Embracing Challenges for Performance Excellence

In pursuit of long-term goals, rarely does the elite athlete enjoy the luxury of a smooth ride.  Very few athletes achieve international greatness in sports with ease, and without obstacles. And especially at the Olympic Games, the presence of obstacles is inevitable, that is, the opportunity to experience “choppy waters” exists at every turn. For instance, the athlete whose life is dedicated to excellence in his or her sport is highly routinized – if not by choice then by necessity – and likely follows a strict daily regimen of sleep, meals, and training. Even down time, or rest, is deliberately structured into the schedule.  Imagine how an ultra-competitive, obsessively disciplined athlete may respond, emotionally and in performance, to a significantly overhauled schedule and new environment upon arriving at the Olympic Village in Sochi.   Combine this with the frequent media distractions, unfamiliar playing conditions, and the presence of family and friends, and it becomes inevitable for an athlete to place a greater value on the Games, causing performance anxiety to heighten and the managing of that anxiety to become more difficult.  Since challenges are guaranteed for every athlete as he or she strives for individual sporting goals, it is necessary to embrace challenges in order to enhance performance.

While the challenges of participating in the Games may be unique and at times unpleasant, mentally tough athletes will know that, as my colleagues Adam Naylor & Matt Cuccaro have described, obstacles also provide opportunities for learning, growth and development. When embraced, challenges, such as having to adjust to a new schedule and competition environment, are seen as tasks to be excitedly overcome rather than situations to be avoided. Confronting and embracing challenge puts athletes in a position in which they are forced to develop skills for focusing and relaxing during potentially stressful endeavors on and off the playing field. Athletes who avoid challenges, or choose not to embrace them, will often remain problem-focused and not solution-focused, and therefore have a more difficult time coping with the adjustments.

Consider a fitness-related example. Curling a five-lb. weight for several repetitions is not a remarkably challenging task – for most, it’s rather simple. As a result, very little muscular growth will occur, and the biceps will remain as it was. Curling a 25-lb. weight for several repetitions is a far more difficult task, and while the feeling in the moment may be uncomfortable, unfamiliar, or distressing, the muscle is sure to grow when put under that kind of stress. The mind, too, needs to be put under stress in order to learn and grow. A player who adopts this approach will not only accept challenges, but begin to actively seek them out as a means of growth. What a wonderful difference between this and the athlete who actively avoids challenging or uncomfortable situations, and subsequently performs poorly due to the heightened cognitive tension (“I don’t want to be here!  I don’t think I can do this!”) as well as somatic tension (muscular tightness, stiff and overly mechanical movements).

Elite athletes also know that embracing challenge means maintaining a healthy performance intensity. That is, they understand the importance, and appreciate the inherent difficulty, of not allowing anxiety to cause them to play over-aroused (“too intense”) or under-aroused (“too relaxed”), both of which can hinder performance. A recent Harvard Business School study reiterates a similar point. Contrary to the belief of many coaches and athletes, whose automatic reaction to anxiety is to relax, there are benefits of getting excited in the face of performance anxiety rather than using mental energy to attempt to calm down. While trying to calm down to manage stress is preferred to simply suppressing or hiding anxiety, the study revealed that reappraising anxiety as excitement is easier and far more effective than trying to calm down. Whereas anxiety is a negative, aversive emotion that harms performance, excitement is a positive, pleasant emotion that can improve performance.

Any performer who is able to reframe the physiological response from “I’m feeling nervous, I better calm down now to “I’m feeling excited” is taking advantage of the natural surge of sympathetic nervous system energy being experienced. Repurposing anxiety as excitement can help an athlete feel in control, which will improve self-efficacy and focus. A noted difference between professional and amateur athletes, then, is not necessarily the amount of anxiety experienced, but rather their interpretation of it.

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