By Allon Khakshouri, former manager of three world #1 tennis players and founder of the High Performance Project.
I am a huge tennis fanatic
As a kid, I admired players like Boris Becker and John McEnroe.
Then I turned my passion into my profession, and became one of the youngest sports agents and sports promoters.
I was fortunate to represent three world #1 tennis players, including Novak Djokovic.
And watched hundreds of tennis matches live.
Here is something interesting that I noticed:
Very little separates a player ranked 5 in the world from someone who is 50.
They both hit similar forehands, backhands and serve.
They both are in amazing physical shape.
And they both want to win.
At the same time, I kept observing the same pattern.
I would watch a lower ranked professional dominate his match against a marquee player and be on the verge of making a huge upset.
But then, out of the blue, the underdog would start making silly mistakes, stop hitting winners and literally choke.
So despite being the better player on the court, he would end up losing the match.
Obviously, this lower ranked player would feel completely devastated and destroyed.
He played phenomenal.
He had a chance to beat a top ranked competitor, make a name for himself and gain tons of confidence.
And he could have dived deep into the tournament and make lots of money and ranking points.
Real champions are different.
They normally finish off matches staying calm and focused.
And without any hesitation or fear.
Over the years I realized:
This trait to perform well under pressure not only separates the best tennis players from the rest of the pack, but it also distinguishes the most successful entrepreneurs and business owners from their competitors.
So today, I want to share with the secret to performing at your best in those key moments that can define our lives.
But let me start with what usually does not work.
As a sports agent, I sat in this player box many, many times.
I noticed how coaches would often tell their players in key moments:
“Don’t make any mistakes, play safe.”
But guess what would usually happen….
All of a sudden, the player started playing extremely defensive and make one mistake after the other.
A terrible combination for success!
I now know why this happens:
Our brain needs proactive commands and doesn’t like to be told what we shouldn’t do.
It’s like if I tell you right now:
“Do not think of a purple elephant.”
What pops into your head?
A purple elephant, of course….
The paradox of this is that when we focus our mind on NOT making mistakes in a sports game, we are actually anticipating painful emotions, like the discomfort of loss and the shame of embarrassment that would result from losing a match we should have won.
We forcefully try and resist that outcome, which is why our evolutionary fight and flight response kicks in, making us panic and even freak out.
This is when we become tight and perform below our capabilities.
So then the question really is:
What can we do to avoid choking in those pressure filled moments?
This is such an important question:
Just imagine how your life would change if you didn’t have these negative projections of all the things that could go wrong in those key moments where you want nothing more but to present yourself at our best…
Think about how your career and even your personal life would be different if you could perform at your best in those money moments that really matter?
To answer this crucial question, I want to share with you a study by the Arizona State University that has really captured my attention:
Researchers took a group of novice and expert baseball batters.
They would intentionally distract them while trying to hit a ball.
In part 1 of this study, a big sound would go off at random moments.
As they were trying to hit the ball, researchers would ask them to answer whether they heard a high- or a low sound.
This is what happened:
For the novices, the sound was extremely irritating and affected their performance.
They started missing more.
But for the experts, the sound made no difference.
Their performance remained consistent.
In part two of this experiment, batters had to focus on their action instead of a sound.
So when they heard music, they had to say whether their bat movement was going upwards or downwards.
What was interesting is that now it was the novices who didn’t seem to mind the questions because they were already focusing on the new techniques they were learning.
Being self-conscious actually even helped them perform better.
The experts on the other hand started to struggle.
Being self-conscious made their performance go down:
The reason for this is that they were so good at batting that they didn’t have to think about it.
So becoming more self-conscious actually harmed their performance.
In another study by Guchiati and Democh, researchers invited experienced golfers to participate in a competitive environment and divided them into three separate conditions.
- The first group was asked to pay attention on technical aspects of their swing, like for example their hip movement or grip.
- The second group was asked to fixate their attention on irrelevant words like the color blue or the color black.
- The third group was being asked to focus on holistic words like: ‘’make a smooth swing’’ or ‘’make a balanced swing’’.
As expected, group focusing on irrelevant words didn’t get nervous, and their performance stayed unaffected.
At the same time, the golfers who had to fixate themselves on their technique started feeling anxious, and their performance went down.
But the most interesting outcome of this study was that the group saying out loud holistic words also didn’t feel distracted at all, and performed well.
So what can we do when we face pressure moments?
These two studies show us how beginners and experts are different in terms of what helps and what harms their performance.
While novices very much need to focus on what they are doing to improve their skills, experts want to avoid becoming too self-conscious, because this jeopardize their performance.
Obviously, this is easier said than done, because it is natural for us to focus on avoiding mistakes and mess-ups in these big life defining moments.
In addition, memories of past failures will pop-up and make it even harder for us to stop thinking about the skills that normally come natural to us.
So order to avoid thinking about what not to do, we need to train ourselves to focus on being in the present moment.
Initially, I believed being present means being like a clean slate, free of any thoughts.
But that is not true.
Being present doesn’t mean we want to shut down all our thoughts at all.
That is almost impossible.
Instead, we want to focus on vague things that do not make us feel self-conscious:
Depending on the context of your performance situation, this might mean focusing on your breathing, on an outside object or on vague goals, like performing at your best, or performing smoothly, or staying positive.
The key is to find a way to focus on something that prevents us from starting the kind of self-talk that will make us fall off track.
You can try different options until you find what works best for you.
Once you do, you need to practice using this skill in non-pressure moments.
For an athlete, this might mean using training matches to build this skill.
For a bachelor, going on low stake dates might be the perfect way to practice staying calm and present.
And for an entrepreneur, performing a presentation in front of friends and family could be the perfect setting to train her mind.
The more you practice this, the more you will be able to stay focused in pressure moments that really matter…
If you liked this post and would like to learn more high-performance strategies that will help you excel in pressure-filled moments, download your free copy of the Ultimate Guide to Mental Toughness here.
If you read until here….
You are definitely the kind of ambitious individual that I would love to have in my private Facebook community of high performers.
If you want to be part of a community that is dedicated to leveling up our professional businesses and careers whilst also enjoying personal well being and thriving relationships, you can join by clicking this link:
Join The High-Performance Project
In the group, I share some of the best high-performance strategies I have discovered from my personal life, years of research and having managed some of the worlds best tennis players.
I also reveal some of behind the scene details of how I am building this tribe of top performers. along the journey of building my own brand & business.
I look forward to seeing you in the group.
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