As a high-performance psychologist, my life efforts have focused on uncovering the essential skills that help people live and perform toward their upper capabilities in high-stress environments. Why do some individuals shine under pressure while others crumble? What can we learn from those operating at the very limits of human potential?
Perhaps the distinguishing feature of world-class athletes and performers is how they psychologically respond to the unfolding, unpredictable unknown. Unlike most of us, they are conditioned to embrace change and discomfort, and they are particularly skilled at handling adversity. Whether it’s a traumatic injury, a job loss, or just the ball bouncing the wrong way, they are nimble and able to adjust when things don’t go according to plan. Their insights and mental dexterity are directly applicable to the conditions we now face. Whether they’re battling COVID-19 or trying to navigate life under quarantine, anyone can learn from how the best in the world psychologically respond to unexpected turns in life.
1. Stay Optimistic
World-class performers interpret events in a way that gives them agency and the opportunity to grow. They rarely wallow in self-pity or victimization. Regardless of hardship, they look for what’s positive in their new circumstance. The practice of finding what’s good in our environment is particularly important when we’re being flooded with foreboding reports, breaking news warnings, political briefings, social media updates, and alerts.
I had a conversation on the Finding Mastery podcast with Bethany Hamilton, a professional surfer whose arm was bitten off in a shark attack at age 13, as dramatized in the 2011 film Soul Surfer. Her reflexive optimism propelled her back into the ocean — and surfing — only 30 days after the incident. Her mindset reflects how most world-class performers seek the positive even when dealing with life-altering challenges.
“The cool thing was I still had two inches of my bone, which is super awesome in the limb-loss world,” she said. “If I had four, it would have been even better. But, two inches was still pretty good because I have my shoulder blade and whatnot.”
World-class athletes (for the most part) are fundamentally optimistic about what’s right around the corner. When they think about what’s next, even in the face of a devastating injury, they still think it’s possible to succeed. I would be hard-pressed to find performers on the world stage who hold a fundamental belief that things won’t work out for them. They don’t entertain a negative storyline long enough to make it part of their psychological framework or belief system.
Make a daily practice of identifying a few good things in your new circumstances and writing them down. “The air is much cleaner without the traffic.” “The considerate couple walked on the other side of the street to socially distance themselves from my stroller.” “My neighbor gave me a warm smile this morning.” It doesn’t matter whether they are big or small observations. The practice orients our mind in the right direction.
2. Anchor This Moment In Purpose
Anchor this remarkable period in purpose. Austrian psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Frankl, who devoted his life to understanding meaning, wrote, “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, only by lack of meaning and purpose.” His dictum can be applied to the COVID-19 pandemic. The alteration of our lifestyle can be physically, mentally, and emotionally draining. Go way upstream to remind yourself not what you are doing (healing from COVID-19 or trying to avoid it), but why. “I don’t want to get the disease” is a worthy goal, but purpose requires that we look for an orientation beyond ourselves. “I want to recover so I can be there for my family.” “I want to protect communities that are most vulnerable to COVID-19: the elderly, those with pre-existing conditions.” “I’m making these sacrifices to protect others.”
Big-wave surfer Mark Mathews captured the power of purpose in a conversation we had on the Finding Mastery podcast. Between the ages of 17 and 18, Mathews was living with his mother, who had fallen mysteriously ill and was unable to work. The thought struck him: “I’m going to have to take care of my mother for the rest of her life if this keeps going on.” During that time, he was invited on a trip to have surfing photos taken of him that would be published. The waves were five times bigger than any he had previously surfed. Rather than discouraging him, Mark’s newly found purpose drove him to take on the challenge, and it changed the course of his life.
“I’d never really, at all, wanted to be a big-wave surfer,” he told me. “I didn’t think I really had that in me, but it was as if I had this unbelievable drive to be a successful professional surfer because I knew that if I could get that working, I could help take care of my mum. It was this perfect storm that helped me find out what I was capable of — I had that reason that was beyond just myself, wanting to help a loved one. I think that’s where you find that ability to push yourself through that fear.”
Having a purpose that transcends ourselves enables us to push through difficult challenges. When purpose is bigger than pain, purpose wins. The contrary is also true: when pain is bigger than purpose, pain wins. With purpose comes a greater sense of control. We have more resilience in the face of challenges, more gratitude, a deeper connection to others, and a greater overall sense of fulfillment in life.
3. Build Connection
There’s a euphoria that comes with feeling connected to a larger group and purpose — and a dark side when that bond is ruptured. When athletes get injured or cut from the team, it’s a common experience, particularly in team sports, to feel like they’ve fallen out of the tribe. They are no longer in all the meetings. They don’t participate in team workouts. There’s a temptation to retreat into isolation at a time they need the support of others more than ever.
With businesses closed, people losing jobs, or working from the confines of their homes, it’s easy to feel isolated — alone. As a counterbalance to ongoing feelings of isolation, recognize the isolation trap, assert yourself, and actively connect with your environment. Create moments of interaction via social media, phone, or text. Get creative in reminding others you are out there and let others know that they matter.
4. Choose Your Thoughts And Label Your Feelings
Great performers are adept at working with stress. They recognize the benefits of stress — their bodies switch on to prepare for the thing they’re going to do. But they also know that if they don’t manage it properly, they can tighten up, constricting their ability to perform. Focusing on what they can control — and taking their attention away from those things they cannot control — is one of the tools they use to find their activation sweet spot. There are two components they manage: thoughts and emotions.
In the midst of a pandemic, in which there’s a continual threat in our environment, our nervous system kicks into overdrive and our thoughts can lead us to states of anxiety, frustration, helplessness, and hopelessness. If your thought patterns are running into places that seem unsolvable, get off that train of thought. It’s as simple as recognizing your thought train and redirecting your attention to either something good in the present moment or to a thought that’s productive (like, “However this unfolds, I’m gonna figure it out.”)
If you are feeling overrun by emotions — sadness, despair, frustration, anger, anxiety — acknowledge the emotion. Research suggests that the simple act of labeling an emotion can discharge the potency of that feeling. Amazingly simple and incredibly powerful. I couple the labeling of the emotion with a long exhale.
Because laughter brings us into the present moment. We are all here. Right now. Let’s enjoy that.
Michael Gervais, PhD
High Performance Psychologist
Co-Founder: Compete To Create
Host: Finding Mastery Podcast