How to Focus Your Way Out of a Tough Spot (And Avoid Choking Under Pressure Part III)

Over the weekend, I was out in Greenwich, CT to coach Navy SEAL candidates on mental toughness. Every month they show up for the Physical Screening Test (PST), which includes timed push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, a 1.5 mile run and a swim. The minimum standards are rigorous and every month they’re expected to improve on the previous month’s scores. Needless to say: they’re under pressure and scrutiny.

During my mental toughness brief, one of the candidates asked: “What should I do when one of the instructors gives me feedback while I’m doing pull-ups, for example? When I try to incorporate what he’s saying, I get flustered and lose my focus.”

Yep, we’ve all had some version of that.

The cardinal rule of focus

Focus on what you want to happen, not what you don’t want to happen. (“Remember your keys” instead of “don’t forget your keys.”)

For more stress-filled situations than not locking yourself out of the house, however, it helps to create performance statements – two or three short commands that identify the critical elements necessary for a successful performance. (No more than three, our brains don’t have the channel capacity.)

Keep it short and pithy, like this:

  • Doing pull-ups: Elbows down, chest away, breathe
  • Playing tennis: Eye on the ball, full follow-through
  • Playing the violin: Relaxed and confident. Grab my dreams and fly.
  • Taking an exam: Extract key info, frame problem, isolate answer
  • Making a sale: Know the script, calm and confident, make the ask
  • Giving a presentation: Follow the plan. Take it slow. Let it all hang out.
  • Being interviewed: Sit tall, breathe, listen

The next time you’re in a tough spot, having a performance statement 1) will give you a kind of home base to return to and collect your thoughts, and 2) make it harder for negative thoughts to infiltrate in the first place (‘cause your brain can only process one thought at a time).

One last thing: Figure out your performance statement in advance, not on the fly. And, as I said last week, practice under performance conditions so you know what it feels like to use your performance statement under pressure.


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