Authors: D. C. Gonzalez
One of my roommates had to be
pulled out by rescue divers when he panicked and failed to get his harness to
release. He almost drowned. The fear on his face when he was helped out of
the water was real. And since he had failed, we all failed. Without
hesitation, he and the rest of us were all immediately loaded up to try again.
There was no time to dwell on his near-drowning experience; instead we were all
strapped back in again—and again—and again. Until we all got it right, until
we all beat our fear of drowning.
"Those must have been very
intense feelings." Leo-tai said." After all, fear is a normal
response to something dangerous or threatening. While many would say that fear
is healthy, it is no good if fear seizes control, especially when we may have
to save ourselves or save others. Fear can ruin our potential to
“So how can you stop fear from
seizing control?” I asked.
"Controlling fear involves
two things: a choice and a strategy. The choice is whether we truly choose to
confront the fear; and then the strategy is how we go forward, having made the
choice to do so. Naturally in the Navy they made the choice for you and you
were forced to confront your fears. They applied their strategy whether you
guys liked it or not, and so pushed you beyond your fears.”
Leo-tai looked me straight in
“Fear can create tension,
doubt, anxiety, loss of coordination, and loss of concentration. In the worst
cases, fear can even begin effectively shutting down neuro-muscular
connections! Someone who is afraid naturally tends to shift their focus on to
what can go wrong, and when they do that, Danielsan, mistakes begin to
happen—typically the very mistakes they are most fearful of making."
“I see what you’re saying, how
the thought of something going wrong can make it worse,” I agreed.
“Fear can cause the warrior to
focus on the negative. The fearful competitor can become over-cautious, and
decide to ‘play it safe’—instead of playing to win.
Fear can turn a competitor from
someone trying to win, into someone trying not to lose. Once that confidence
is gone, any advantage that the warrior may have had over his opponent begins
“But how do you manage fear?”
Leo-tai smiled at my question.
“Where is the fear? Fear happens inside your head, and thus it can be
managed. A certain amount of fear energy is normal in competitive or dangerous
situations. What’s important is to not let it grow out of control—and to know
what to do in case it does. Remember this: a champion knows that fear is only
as powerful as he lets it become. Fear of something in the future—or even in
the past, for that matter—can also be a tremendously powerful experience.
Therefore it is important and necessary to take back some of the power of the
emotion. The Warrior/Champion does this by bringing himself back into the
present moment, and the easiest way to do that, Danielsan, is to focus and
watch your breathing. You must bring your breathing under control in order to
ground yourself in the present.”
“You mean, make a decision to
focus on your breathing?”
“Exactly. That’s where we
start. You must focus and breathe in a controlled way. Watch your breathing.
Control your breathing. Doing this has a calming effect; but more importantly,
it brings you back into the present moment. Once you are back, once you have
returned to the present you (or any warrior) must then face his fear.”
“Confront your fear.” I suggested.
“Indeed. Ask yourself what you
are so afraid of. Confront it rationally. This you must do before you can
face your fear down and set off to do whatever it is that you must do.
Recalling times when you have been successful in the past or successful during
training can help shut down fear. Recalling how well you typically perform,
how much you love the sport, the competition, the challenge, or how well you do
your job can also prove helpful. Then, you must decide upon a strategy and
move ahead and embrace the challenge set before you despite any fear.”
It all sounded possible and
even empowering, but I still had one question.
“How do I prevent the negative
thoughts that help make me fearful?” I asked.
“Interrupt them," he said,
"The instant that you notice them. Replace them—drown them out—with
positive self-talk and images. You must re-direct the energy of fear and
channel it into self-confidence. This is one way that you can begin to
transform the energy.”
He then rose. “There is only
one energy prior to a confrontation or a major challenge; and the energy is
telling you to get ready. If you feel the energy to be more like fear rather
than self-confidence—remember that it is happening in your head. Against fear,
Danielsan, you must have the spirit of attack, against fear, one can always
Remember: Against fear, one
can always win. Confront the fear and then engage a strategy to move forward
despite the fear.
Art of Mental Training
Leo-tai and I were discussing a
national competition, which we’d just watched together.
“Have you ever noticed,” he
mused, “How sometimes, even when an athlete’s performance seems to be going
really well, that it’s almost as if some sort of stress takes hold of their entire
game and everything starts going downhill for them?”
How interesting I thought: he’s
so right. Why is it that big leads and strong advantages all seem to crumble
and disappear under pressure sometimes? No player is immune to it; even great
champions sometimes fall victim to it. In the end, even they will admit that,
at one time or another; they too have “choked.”
“So what causes it,” I asked,
“And what can be done to fight it? What about the guy in the tournament? Did
he just suddenly become afraid of losing?”
“In a way, but not exactly,
because a choking episode begins when a competitive situation threatens the
athlete’s ego,” said Leo-tai. “It’s a little like having a fear of failure –
but choking goes beyond the fear because choking is the actual physical
response that's triggered by the psychological threat to the ego. Choking is
more than just having a fear of failure – fear is in your head. Choking
happens when performance is actually affected by the nervousness, stress, and
worries about looking bad if things go wrong. It’s very different from the fear
of facing a dangerous or life-threatening situation. These are subtle
distinctions, but big differences.”
“Yes,” I admitted, “But I’m not
sure that I can tell the difference.”
