Get Anxious and Perform

Last night I was reading the Pressure Principle and specifically the chapter on anxiety by Dave Alred, performance coach to star athletes. Later I read an article on Focusing by David Rome in Tricycle Magazine, a Buddhist publication.  I love when information from diverse sources converges and the knowledge shared overlaps. Let me explain. What connected for me in reading both pieces was that the authors recommend allowing ourselves to feel anxiety and then re-frame it for improved performance and growth. As an executive coach, I regularly see how pervasive high anxiety is in business and how we are trained in society to view anxiety as a negative. The main message we receive from others, the media and cultural norms in general is to try to ignore anxiety, medicate it with alcohol or pills or see a therapist about it. Both authors were advocating that feeling anxiety can be a good thing. I agree.

Alred builds a case for re-framing anxiety and sees it as fuel to increase performance. He discusses how athletes will often ignore strategic plays in sports if the stakes are high and instead choose ones that have a better probability of moderate success resulting in mediocre performance. He attributes this avoidance behavior to a need for the athlete to reduce anxiety and play it safe. Rome discusses how meditation trains us to detach from anxiety and stay present when sometimes focusing on it can be a complimentary and beneficial practice. He makes the distinction between meditation as a way of detaching from emotions and letting them float by and “focusing” as a way to be with our emotions so that we don’t avoid them. He defines “focusing” as welcoming uncomfortable feelings and sitting with them to bear witness; by doing so the anxiety usually subsides and you have the opportunity to transmute anxious feelings into more confident ones.

We have all developed clever ways to skirt anxious feelings – snapping on Netflix or a sporting event, eating another piece of key lime pie or having a cocktail to decompress. Before you escape, consider staying present to your feelings of anxiety in a quiet setting. Breathe regularly and stay with the feelings letting go of what you are thinking or telling yourself. You should notice soon the intensity of your anxiety dissipating. Relax into that space. When you are ready, picture yourself performing the task or doing what you most want to avoid in a positive frame. See the golf shot land on the green. Picture yourself speaking in an engaging way as you address a group. Feel confidence as you hold a difficult conversation with a colleague. Positive rehearsal of your preferred outcome can take hold when you’ve stabilized anxiety and opened yourself to new energy.