So Close and Then We Blow It

Have you ever been so close to getting something you dearly want? It’s within your grasp, you’re just about there…and then you blow it?

It could be during an interview for a job: you suddenly realise that you have it all wrapped up but before you can stop yourself, you’re jabbering away, talking more than you should and in next to no time, the job you thought was yours is lost.

Or it could be selling a proposal at a meeting. Same thing. You’ve just about got them across the line. There’s a silence as people are coming to a decision. Instead of waiting out the silence – our mouths open again, adding unasked for/unwanted information – that triggers more questions that we really didn’t want to answer – end result: proposal turned down!

Or playing sport – you realise you are just about to win. You’re playing tennis – you have 3 match points and only have to win just one more. Or in football or rugby or hockey or netball, you are ahead and need only to defend your goal line for 60 seconds longer. In cricket, you only have to get two more runs and protect your stumps from the next 6 balls. You get the idea.

But what happens – we blow it, we lose the match, we lose the game, we lose the test. Why?

Surprise surprise – It’s your amygdala calling

Chances are – it was not because of our lack of skill or the superior competence of our opponent – it was because of our own self-sabotage, what is happening in our brain.

In a split second, our amygdala realises how close we are to getting what we want and fills us with fear at the thought we might not achieve it.

Instead of allowing our pre-frontal cortex to continue on the successful path that has led us to this point, to concentrate and hold our course (the logical way to deal with the fear), no – instead our amygdala starts its flight or fight routine, filling us with extra adrenalin, niggling at us, causing us to shake, our heart to race even faster, to lose concentration, worry about the future if we don’t win and suddenly we’ve lost when only moments earlier we were about to be victorious.

No wonder commentators, future employers, our colleagues, team selectors, our bosses, even the stock market in a crisis, ask whether we can ‘hold our nerve’ under pressure.

Nothing to lose

It’s ironic isn’t is that when we start out as a new manager, a budding sports person, a new employee in a role – we come up with great ideas, try out new strategies, new shots, give it our all – simply because we have ‘nothing to lose’. Our brain hasn’t yet filed away any potential consequences of not succeeding in its ‘things to be frightened of’ storeroom.

The more we try, the more experience we get – these are the things that should make us more confident, more able, more focussed. Yet so often they seem to create more anxiety about losing, more fears that hold us back and more occasions when we lose our composure.

Staying cool under pressure

One of the key distinguishing features of great sports champions, great managers and leaders, great colleagues and great friends is that they can hold it together under pressure. They can be relied on to hold their nerve, hold on and persevere to the end of the race, the challenge, the game.

How do they do it? It seems to me that this involves two key elements:

  • Our ability to control our responses to our amygdala and
  • Resilience

Controlling our responses to those ‘almonds’ – our amygdala

Here are three tips to help you control your amygdala and prepare for any pressure situation you know is coming up:

1. Learn how to breathe and relax at will.

Don’t wait until you are under pressure to start practising. At any time at all, concentrate on your breathing and lowering your heart rate – you can do this on the bus, on the train, sitting in your car, watching TV, eating a meal, during a conversation.

Breathe deeply. Get oxygen deep into your lungs so it can spread around your body fast. It’s the best antidote to adrenalin.

2. Focus on your heart rate.

The exercise is simple: tell your heart to slow down. Keep your focus only on doing that.

Test your current ability to do it. Take your pulse before you do the exercise. Time it for 15 seconds then multiply by 4. Do the exercise for one minute. Then take your pulse again.

Repeat this exercise daily or more often if you can until you have mastered the ability to slow your heart rate down at will. Even slowing by a few beats per minute will make a difference.

You do have the time to practice. The exercise doesn’t take much time out of your day – it’s less than 2 minutes in total. i.e. Measure your pulse rate for 15 seconds, then for one minute breathe slowly and focus on your heart rate; then measure again.

3. Imagine the pressure situation you could find yourself in

This builds on the previous exercises. It will take a little more time – allow 10 minutes.

Sit or lie down in a quiet place and really put yourself there, in the pressure situation, in your mind. Visualise the place, the weather, the time of day, the people around you, the smell, the sounds, the voices, the words, how you are feeling physically, the pressure being applied.

When you’ve done this, if your heart rate hasn’t gone up – you’ve either mastered the art of relaxation and focus (well done!) or you haven’t really put yourself in that place. If necessary get someone who understands what you are trying to do to ‘talk you into’ that situation.

Then either, doing it yourself, or with another person’s help – breathe, talk to yourself, tell yourself to focus, walk though what you have to do, acknowledge that you are feeling ‘hyper’, tell your brain to translate all that hyper energy and adrenalin into even greater focus on keeping on doing what you have been doing to get you to the point you are now at.

Depending on your imagination, you might even imagine the adrenalin as a high powered injection of laser like accuracy, vision, and strength – whatever works for you to take back control over your mind rather than letting your amygdala create the very thing it is fearful of.

In other words, you can’t stop your amygdala from doing what it does – we are hardwired to worry about things that might cause us psychological or physical harm. What we can do is train ourselves to quickly realise that the only thing to fear is fear itself and convert that extra surge of energy into the winning edge.

Building resilience

When you think about it, how do ambulance officers turn up for work every day knowing that they are going to have to attend accident scenes where people are dead, dying or horribly injured?

What do you think their amygdala does? Before training I am sure they experience fear and an impulse to get away, to not attend, to avoid the situation.

But they don’t. They turn up, remain calm, take control and in so doing save lives. If ambulance officers can do it in real life or death situations, I’m confident we can in other situations.

Resilience comes from feeling the fear and doing it anyway. To fight the urge to give up or to stop trying; to not let that ancient part of your brain dominate the contemporary you.

Resilience also comes from familiarity with the challenge. Every time you face it, whatever the outcome, win or lose, your amygdala realises it was not a life or death situation and slowly will becomes less sensitive and reactive to the perceived threat. So when we talk about “practice makes perfect” – it’s as much about the mind as the body.

Resilience not only in pressure situations

Ever wondered why you couldn’t stick to your diet? Resilience is not simply about dealing with pressure situations. It can also be about staying on your new food program, giving up smoking, going for the walk, to the gym, practising the piano, your language lessons, persevering with the new software or system.

Even in these situations, if you allow it to, your amygdala will make the ‘fear’ of the difficulty of the challenge run you off track and you’ll sink back ‘safely’ into your comfort zone. You’ll beat yourself up anyway if you do that so why not persevere with the challenge?

One step at a time

To build resilince, tell yourself it’s one step at a time whether it’s a pressure situation or not. Your amygdala can cause you to leap mountains in emergencies – but it takes an all or nothing approach. Your amygdala ‘sees’ life in extremes. Your pre-frontal cortex sees the spectrum.

So use your cortex to break down the pressure situation into its component parts. Then let your amygdala face it each part at a time not just as one overwhelming feat. Learn to breathe, focus and become resilient – then winning and coping under pressure will never again be ‘so near but so far away.’