With all the practice in the world, when the rubber meets the road and life calls on us to perform, we’ll still experience stress. How do we manage that stress in the moment?
Robert offers us two strategies: Tactical Breathing and Cognitive Reframing.
We have direct access to breath and muscle tension. This gives us two “knobs” we can use to calm ourselves in the midst of stress or to increase our arousal level when needed. As we slow our breathing and seek out and relax muscle tension, our heartbeat and blood pressure will follow suit, allowing us to become more calm. Breathing more forcefully and tensing muscles can raise our alertness level and prepare us for strong, rapid action when needed. Thus, we can tune our physiology to the demand facing us in each moment.
One approach to breath control is “square breathing” with each side of the square being four seconds long, or a slow count of four: 1) breathe in for four seconds, 2) hold for four seconds, 3) breathe out for four seconds, 4) hold for four seconds.
Other breath control approaches have also demonstrated the ability to induce calm and help control stress responses, suggesting that the important thing is not so much which specific technique is used so much as intentionally slowing and deepening the breath in stressful moments.
I like visualizing my breath as the hand of a clock. When my lungs are full, the hand is at 12. When my lungs are empty, the hand is at 6. As I inhale, the hand moves up from 6 to 12. As I exhale, the hand moves down from 12 to 6. By speeding up or slowing down the clock hand, I can fine tune the speed of my breath.
There are a couple of ideas behind cognitive reframing. The first consists of displacing negative thoughts of defeat and failure with positive self-talk.
Rather than, “I can’t do this,” or “I don’t know what to do,” we can call up encouraging thoughts like
- This is what I’ve been training for
- Relax and focus
- Slow is smooth, smooth is fast
Design some encouraging thoughts you can call on in a crisis and practice them ahead of time. During visualization is an ideal time to practice deploying these and will make it more likely that they’ll come to mind when you’re actually facing stress.
One Thing At A Time
Another aspect of cognitive reframing is focusing exclusively on the next step. Our negative self-talk wants to tell us how big the mountain that’s about to fall on us is, how completely out of our depth we are, how completely we’re about to fail and disgrace ourselves.
Contemplating the big picture in the midst of stress is not helpful. Focus instead on the next step you need to take. You only have to do one thing at a time. Give all your attention to the one next thing. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Instead of thinking about the elephant, focus on chewing this bite.
Tactical breathing and a one-thing-at-a-time focus will enable you to navigate real-time stress to a satisfying outcome.
Black Box Thinking
After an airliner crash, the data recorders from the cockpit are retrieved and studied to understand what went wrong and how the system might be changed to make that error less likely in the future. Apply the same discipline to your failures.
In the aftermath of a failure, we have a choice. We can seek to avert blame and avoid responsibility, in which case we learn nothing. The other option is to examine what happened and look for lessons. We don’t learn from our good performances. Unless we take our failures as opportunities to learn, we’ll impair our ability to improve at all.
Robert writes, “Reconceptualise your relationship with failure so that it no longer represents an existential threat, but acts as a guide for your ‘practice’ phase.”
Even when a performance goes well, consider what might be improved. We are often encouraged to play to our strengths, and this is helpful advice when a competent performance is required. However, playing to our strengths doesn’t help us grow. Only working on our weaknesses will do that.
The purpose of black box thinking is to learn what we can to enhance future performance. That goal is not aided by punishing or blaming ourselves. As we examine past performances for clues to improvement, we can also be gentle with ourselves, and this will also enhance our learning.
Just like stress shuts down our rational thinking, self-blame and guilt shut down our ability to learn. We need to treat ourselves with gentle compassion to allow ourselves to absorb the lessons we want to learn.
- Stressful situations are inevitable. If we don’t train for them, they will find us unprepared.
- Perceived demand > perceived resources => threat mindset
- Perceived demand < perceived resources => challenge mindset
- Mental toughness = 100% commitment + challenge mindset
- Where is your commitment? 100% of it is somewhere.
- Immersion — regular, periodic practice
- Deliberate practice
- specific, measurable, attainable session goal
- maximal focus
- immediate feedback
- push your envelope
- physical – body position, arm and leg movements
- environment – what do you see, hear, smell?
- timing – slow to fast
- learning – content should change with skill development
- emotion – include stress
- perspective – see what’s going on through your eyes, not out-of-body
- Tactical Breathing
- Cognitive Reframing
- Positive self-talk
- One thing at a time
- Black box thinking
- Self compassion