Despite six win-or-go-home games the past couple weeks, the San Francisco Giants battled the odds and pulled off an incredible comeback to make the World Series. Watching them play reminded me of how the pressures players face on the field are not all that different than what professionals face in the office every day.
During my time as a collegiate and professional softball player, I learned a few coping techniques in my sports psychology sessions that have stuck with me. Recently, a friend of mine who is going through a tough time in her personal life reached out to me after learning this. She is an accomplished academic, but she was having trouble focusing at work and delivering at the higher levels she was used to. All the mental training I did years ago really helped me perform as an athlete, and I now actually apply several of the same techniques to my current job in marketing. Here are a few of the tips I shared with her:
Ward off the waterworks.
If you are at the point of tears, identify which stage of crying you’re in. Stage 1 is getting that lump in your throat and a teary feeling. Stage 2 is when you actually well up, and Stage 3 is full-out tears. When you approach Stage 1, shut it down early, because Stage 2 and Stage 3 are points of no return. We would sometimes joke on the field, “OK, I’m Stage 1, Stage 1!” and then laugh and get over things quickly.
The longer you let the process progress, the harder it is to shut things off. Now many of us are not “criers,” so you may feel this advice doesn’t apply to you, but it is all about self-awareness. If you can identify that you are getting flustered in a meeting or presentation to the point of losing your cool, you want to recognize that and respond appropriately.
Put it in the box.
When you are overwhelmed for any reason, take that feeling, or occurrence, and just “put it in the box.” My teammates and I would picture an actual box, put the unhappiness in and then seal the lid. The feeling or response could not be processed or dealt with then, so we packed it away to be reopened later. It comes in handy when you make an error on the field but must maintain your composure and be mentally and physically ready for the next pitch.
This technique is what helps me the most when I encounter an upsetting situation at work but need to keep my cool. Maybe a plan I worked on was not approved, or we lost our best editor or designer to another project. I put it in the box and then look outside at my focal point (see below). Obviously, I will eventually address whatever has set me off (as it may be something serious), but at that moment I just need to push ahead.
Find a focal point.
When you’re feeling stressed, take a deep breath and refocus yourself by looking at something that reminds you of what you are working for. Then take another deep breath! You can also repeat to yourself key phrases like, “You can do this,” “See it; do it,” and “Just start moving.” This is all to keep you from spiraling inward and getting very upset about whatever is bothering you.
My old focal point was the flag in centerfield at our home stadium, which helped me see the bigger things in life and center myself at bat. Nowadays, it’s my patio pergola at home, which reminds me of nice times outside and how much I love my house, family and work-from-home situation. Both focal points were/are totally visible from the places where my potential meltdowns occur.
Keep everything in perspective.
Think about why you are doing your job. Do you love it? Have you worked hard for your successes? Do you worry that your value as a person is on the line or that your family is depending on you to perform? It’s easy to feel pressured, but if you decide you love your work regardless of how you perform, you can reduce stress and actually do better as a result. In most cases, your life is not really on the line, so relax and remember all that you have: supportive family and friends, a great education and so many other opportunities to pursue if you want to.
Control only what you can.
As my college coach, Sue Enquist, used to always say, “There are only two things you can control: your effort and your attitude.” Keep this mantra in mind whenever you are feeling any kind of pressure. With so many things that are out of your control, it can be healthy and freeing to narrow your focus to things that actionable. You can’t control umpire calls or budget cuts, but you can control how you react and how hard you work. Having this mindset can be a huge anxiety reliever.
So when the going gets tough at work and I feel like I may be on the verge of losing my composure or focus, I pull out my sports psychology toolbox and apply these lessons to my work life. What life lessons have you adapted for your own job?
Photo credit: les_stockton
Some of the sports psychology described above is based on sessions with Ken Ravizza, Ph.D., author of Heads-Up Baseball.