When I start working with a new client or team, the first thing we always address is how to control your mind and body during high-pressure situations. One of the best ways to start with this is by understanding some of the things that your brain does automatically, without you consciously thinking about it. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman does a fantastic job of describing the difference between what he calls System One and System Two. He says that System One just does things automatically without conscious thought. For example, if you see 2 + 2 =_ you don't have to think about the answer, your brain can just automatically process that with virtually no thought or intentionality. However, If you are given a problem like 16 x 37 = _ that would take some intentional work for you to figure out and process. The same is true with your mind and body during pressure situations.
This is where what we call the Focus Cycle comes into play. System One is going to focus on certain things, perhaps doubting whether you can do something, fearing what could happen, or thinking about what has happened in the past. System One is going to cause that little voice in the back of your mind to say things like, “I don’t know if I am good enough to do this” or “I don’t think I’ll be able to________.” This same system sends signals to start the fight or flight response that might cause a rapid heartbeat, butterflies in your stomach, shaky legs, or even sweaty palms. All of this put together is going to cause you to “feel” certain emotions.
We don’t have to think about this reaction to a pressure situation, it just happens. This is a very well designed system if you are living in a cave and might need to run for your life or fight back if a wild animal tries to attack you. Unfortunately, this part of our brain doesn’t distinguish between a threat that we need to actually fight against and a pressure situation where we need to make a free throw, deliver a pitch, or sink a putt. This is where System Two comes into play.
System Two has to be intentional. It takes thought. It takes intentionality. It is exactly what we need to take back control of our Focus Cycle. Instead of allowing System One to focus on fears or things we can’t control, we want to use System Two and make a conscious effort to focus on things we can control. To focus on what is important now. To focus on the process we must go through to achieve the things we are trying to achieve. If you are a quarterback getting ready to lead a last-minute drive, you don’t need to focus on a bad play you had last year, last week, or last quarter. Yes, that is something you might need to address in the future, but right now let’s focus on what’s important now and what we can control right now.
Instead of letting System One talk to us as that small voice in the back of our mind that is trying to keep us safe and comfortable, let’s use System Two to be intentional and talk back. You can use positive self-talk to remind yourself of what’s important and what you need to do next. That could be something as simple as, “confidence and refocus” or “control the controllables.” It can also be helpful to have a “Go-To Statement” or something that you can always go-to when things get tough. This is usually made up of two parts, the first being what you are always confident in and the second what you are working to achieve. Saying something like, “I am the best player in the world” isn’t true and the part of your brain that wants to fix things is going to throw that out. On the other hand, if you know deep down that you have put in a lot of time and work to be at your best, saying something like “I put in the time, I put in the work, I’m the best quarterback in the country” won’t be tossed out so quickly because there is no denying the first part. The part of your brain that wants to fix things can’t throw out all the hard work you have put in...IF you have in fact done so.
Controlling your body is something that you can also use System Two to do. Combat breathing is used by athletes, military, and other high-pressure industries all over the world. You simply:
Inhale for 4 seconds - completely fill up your lungs with air
Pause for 4 seconds - allow your lungs to absorb that oxygen
Exhale for 4 seconds - get rid of the carbon dioxide
Wait for 4 seconds - slow down your breathing rate which will slow down your heart rate
The science behind why this works is all tied in with the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which we talk about more in our podcast. You will be surprised how well you can take back control of your body’s automatic reaction to stress and pressure simply by controlling your breathing rate.
All of these intentional actions are going to lead to a change in our emotions. Instead of just feeling hopeless, nervous, or anxious, now we can generate some confidence and feel more in control. This process can be thought of much like first aid. Some injuries are a simple scratch and just need a band-aid. Others could be a larger wound that may require stitches, while major injuries may require immediate medical attention. Simply having a statement you can go to or taking a deep breath might be that band-aid you need to stop the bleeding and get back to work. Our podcast is designed to give quick tools that can be utilized by athletes to get back to playing their game. Other athletes may have been dealing with something larger and need more help, perhaps on a personal or individualized level, for these, we offer 1-on-1 sessions at our office or over the phone. In extreme cases, there are serious needs that should be evaluated by a psychologist or discussed with your doctor. For these, please do not feel ashamed or that there is something wrong with you...GET HELP! Speak up and have a conversation with your doctor to get the help you need.
If you want to take our mental skills assessment to see where you rank in different areas that research shows are vital to competing at a higher level you can visit:
And if you want to learn more about the tools and skills that athletes, coaches, and parents can use, please check out our podcast at:
Don’t just hope that the mental side of your game will be ready when it matters the most, develop your plan and put it to work! #PlanAndExecute
- Ben Carnes
Owner Mental Training Plan