Top Performers Don’t Beat Themselves

Really top performers have learned how, in the heat of battle, not to wilt. Our lives in some ways are more difficult than the lives of professional athletes because, while they are under bright lights a few hours a week, we have to perform at a high level all the time. Athletes have to perform at their highest level just a few hours weekly for a few years. Businesspeople have to perform at their highest level all the time, at home and work.

Life is not a marathon, it’s a series of short sprints.” ~ Jim Loehr

Choking is not performing at our best when we have demonstrated the ability to perform. Is it due to a mental flaw, an emotional response, a lack of purpose, or another factor? Alan Goldberg, author on mental toughness and what causes choking, believes that we need First-Aid for choking. These 7 simple rules may help business professionals avoid choking, both at home and work.

1. Remain in the present ~  Several years ago when Jimmy Connors was winning the U.S. Tennis Open handily 5-0, he stumbled badly in the next set. Leading 5-1 he regained composure to win the match 6-1. In the post-match interview, he was asked what happened in the set he lost – as all focus and rhythm seemed to disappear. Jimmy said, “Oh, I was kissing the trophy.” When we think ahead about the outcome or results our muscles tighten and thoughts shift. For Jimmy it only lasted for 1 set. How many of us might say we lose it for days?   

2. It is about you – Often choking may be caused by feelings of doubt, fear, guilt, or a loss of self-esteem. If we acknowledge these feelings in critical situations, we become distracted, and it won’t help us deliver our best when we need to – it’s like falling asleep while reading a bedtime story to our child. We can’t be concerned about what others think or will think of us during our most important efforts. We should focus on thinking about how we look, as we look at ourselves in our mind. Are we performing or posing? The more we perform, and see ourselves succeeding in our mind – we strengthen and build the right habits.

3. Be right. Be decisive. – We sometimes choke because, as we look at being focused or in the present, we also have time to overthink. Not choking means making decisions. The best part of a wrong decision is that at least we are moving forward. In golf, my buddies have side bets and handicaps to level our games so we are equally competitive. We may not get it right (in my case, I claim to be a poor golfer, and again and again, I never surprise anyone), but we aren’t sure who will be better or worse that day, so we say “let’s adjust at the turn.” Meaning after 9 holes we will re-calculate our handicapping to again level set the game to be equal. As we move into unknown areas, both at home and in business, let’s plan to adjust as we go. It’s better to adjust that not to play the game at all. Counterpoint: Yes, we all process game time decisions differently, and understanding the game is critical to jumping in with both feet or not jumping in at all. My dad used to say when making a tough decision, “Oh, let’s just mess around awhile.” Sometimes we get so insistent on making a decision, we haven’t explored the possibility of just waiting, however, choking because of quasi-decisions is not good. It’s like checking into a hotel and asking if I may have  a room, and the front desk attendant  saying, “Maybe.” I can deal with yes or no, I just can’t deal with maybe.

4. You’re in good company – everyone chokes at some point. We are in a large boat with friends, neighbors, loved ones, bosses and colleagues, and at some point we are all experiencing The Choke. That should gives us some satisfaction, if only in knowing we are not alone. We are not in an elite group, but rather the friendly confines that occur when everyone is striving to minimize what happens to all of us.

5. Be a good coach to you – Choking is an outward stumble, a reflection perhaps of an inner struggle with shame, vulnerability, loss or anger. Choking is no reason to get angry. We are capable of forgiving others, so we should start with fully forgiving ourselves. Be kind to yourself. “To stumble is to move forward more quickly.” It’s ok! Shhhhhhhhhhhhh. Calm your cranky. We have more reasons to be ‘grateful’ than to be ‘troubled.’ We need to know, think, practice and recall all of our reasons to be grateful regularly. When I get nervous, I have learned to take an inventory of all the blessings, love, hope and abilities in my life. I make the choice to be happy. I think about that just before I go into an important meeting, or on-stage, or to a fun event with my family.

6. Laugh at yourself – One way to minimize choking is to stay loose. Allow events to come at you, knowing you are doing your best. Have you ever been water-skiing? If you try to pull yourself up, what happens? You fall. I say, “Let the boat pull you up.” Water-skiing is a metaphor for letting events fully unfold. letting the process be the process, and developing better thoughts and answers through the system and not through emotion. When this fails, and it will, top players look like top players, because they know they are alive, gifted, and will survive and learn for another day. I recall Hayden Fry, the head football coach at Iowa, in a press conference immediately following a Rose Bowl loss to UCLA, saying “…..what you just saw was a good ole-fashioned butt-kickin.” The faster we can forgive, laugh and move-on, the less choking stings and frankly the more you appear to others as unflappable and capable of winning given bigger opportunities.

“If you can laugh in times of crisis, you must have someone in mind to blame!”

“The beatings will continue until morale improves.”


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