Monday, May 19, 2008

The Pressure Cooker

Bonny commented here with this question, and I think it's a really good one to think about so I'm posting it here for pondering:

do you have any advice for a 15yo girl who has trouble performing under pressure?

Her ability is REALLY *there.* Obviously developing still. She's only 15 LOL. But she doesn't do well under pressure. I think that most of her obstacles are mental ... and I'd love to see her work through some of this (and I know that any help she gets isn't going to heard if it's from her mama ...)

I've been actually thinking on this topic a fair bit lately, since all of my Team in Training folks are quickly approaching their Big Day and I've heard from more than one of them that nerves are starting to become a factor. I have a very distinct memory of the first time I felt really good and nervous and my mom told me I had "butterflies in the stomach", an expression I had never heard before. At the time, all I knew was that I hated the feeling, as I suspect most of us do. I also knew that I myself didn't perform well under pressure. As a kid, I could play something absolutely perfectly in practice and get all worked up and blow it in a performance. It took years and years to realize that becoming nervous under pressure can be a good thing once you learn how to channel that energy into the right direction.

In general, the folks who have the most trouble performing under pressure are perfectionists. We struggle because we so want everything to be just right. It can be an awesome trait to have, because perfectionists often work very hard at whatever they're doing, and can really blow you away with their abilities. On the other hand, perfectionism can be crippling when we let it get in the way of just doing something, even if it's not done perfectly. I love some of the things The Flylady has to say about this, especially her little mantra about housework done imperfectly still blessing the house. You can really extrapolate that to just about anything - anything we do imperfectly is still a blessing. It's hard for us perfectionists to recognize that, however. As a kid and a teen, I could occasionally be seen to fake something, anything (illness, injury, dog eating my homework) to excuse the fact that I hadn't done something perfectly. It can take many years, or even decades maybe for us to learn that it's okay. We can just do something. That's why I love bowling. I totally and utterly suck at it, and what's even better: I don't care. Bowling is the first thing that really saved me from perfectionism.

If we can get past a fear of making mistakes, then we can start channeling our nervous energy into the kind of energy that carries us through a race or performance. One technique that I use to direct that energy is that of positive visualization. In the days or weeks leading up to an event, whenever I become nervous about it and get that butterfly feeling, I stop and take the time to visualize myself performing in the event exactly as I would like myself to. If it's a race, I visualize myself feeling strong and smooth, moving through my transitions with ease, feeling relaxed and loose on the course, moving across the finish line with energy left to spare. The real key in visualizations for me is to make them as specific as possible. I really use my imagination to see everything exactly as I want it to go.

Another thing I find really helpful is to have little mantras that I repeat to myself. One from my competitive skydiving days is this little conundrum: Slow is smooth, smooth is fast, therefore slow is fast. That keeps me from getting amped up and wasting energy in random directions. Another mantra that I use whenever I start letting myself get whiny about whatever situation I'm in is: It's a privelege and a gift to be here today. So you're running and it's a million degrees outside and you have a blister and your Accelerade is sloshing around in your stomach and you want to puke?? Well, it's still a privilege and a gift to be doing that. It is, it really is. Sometimes it takes a few times of repeating that one for it to sink in to my brain though, LOL. Sometimes I have to remind myself of the passage in The Hiding Place where Corrie's sister Betsy says a prayer for the fleas of the Ravensbruck concentration camp. Now there's a book to remind one of what to be grateful for.

So these are the things I'll be talking over with my TNT folks in the upcoming weeks: letting go of perfectionism, creating positive visualizations, using mantras to remind ourselves of what is really important. Hopefully some or all of those will be helpful.


kristin said...

As an extremely competitive person, I've learned a lot of things about "the pressure cooker" over time. I hope you don't mind if I jump in here with a few of them in case Bonny comes back and reads this - one may resonate for her daughter.

1. You can't make yourself win, but you can make yourself lose. I can think of a couple of different occasions in sports where my mental game took me to a point where I literally could not win. I broke myself. The two times that this happened taught me a really valuable lesson about backing off from the mental worry sessions that can sometimes sneak up on you in competition. Like you said, Robyn, I find mantras very helpful for those times when I feel the hysterical edge coming on.

2. If you walk away from a competition with nothing but complaints and dissatisfaction, you may as well have not been there. Find the one good thing that happened and celebrate it. My husband taught me this, as I came home from a volleyball game early in our marriage feeling crabby and dissatisfied. He basically said "look - why do this if you aren't enjoying it?" As an ultracompetitive person, this was hard to swallow... I'm not just doing it because I enjoy it - I want to win AND enjoy it! But the changed attitude that frank conversation brought about over time has given me so much more appreciation for the varied lessons that sport can give! I am a much better coach and athlete now because of it.

One of the hardest lessons I've learned about competition I learned in the workplace... after 10 years! It seems commonplace, but for a perfectionist, it can be so hard to learn. You will make a mistake. It will happen. How you handle it is what makes a champion. You can falter, lose your concentration, and see your efforts cascade downhill, or you can smile, laugh, and recover your equilibrium.

Robyn - I wish you and your athletes all the best!

Robin said...

Excellent points Kristin, especially number two. It's so easy to get down, but finding that satisfaction even in the times when things don't go our way is really the key. Thanks for your insights here, great stuff!