We’ve all experienced that feeling when faced with a situation we’d perhaps rather avoid. Whether it’s having to speak at a public occasion, attending a difficult meeting at work, or maybe even on the start line at the parent’s race on sports day, you’ll feel the adrenaline pumping through your veins and the butterflies having a party in your stomach.
So how can you deal with these challenging moments?
With the Rio Olympic Games upon us and the European Football Championships behind us (thankfully if you’re an England fan), it’s worth looking into how top sports people cope with the stress of competing on the world stage where every mistake will be viewed by millions and diagnosed by experts and amateurs alike.
When US sprinter Michael Johnson was asked how he coped with the pressure of competing as favourite in the 200m and 400m events (the schedule was actually changed so he could do this), he simply replied that when he was on the starting blocks he would remind himself that ‘this is what I do, this is what I train for, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.’
Studies into performance in sport found while some fail to perform at their best at the big events, many exceed expectations when the stakes are high – Michael Johnson certainly always rose to the occasion to which he put this down to a lot of practice and preparation.
But what about us mere mortals? We may not be on the blocks at an Olympic final but we still have those meetings and odd speech to deliver. Firstly, it’s natural to feel nervous. The adrenaline makes us extra-alert, increases blood flow and prepares us for action. But in my experience as a teacher of The Alexander Technique to athletes and actors, I can say that it’s not usually the adrenaline that causes people to become anxious and under-perform – it’s our reaction to the situation.
This invariably includes stiffen the neck and shoulder muscles, that in turn effects breathing. Once this chain of events had kicked off it’s no surprise that the voice and movement is compromised.
Top actors and sports people often talk to themselves and maintain an internal dialogue to keep focused on what’s required. Many will have a breathing routine, or maybe recall a memory of their most successful performance to help them stay in the moment and keep tension from their muscles - I often focus on my toes in my socks to check I’ve not clenched them.
Whether you’re an athlete or a parent on the start line, you’ll perform better with the combination of adrenaline and a relaxed, poised body, rather than tension and shallow breathing. So next time you have a big occasion to prepare for, visualise yourself in advance performing while focusing on your breathing and checking your shoulders stay relaxed and maybe having a few words to keep you calm. Every time you think of the event, repeat this process and you’ll be fine at the moment of truth.
Roy Palmer is an athletics coach, teacher of The Alexander Technique and a rowing fanatic.