GO or NO! Anxiety and Performance

Psychology, as an academic discipline, loves high-level words like ‘Confidence’, ‘Attention’ and especially ‘Anxiety’. Psychologists will go to great lengths to define such terms in overtly flowery language that reinforces the position of psychology, academically. Ultimately, words like Anxiety mean very different things to different people so when someone actually experiences ‘Anxiety’ the only question worth asking is, “How are You experiencing anxiety”?

Some years ago I was a visiting Psychologist at a running club and I was asked to talk to an athlete about her ‘nerves’. I started with ‘you know anxiety is very common in sports…’ then launched into an intelligent recollection of major research and what happens to athletes who experience anxiety, how we can predict a poor performance etc, etc. The athlete (kudos to her!) politely maintained an interested look and ended with ‘yeah but how do I get rid of them?’ My expression suddenly went vacant and I quickly noticed that it was the first question in the entire conversation!

What if turning to a textbook description was blinding me to what was actually going on with the athlete in front of me? If the intention was to help discover alternatives to ‘nerves’, questions about how specifically the athlete experiences ‘nerves’, what location in her body, when does/doesn’t it happen and what is she doing then etc. ,etc., would be useful wouldn’t they?

So before you go off researching anxiety in the textbooks let me throw you some different wood for the fire! As in all these articles remember, – they are just opinions and opinions mean nothing unless You give value to them. You have the responsibility of evaluating the results!

As a coach who uses psychology as a mode of improving performance, using quick, powerful methods that bring results affords you the opportunity to have the performers you work with teach you excellence as they achieve it.

One such teaching says that Effective Psychological Coaching comes down to operating within two broad strokes: Resource Shopping and The Crux Move. Resource Shopping is essentially training. It is where performance is analyzed, adjusted, improved, and resources are added. Proper technique is learnt and demonstrated in a ‘safe’ (i.e. training) environment. Masses of great work can be done here.

The Crux Move is a term my mentor taught me. It comes from the world of professional rock climbing and describes a very difficult, potentially fatal, move made on the rock face in which complicated calculations are done quickly and unconsciously. It entails a very different state to ‘Resource shopping’ and it is the arena in which the results of your performance really matter.

The aim is to map the Resource Shopping phase into the Crux Move.

As thismapping occurs a special set of unconscious and conscious computations can be made. The hours and hours spent perfecting your technique get loaded in to your long-term memory, part of the unconscious mind. The unconscious only truly activates the information when you approach a Crux Move situation. Unconscious computations readily make themselves available to you in sensations. What I’m saying is, your feelings and sensations, when it comes to performance situations particularly, carry lots and lots of information.

For some people this flood of unconscious activation is interpreted as ‘anxiety’, a ‘NO’ or ‘Get out of here quick’ signal and an attempt will be made to shut it down. Others will utilize the sensations and information allowing the whole self to be committed to the performance, knowing nothing except all and everything that boosts performance. This is the state of the excellent performer.

The ‘No’ signal is also a very worthy ally to have on board and often stops performers from taking risks that are damaging (particularly in terms of injury). They are deeply internal responses that are very intelligent and have been helping you to stay alive for all of your years. The suggestion is that it would be of great use to you to learn to tell the difference between NO signals and unconscious activation.

The technique is simple:

List situations where you have known absolutely to resist, refuse or avoid (i.e. had a deep NO signal). Pay attention to the sensations you have then. Answers like ‘I just know’ or ‘because I did it before’ simply wont do here. You are training yourself to understand the sensations/signals that your body gives you for a ‘NO’ signal. These signals are pre-verbal just like the ones you may eventually call ‘Anxiety’. How do you know when to refuse food that’s offered to you? How do you know to avoid a particular person? What is it that tells you to make a split second decision etc etc.? There are many of these types of questions you can ask yourself in order to get used to your NO signal. Pay attention to the shifts in subtle bodily sensations. If you cant feel anything train your attention harder to pick them up, they are there!

This kind of internal inspection is highly meditative and I recommend that you begin this task in your training or ‘Resource Shopping’ phase. It will be invaluable as you approach the Crux Move because you will be able to tell a NO signal from unconscious activation or a ‘GO’ signal. It will take easy discipline to bring this sensitivity to your performance (whatever that may be). Those who are trained in this find themselves gifted with some amazing bonuses. Namely, the ability to:

Trust and utilize every bit of their training in performance situations,

Throw themselves into the Crux Move with confidence,

Realize that if they do not perform optimally whilst in the Crux Move it immediately tells them what they need to do as priority in training.  Enjoy practicing and let me know how you become a confident, sensitive, strong and EXCELLENT performer!