay present, manage their stress and perform their best under the extreme pressure of the Olympics, you can too during your most challenging situations. Using imagery to program your mind will give you more confidence and relaxation under pressure so that you can also be your best under stress.

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TC North

TC North, Ph.D. helps entrepreneurs get more of what they want from their businesses. He is a professional EOS implementer, co-author of the best selling leadership book on Amazon, "Fearless Leaders," a high-performance executive coach, Huff Post blogger and leadership speaker. The entrepreneurs he works with create high-performing organizations with extraordinary profitability – that people love to work for. Two of his companies have transformed from having flat revenue to becoming members of the Inc. 5000. Contact North by email or call 303-665-8920 to learn more. www.TCNorth.com.

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