“Perhaps that’s because the
physical symptoms brought on are so similar. But remember that their causes
are different. Nervousness and stress in either situation will affect an
athlete’s breathing pattern to the point where the delivery of oxygen to the
brain and muscles suffers, and he begins to feel anxiety. As an ineffective
breathing pattern kicks in, his performance begins to suffer just when he needs
his skills the most, just when the pressure’s really on. However, choking is
actually caused by an ego that’s worried about looking bad, not by any real or
“So what could that champion
Leo-tai shook his head. “His
mistake was that he let his fear of looking bad take hold and gain momentum;
bringing on the nervousness and anxiety that caused the actual choking
reaction. What he needed to do was to start using focused breathing, thus
beginning to reduce anxiety on the spot. As one uses focused breathing one is
able to begin to relax. Oxygen fills the body, reanimating the muscles and causing
anxiety to subside. Suppleness returns, bringing renewed confidence with it.
Feel the relaxation as you exhale; as you begin to bring anxiety under control,
things begin to get better for you.”
Leo-tai switched off the TV.
“In these cases one must use
focused breathing to help bring you back into control, back into the present,
and to allow yourself to feel the pressure subside . . . But Danielsan,
remember: since choking springs from your ego, it’s not enough to address the
physical symptoms alone, although it’s OK to start with them. As soon as
focused breathing begins to help, you must also take control back from the
“Go on,” I said.
“To do this, momentarily pick a
focus point in your immediate environment and fix your eyes on it as you continue
your focused breathing. This will help shift the focus away from yourself and
to refocus on the particular task at hand. The outside focus helps us to
reduce the ego focus—which is really what is causing all the problems in the
first place . . . Once an athlete really understands what causes choking he can
set out to shut it down so that he can immediately begin to refocus on the
challenge at hand, and keep it from getting worse. Once you see choking for
what it really is, you can avoid the experience happening to you by using this
strategy. Learn to leave your ego outside of your event, or it will always end
up getting in the way.”
Remember: Performance choking
is caused by an ego that is afraid of looking bad. You must learn to leave
your ego outside of your event.
Art of Mental Training
I had been several years out of
the military—and I’d just been put through the mill. The Federal agents
questioning me reviewed their notes, exchanged glances with each other, and
then turned towards me.
“You're free to go,” said the
Special Agent in Charge, “That’ll do.”
I glanced at my watch,
surprised to realize that over two hours had gone by without my noticing.
During those hours I had been grilled non-stop by all the top supervisory
agents in the District Office. I supposed the reason was because I was up
against a lot of strong competitors. At any rate, I rose, nodded my thanks,
and headed for the door.
Just before I reached it, the
lead agent called me back.
"Oh, just one more
thing," he said. "I have one final question, if you don't mind?”
"Not without my
lawyer." I told him, with a straight face.
They all smiled; one chuckled.
(Wow, I thought: these people do have a sense of humor.)
“I‘ve noticed that you’ve had
some valuable training and experience as a sports mental trainer. I can’t help
wondering if you were using any of those mental techniques that you teach
athletes during the interview today.”
I looked at him straight in the
“Absolutely,” I told him. “Of
course I used mental techniques today.”
Later he told me how he noticed
that the pressure that the panel was so good at creating and that they had used
so successfully to rattle other applicants had appeared to have had no effect
on me at all . . . And so began my career as a Special Agent.
Pressure. Intense pressure. I
had known plenty of it in the military. If there's one thing that most
athletes will tell me they want their mental training programs to help them
with right away, it's being able to perform better under pressure.
Of course, feeling the pressure
of competition is not in itself a bad thing; it can actually help to bring out
the best in you. It’s really how you deal with it that makes the difference.
Whatever you may think, the truth is that all the pressure you feel really
comes from inside yourself. Once you understand this, you can begin to free
yourself to do what you are really capable of.
So, how does stress and
pressure adversely affect performance?
and judgment are all affected. Your heart beats faster, your breathing speeds
up, you can’t think as clearly as usual. Often, pressure creates tension that
can push you to try and get through something quicker. Yet when you yield to
this impulse to rush, you’ll actually perform worse.
Not knowing how to handle
pressure will certainly affect overall performance. This can be the undoing of
any performer: whether in the boardroom, on the concert stage, or while engaged
in top-level sports. The first thing you have to learn is how to stay cool.
This is probably the biggest single difference between a typical competitor and
a mental athlete.
The mental athlete has learned
how to stay calm and task-focused under pressure. He knows that staying cool
is part of his success formula. So he sets out to manage the pressure—which
begins by first recognizing that it’s OK to feel the pressure. He doesn’t deny
his nerves, but he doesn’t give into them either.
Here are some of the
tried-and-tested techniques the mental athlete should learn to use in order to
help him to stay calm and task-focused under pressure:
Learn to concentrate and use
focused breathing. The athlete can bring himself back to the present moment by
training himself to use his breathing to help secure control when the heat is
In pressure situations, make
sure to let the air reach into the very bottom of your lungs. Fill every
corner of your body with life-giving, life-enhancing oxygen.
Then, as you release the
breath, release any tension and anxiety along with it. Notice the feeling of
release—and the feeling of control. Focused breathing will help reduce the
pressure and keep you grounded in the present.
An athlete can also help take
the pressure off by using muscle relaxation skills. Having developed this
skill through practice outside the competitive environment, the athlete equips
himself with an invaluable tactic to use against the building tension and
pressure that he may be feeling in a competitive environment. The ability to instantly
relax muscles not only relieves tension, but also serves to calm your mind and
reduce the pressures you’re feeling. With a little practice you can get really
good at triggering physical relaxation quickly. Be sure to learn and practice
the induction technique introduced in Chapter 7, which is extremely popular
among the world’s top athletes and performers.