Have you ever been ready to give a super important presentation and suddenly felt your heart pounding in your chest? More than likely, you branded this feeling as anxiety tied to your fear of failure or, at a minimum, your fear of looking foolish. What if you were wrong? What if the anxiety you were feeling was actually a hyper-excitement to the anticipation of a great, successful presentation?
The truth is, nervousness is neither good nor bad. In fact, many high performers admit to feeling “nerves”, sometimes to the extent of being physically ill before their biggest and most successful events. This has been studied extensively by a colleague of ours, sports psychologist Dr. Debbie Crews from Arizona State University. While her initial research around this phenomenon was focused on professional golfers who choked, her findings can apply to anyone looking to perform at their best.
In Dr. Crew’s research, she noticed that it isn’t whether you feel anxiety or not, but actually whether your brain shifts to an “approach” mindset or an “avoid” mindset. Her research revealed that when you are looking forward to the challenge of the upcoming event (approach mindset), your brain activity becomes more synchronized (a balanced state between right and left hemispheres, front and back regions). While most people think you need to calm all nerves and reach some kind of zen state in order to perform your best, Dr. Crews suggests that it’s actually the synchronizing of different parts of the brain, and not just a lowering of brainwave activity, that often leads to optimal performance.
She also found that often the best performers weren’t in a meditative zen state, but were actually operating with high levels of arousal across the entire brain. In simple terms, the technical and analytical parts of their brains were being balanced by their creative, intuitive, and appreciative parts of the brain.
These findings correlate nicely with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s findings about performing in the state of flow. The flow state doesn’t happen by avoiding stress or eliminating anxiety. It happens by mastering the stress and anxiety, and enjoying the thrill of the challenge. In other words, using the high stress situation combined with an approach mindset to create high performance.
The next time you are feeling really nervous before a big presentation or meeting, you may want to try the following to help you shift into an approach mindset:
_Set some clear intentions about how you want to be perceived in this event.
_Perform some equal breathing with an inhalation on a count of four and an exhalation on a count of four (this can be very useful to balance the excitement of the event without becoming overly anxious).
_Visualize yourself delivering the performance that creates the perceptions where you are excited at the opportunity to impact the crowd.
With the right preparation, you can turn your nervousness into high performance.
As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts.
Director of Performance Coaching