If you are trying to be great at something, pursue excellence and fulfill your potential, chances are you’ve experienced the feeling of being nervous. Leading up to your big sales pitch, before briefing the board on last quarter’s numbers, before the first game of the season, preparing to give that speech – many of us have been there. The interesting thing about nervousness is that we only experience it when we want to be awesome.
No college student who believed getting a D stood for diploma is experiencing nervousness. When your team is down by 20 points with 5 seconds on the clock, you aren’t nervous; it’s all over except the hand shakes. There’s nothing on the line. No one in your company just showing up for a paycheck is experiencing nervousness today. No one aiming for mediocre ever experiences nervousness. Nervousness occurs because we aim to meet high expectations, not because we don’t have what it takes.
And so we face racing hearts, clammy hands, and droplets of sweat permeating on our foreheads. Are our bodies trying to sabotage our performances in the biggest moments of our weeks, our years, our lives? How can we be awesome with all of this going on inside? It seems impossible.
I first got a different view of nervousness in my junior year of high school. I was warming up for a big, pressure-filled cross-country race. It was our home course against major rivals. You know what I’m saying. For most of the day, I had been calm, cool and collected. As our team warmed up and I focused on the race ahead, here it came. Nervousness reared its ugly head. A couple trips to the bathroom later (it’s important to stay hydrated for these events) and my stomach was still full of butterflies. As we lined up on the starting line for our final minutes of strides, trying not to psych ourselves out, my silver haired, yoda-like coach approached. He asked how I was feeling. I told him about the butterflies being worse by the minute. What came out of his mouth next shocked me. He said, “Good. Justin, if you didn’t have butterflies today, then I wouldn’t even let you run the race. Those butterflies tell me you care about the outcome.” What I learned from that moment is that nervousness is actually a good thing and that I needed to find a way to use it to my advantage. FYI, that was one of my top performances.
Since then, I’ve come to understand the science of nervousness and how to handle it. Here are 3 tactics to corral nervousness and ACE your next performance!
Acknowledge The Benefits
The symptoms that we associate with feeling nervous are tied to our body’s Fight-or-Flight response. It is a survival mechanism designed to help us rise to the occasion in life and death situations. While there isn’t likely a lion chasing us around the boardroom, our bodies react to our perception of a threatening situation. If our thoughts are of danger, fear, worry and a desire to show what we’re made of, then our bodies prepare for battle. An internal chain reaction supplies us with a burst of energy, elevates our heart rates to get more blood to major muscle groups, opens up our lungs to take in more oxygen in every breath and heightens our senses to process more information in our environment. How amazing is that? We are created to perform under pressure and face the biggest moments. Our bodies know how to prepare to be awesome! We simply need to acknowledge what is happening, accept it and let the performance happen.
Channel The Energy
Often times we mis-interpret the symptoms of an activated nervous system (described above). We may think, “I’m not ready for this,” “I’m going to fail,” “I don’t have what it takes.” Because our thoughts drive our reactions, they often become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We do fail, botch the speech, choke, blow the game. But what if we channeled that energy by changing counterproductive thoughts to productive thoughts? What if we directed it toward our preparation, rehearsal, or research? What if we channeled it into making an energetic and engaging pitch to the investors, or to hustle up and down the court? Rather than thoughts that hold you back, allow your thoughts to focus on the possibilities, what good can come from the situation, and what there is to gain. I find this turns nervous energy into productive energy, the kind that I need to win.
Embrace The Excitement
According to a recent article in The Atlantic
, 85% of people believed the key to defeating nervousness (termed anxiety in the article) was to calm down. That might not be that bad if only those 85% knew HOW to calm down. But recent research out of Harvard suggests a different approach. Researcher, Alison Wood Brooks, found that embracing the symptoms of nervousness and interpreting them as excitement proved to increase performance. Compared to experimental subjects who were instructed to counter their nervous feelings with “I am calm,” those who told themselves, “I’m excited” performed at a higher level in public speaking, math and singing. I have found this extremely helpful for myself and for my clients too. Rather than fighting the inevitable response from our body, we can embrace it as excitement about the opportunities that await as we perform with excellence.
As you pursue your potential and strive for excellence in your day-to-day life, you will encounter nervousness, fear and anxiety. Will it sabotage your performance or will it fuel your excellence? The choice is yours. It is entirely up to you how you choose to respond. Will you choose to ACE it? Give it a try. Acknowledge the benefits, channel the energy and embrace the excitement to seize the opportunities and succeed in your high pressure moments.
Question: What else have you found helps corral your nerves to perform under pressure? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.