‘If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…’ – Rudyard Kipling
Have you ever felt overburdened by a deadline, or a presentation, or the prospect of a job interview? In each case, you’re desperate to prove your worth, but regardless of how qualified you are or how much time and effort you’ve exerted on planning and preparation, you can’t stop thinking ‘what if it all goes wrong?’, ‘what if I’m not good enough?’, ‘what if… what if… what if…?’
In some cases, the sheer will to succeed can be counterproductive and highly detrimental to our performance. If our pursuit of excellence becomes squashed by the shady underbelly of perfectionism and we inflexibly attach our ego to our performance, becoming obsessive about a task and judging our progress against unattainably high standards, we will stress about falling short. This stress can be crippling; the inability to focus on anything other than negative outcomes that may arise from a future event sends us down ever-widening cognitive spirals of irrational panic. We become stressed about the fact that we’re stressed, and then this distorts our focus, refracting it away from the task at hand, inhibiting our ability to perform optimally.
Sports psychologists have developed methods that can help us perform optimally in stressful situations, such as performing against or among others. We can borrow from a Sports psychologist’s toolbox to better equip ourselves to prepare adequately for and perform optimally during a potentially stressful future event.
What happens to our brain during an episode of stress?
When we focus acutely on the possible negative consequences of a future event our evolutionary monkey brain is hotwired into action. As Brian explained in his ‘Memory, Madeleine, and Maddening Bosses’ post, our monkey brains are hardwired to produce a forceful and stubborn emotive response to perceived threats. This response involves inundating the neural system with adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormone), instigating an acute physical and emotional reaction that pushes us into what psychologists call a ‘Threat State’.
When in this state the perceived threat hijacks our rational brain and working memory, making it hard to refocus our attention. This impairs our decision-making and creativity, which are key components in development and self-improvement, likely instigating an unfavourable downturn in mood. If we then ruminate, allowing a continual recurrence of negative thought, we lay arable ground for this maladaptive cognitive trend to take root and grow, encompassing us in a persistent state of threat.
How can we address this?
It is important to develop strategies to combat the pre-conscious, emotive response of our monkey brain. Thankfully, research suggests that we can consciously direct our attention to other, more productive and constructive thought-streams and thereby positively affect our mood state. This is not to say we should ignore impending events; though this may provide us with temporary respite, it doesn’t assist us in the long-term.
Sports psychologists’ research into ‘goal setting’ provides us with a more productive approach, which states that by focusing on the skills required to successfully complete a task, we can develop a plan tailored to improvement in specific, fundamental areas. Once a plan has been developed, we can produce a positive visual image depicting our steps towards achievement. This mental storyboard is a powerful tool that allows us to direct our attention towards self-improvement, not allowing our monkey brain to hijack our working memory with thoughts that entertain ego-driven, imagined negative outcomes.
The nature of the goals we set for ourselves has a significant impact on the level of improvement we achieve; learning goals which are internally focused (viz. those that promote self-improvement, skill acquisition and refinement, and mastery) are preferable to more externally focused ‘performance goals’ (viz. those focused on outcomes and competitive results). Setting a learning goal when, for example, preparing a presentation, would involve improving your background knowledge in a key area, whereas a performance goal simply states success as its aim, and doesn’t look to enhance important skill-sets for long-term betterment. It has been demonstrated that learning goals improve metacognition (thoughts about your own thinking), the retention of learned information, transferable skills, and are correlated with intrinsic motivation, that is, the will to complete a task for enjoyment over and against solely external gains.
To produce the best outcomes goals must be specific and challenging, yet achievable. Self-determined goals are preferential because they are less likely to be considered threatening. Goals of this nature provoke a productive level of stress which, far from threatening us, actually motivates and increases our productivity, allowing us to flourish.
Learning goals, through their inherent focus on self-improvement, encourage a heightened self-awareness. This, in turn, facilitates a state in which we can develop mindfulness, that is, the ability to retain focus in the present moment no matter what is in the periphery. This mindful state is a product of our rational human brain, the neocortex, and allows us to maximise our conscious working memory, promoting creativity, clear decision-making, and high-quality learning. Mindfulness has been shown to reduce pre-performance stress in a number of tasks and provide lasting neural changes for emotional regulation, key skills when performing under pressure.
What about the end goal?
Being aware of end goals is important, however, a mindful state (being anchored in the present moment) allows us to be passively aware of this end goal, whilst focusing our attention on intrinsic and internally controllable tools which are required to succeed. Although it seems paradoxical in a results focused world, to actually achieve success we must focus on the individual components which will lead to that success, and not the success itself. This kind of higher level learning, achieved through the strengthening of underlying neural circuits, as a function of neural plasticity, prepares an individual for numerous future challenges.
Similarly to sports psychologists, the team at Positive know that subtle changes to the way in which we approach a task can have a profound effect on mood state, subsequent behaviours, and performance. Awareness of this is key. Set yourself, or your team, specific, challenging but achievable learning goals that form a framework for how you prepare and plan for a significant future event.
Once these goals have been set, regularly consider your progress towards these goals, focusing on the skills you’ve gained and insight attained. Positive offer tools on their Positive App that can help track and measure such progress, like the EB and isee.
Having adhered to this process, you can enter the significant event knowing that you possess better understanding and skills that have been specifically designed to assist you in overcoming potential obstacles. During the event itself, focus on the performance of these skills as opposed to external, ego oriented thoughts, such as how your performance is being perceived by others.
It is important to remember that the best-prepared person may not succeed every time, but it is likely that they will succeed more often.
 Kahneman, 2011
 Locke & Latham, 2006
 Deci & Ryan, 1985
 Sharma & Rush, 2015