I was working with a group of senior leaders a few weeks ago, while Team New Zealand were vying for the Louis Vuitton Cup. One of the discussions we had was the importance of focusing on the process rather than the outcome when the stakes are high. It might seem counter intuitive, however there are some learnings to take from the approach of our elite athletes when it comes to managing pressure and peak performance.
As soon as we start fixating on the outcome, we take our eye off the ball. We are no longer present, no longer focused on what is happening right here, right now. We're likely to miss some of the subtleties or nuances in what is going on around us.
Why does this matter? Well, there is only one moment we can directly impact, and that is the one we are in. I recall reading an article in the paper after the All Blacks successfully defended the Rugby World Cup in 2015. It quoted a former All Black who was involved with the team in 2007 during that infamous (in New Zealand at least) quarter-final loss against France. The former All Black said that in the changing room at half-time he said “this doesn’t look good guys”. Now if that’s true, in my view the game was already over for him at that point. He'd fast forwarded his attention to what might be, taking his energy away from what is right now.
Going into any high-stakes event, be it a sporting contest or a presentation in the board room, we need to be as prepared as we possibly can be. When it comes to game time though, we need to let go of our focus on the outcome, trust in our preparation, and be in the moment. It’s about dampening down the distractions and unhelpful emotions so we are in our peak performance state. Fully focused. For Team New Zealand that would have been a focus on this start, this tack or this jybe. Executing with precision in this moment, not thinking ahead to the next leg or beyond. When Oracle Team USA managed one of the most amazing comebacks in sporting history in 2013, they weren't on the boat thinking about the 1-8 score line; their focus would have been on this race, this leg, this wind shift, executing this start. Once Oracle started to build momentum, I wonder where the mindset of Team New Zealand was focused?
So, if you want to manage your mindset in the moment, give these techniques a try to keep your focus in the here and now:
detach from the outcome - look only at what you need to do right now. If you're giving a big presentation, it might be a focus on your pace, your clarity and your breathing;
focus your attention - breathe out unwanted thoughts in your next exhale and refocus your attention on what is important right now, at this moment;
chunk your goals - focus on your immediate target. Break your goals down into small, manageable chunks, and begin to focus only on the first step;
identify power words to substitute negative thought patterns - we all have an inner critic. Notice those negative habits of thinking, don't judge yourself for it, just notice and replace the thought with something supportive. So when "I'm so nervous, I hope I don't stuff up" pops up again, try replacing it by acknowledging "this feeling is because I care so much".