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Choking: 5 Lessons From Olympic Losers

Posted on July 18, 2012 by Leslie Dickson

In the gold medal rush of the Olympic games, we love to see the historic victories, the powerful stories, and the come-from-behind finishes. But experts tell us there’s a lot to be learned from the losers – as painful as the lessons might be. A book called Choke by Sian Beilock, which was recently reviewed inSmithsonian magazine, is a study of why athletes choke. Simply put, the stress of high expectations interferes with the winning mindset of their long, hard training.   According toBeilock, top athletes literally think too much. Here’s how it works. Through the physical practice, athletes have trained their mind to bypass the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain where much of our conscious thought – and nervousness — takes place. Instead, they’ve developed a sort of “muscle memory” of the mind. Under pressure, the rattled athletes revert to “normal” thinking patterns and lose that edge.

Sound familiar? It should. It happens to many of us in presentations, the work world’s performance sport. The crowd gathers, all eyes are on us, the stakes feel higher and higher and higher…just without the international judges and scoreboard. It’s so similar, in fact, it got me to thinking about strategies for fearless presentations that mirror athletes’ choke-proofing concepts.

#1 Train hard.

If you’re going for the gold you don’t – you can’t – wait until the night before the games to get started. Allow plenty of time to get your presentation ready, look for ways to sharpen it and then practice to get comfortable with your message. You’re helping develop that mental muscle memory we talked about.

#2 Let go of the defeats.

The Smithsonian article recounts the story of Dan O’Brian, the odds-on favorite to be American decathlon winner in the 1992 Olympics. He choked in the trials and didn’t even make the team. O’Brian reports that he watched the video of his defeat over and over as his way of putting the past behind him and moving ahead. In 1996, O’Brien won the gold medal. The same is true for all of us. A win starts with a decision not to let past performance hold us back.

#3 Check your stance.

Like golfers and runners, speakers need to find their form. A sturdy, open stance makes you feel as strong as you look. When you’re hunched and drawn up small it’s a sign of – and an invitation to – the “yips”.

#4 Run the game in your mind.

A reporter who saw the great American athlete Jim Thorpe relaxing prior to the Olympics asked him what he was doing. Thorpe replied that he was practicing the high jump in his mind, and he’d just seen himself clearing the winning height.  In the actual completion, he did.

#5 Don’t overthink it.

According to Beilock, golfers are told to distract themselves from stress by focusing on the dimples on their golf balls. I recommend concentrating on your audience and what you want them to take away – not what you’re going to do.

Next time you step up to the presentation arena, remember this gold medal game strategy: a winning presentation is all in your head.

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