It’s your big moment: You have an important presentation to make. You’re getting ready for a big date. You have a critical parenting decision to make. You need to be at your best, and you’re hoping your best abilities—and judgment—will be there. There’s nothing wrong with hoping to do well. But hoping is not a strategy. The most successful elite athletes have figured out that wishing and hoping, as well as physical strength and skill, aren’t going to separate them from the rest of the pack. They follow a distinct philosophy and set of learnable mental skills that let them prepare more effectively and perform with more focus and freedom.
There are many identifiable mental characteristics that separate the best from the rest. I describe it as a balanced combination of playfulness, reality-based optimism, and a well-honed ability to focus on the present moment.
Let’s start with how anxiety hinders your ability to focus on the here-and-now and decreases performance. Most people think of anxiety as something that happens automatically in response to a scary or stressful event or in anticipation of something bad happening—what’s called “future-oriented worry.” That might be true in the narrowest sense, but what feels like anxiety to you is actually an emotional response to the actual physical manifestations of biological arousal. When your body senses a potential threat it goes into what is called physiological arousal. How you respond physically, mentally, and emotionally to that condition of physiological arousal determines how “anxious” you ultimately feel.
Learning how to slow one’s body down is the most important thing for being able to perform at your best and overcome anxiety. Here are three ways to do that:
1. Practice Breathing.
A reliable way to induce the relaxation response is through regulating your breathing. Regulating breathing has many benefits. First, it slows down biological alarm or sympathetic nervous system (flight or fight) activity and helps your parasympathetic nervous system kick in and help you calm down. Second, it aids in the process of managing stress so you can make calm decisions and react in the best way possible. Finally, breathing regulation can be a part of a powerful routine to get your mind and body in the most adaptive state in order to perform at your best.
Breathing training is simple and could be practiced for as little as five minutes a day. It is ideal to take approximately six full breaths per minute. Begin by trying to regulate your breath into nine- to ten-second cycles: four seconds for each inhalation and four seconds for each exhalation followed by a one- to two-second pause. While breathing in, count, “one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand, four-one-thousand.” On exhalation do the same thing, counting, “one-one-thousand, two-one thousand, three-one-thousand, four-one-thousand.” Then pause for one or two seconds and start the process all over again.
To further increase your relaxation you can practice self-talk or a mantra in your mind between breaths such as, “I am more relaxed now than I was before that breath” or “I am ready for this challenge because _______.” Practicing this breathing for five minutes each day will help you be more resilient to stress.
A mantra can be seen as a tool to actively work on changing your story. It can be a short, data-based, positive self-statement. It’s like a pen with which you can actually begin to cross out and rewrite particularly unhelpful ways of perceiving yourself and your environment. Mantras allow us to rewrite, edit, and reframe our negative thoughts. It is amazing how something that seems so simple and straightforward has such power to help better your life.
It helps to reinforce your mantra by making it part of your daily performance routine. You can strengthen its power by saying it when you wake up and when you go to bed. Also, it is helpful to post your mantra in a place where you can see it. Many athletes put their mantra on their cell phone lock screen, computer monitor, or bathroom mirror. I’ve worked with executives who print out a fortune-cookie-size mantra and put it on their office phone or tape a giant printed version to their window. Any place you see it, it will be a reminder to train your brain to think in an objectively optimistic way.
3. Create a Routine.
By definition a routine is a series of mental and physical behaviors that allow you to bring your best self to a given situation. The beauty— and complexity— of a routine is that it can consist of any action that performs one of two key functions: it can involve something physical, such as an exercise that slows down your breathing or it can be something that changes how you think about the situation, like a mantra or adaptive self-talk statement. By establishing a routine between practice and game time, your body becomes programmed to know it’s time to do and not think. For example, a tennis player may bounce a ball a few times before she serves. A batter might tighten his batting glove several times before he stands at the plate. These actions regulate us and help our mind let go of thoughts, fears, and worries. It will help you ask yourself in every situation: “How much am I focusing on what I can control in this situation?” The more you make this analysis part of your routine, the more you will succeed.
The right kind of routine helps you plow through some of the most common anxiety roadblocks we all face, like the expectation of perfection or the overwhelming need for approval.
A routine is a method to actually reach these goals by allowing you to block out irrelevant information. When you practice your routine with enough repetition that it becomes automatic, it will allow you to be present in the moment and shield you from thoughts and results that are beyond your control. Just as a well-designed mental routine works for big leaguers in big moments, it will work for you in your presentation, performance, or other important situation.
Dr. Jonathan Fader is a licensed clinical psychologist. He is the team psychologist to the NY Mets baseball team and is certified as a consultant by the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. He’s the author of “Life as Sport: What Top Athletes Can Teach You About How to Win in Life.” For more information go to jonathanfader.com.