Helping athletes and students better deal with the usual stress and pressure associated with trying to excel is easier than most realize.
We’ve recently seen two premier athletes, first Naomi Osaka and then Simone Biles talk about their struggles with the stress or pressure of competing at the levels they do. It’s certainly understandable and definitely part of being human to struggle with such issues. Their struggles are really no different than the struggles other folks have. It’s just on a much greater scale, at a higher level. In order to really address any such issue, it helps to really understand what you are dealing with. The good news is that such stress and pressure is much more manageable or even preventable than most people can imagine.
What people call stress and pressure really is anxiety. Anxiety is one half of the emotional component of our fight or flight response. The other half is anger. I like to hyphenate the word e-motion because anxiety and anger and some of their milder cousins like concern, frustration, irritation and annoyance are really energy to move to help and motivate us to deal with threats, and get what we want or might need. Once we perceive a threat, rightly or wrongly, we are hardwired to generate e-motion or energy to move to deal with it. There’s not much we can really do about that. It’s why anger management in many ways is a fool’s errand. The real problem is that human beings too often perceive threats where they don’t really exist or magnify ones that do out of proportion to reality. One of the things I’ve always liked about the work of the late Dr. Albert Ellis, Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) and Education (REBE) is that it does such a good job showing people how they do both, and how to stop doing that to themselves.
We call anxiety a figment of imagination because it’s about things that could happen, but haven’t happened yet, and often never do. Most people have spent a good deal of time in their life worrying about or dreading something happening that never came to pass. Being able to imagine potential threats ahead of time has helped our species survive and thrive, but as I noted above, human peoples also have a tendency to imagine threats where they don’t exist, and to magnify ones that might out of proportion to reality. If they do that too much, people are said to have an anxiety disorder.
The ultimate function of the brain is to identify potential threats and protect us from them. There can be real threats to life and limb, even in the relatively safe modern life most of us live. However, many of the threats people perceive are not to life or limb, but to their “symbolic self”. The “symbolic self” is the person we want to be and be seen as by others. The threat to the “symbolic self” arises when we imagine failing in some way to live up to our own or others’ expectations. Others’ reactions rarely rise to the level of a threat to life or limb, but the brain treats perceived threats to the “symbolic self” the same as real threats to life or limb. This is just one way people magnify perceived threats out of proportion to reality.
On simple short cut to short-circuiting anxiety is called “Staying in the now”. Remember, anxiety is about things that could happen but haven’t happened yet. Therefore, one way to short-circuit it is to tell yourself “That might happen, but it hasn’t happened yet. And if it does, I’ll deal with it. Just like other people do. Just like I have other things in the past”. If you practice and rehearse saying this, it can become quite automatic and can become your automatic response to starting to imagine something bad happening.
There is also a simple formula for anxiety: CATASTROPHIZE + AWFULIZE = ANXIETY. First you imagine something “bad” happening. I put “bad” in quotes because that’s a subjective appraisal, meaning that what qualifies as “bad” may vary a great deal from one person to another. Step 2 in generating anxiety is telling yourself that if that happens, it will be AWFUL. Not just unpleasant, inconvenient or uncomfortable, as many things that happen are, but the worse possible thing that could happen. It’s typically hard to get people to stop imagining “bad” things happening – it’s human nature to do so. What can work better is to target the second ingredient for anxiety – AWFULIZING. One way is to ask, “Why would that be so awful? Would it be awful or just unpleasant, inconvenient or uncomfortable?” We can premise such questions with something called Affirming the Preference. For example “I can understand why you wouldn’t want that to happen, and wouldn’t like it if it did. I wouldn’t either. And it certainly could be unpleasant, inconvenient or uncomfortable. But why would it be so awful? Would it be awful, or just unpleasant, inconvenient or uncomfortable?”
You can also target awfulizing by brainstorming and rehearsing what Dr. Ellis called Effective Coping Statements. For example, “It won’t be the end of the world (if that does happen)”, “A lot worse has happened”, “It could always be a lot worse”, or “I survived it before and will again”. You can even make what’s called a “coping card” – a 3×5” index card with 3-5 coping statements written on it – and carry it with you.
But there’s much more that can be done. One of my favorite Dr. Ellis quotes has always been “Therapy should be educational, and education can be very therapeutic”. Too often the first is not true, and I truly believe, based on my own and others experience that the latter is definitely true. Ben Franklin famously said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. Mental health education like that done in REBT/REBE can be a very helpful ounce of prevention worth many pounds of cure. It’s always better to prevent or minimize anxiety or anger in the first place than try to manage it after the fact. That’s especially true with anger, which is the equivalent of emotional nitroglycerin and just as hard to handle as the real thing.
One simple step is to teach and encourage people to have what Dr. Ellis called U.S.A. or Unconditional Self-Acceptance. It means choosing to see whatever we think, feel, say or do as part of being human, and understandable given what we have been through, what our life experiences have been. This helps short circuit shame which so often plays a much bigger role in situations than most people realize. Shame can be a huge precursor for performance impairing anxiety. It helps to understand and remind ourselves of how shame comes about. Shame comes from believing (or imagining) you don’t live up to expectations. We all have expectations placed on us, starting early in life, and place more on ourselves. Shakespeare reportedly said, “Expectation is the root of all heartache”. I’ll explain how and why he was right shortly. Imagine all the expectations people have of someone like Simone Biles, and how many more she might put on herself. Believing or simply imagining you might not live up to expectations is a threat to the symbolic self. Everyday acts, and even things someone has done successfully many times before can suddenly get perceived as threatening. There are also literally real threats to life and limb in many sports which can enter into the picture as well. Every effort is made to minimize such threats, but they are always still there to some degree. Any perceived threat, be it to the symbolic self or life and limb can trigger anxiety and our fight or flight response. If someone triggers this response, they will have an urge to flee or avoid the potential threat. It’s hard to function at a level you might be capable of when you’re feeling the urge to flee. That’s how anxiety impairs performance. Unfortunately, people often are viewed as having “choked” when this happens. I suspect this may be the underlying cause of what Simone Biles and other gymnasts call “The Twisties”. Once a perceived threat plugs into a gymnasts thought process it could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. That happens to a lot of people in a lot of other ways. For example, a child imagines having an asthma attack, and ends up having the attack because they generated so much anxiety over doing so.
Dr. Ellis used to also say “Shame blocks change”. By that he meant that shame can cause people to keep the thoughts, feelings or impulses they are struggling with a secret. They are less likely to seek or accept help that might be available to them because they see doing so as reflecting badly on them (another threat to their symbolic self) should others discover how they think and feel, or that they are struggling in some way. When people keep secrets it also allows them to ruminate – repeat thoughts and imagine things over and again “like a broken record” without the usual challenge they might get from others. This causes thoughts, feelings and imagination to become “rutted” in their brains, and quite automatic because of that. Simple opinions about themselves, others and life start to feel like facts, givens or truths and simple imaginations start to feel like reality. These automatic thoughts can become the “irrational logic” of all kinds of unhelpful, self-defeating, or even self-destructive behavior, including suicide. It’s not all that uncommon for others to say “I didn’t know anything was wrong” because people can be so good at keeping secrets.
It would be helpful if others had what Dr. Ellis called UOA or Unconditional OTHER Acceptance. It means choosing to see whatever others think, feel, say or do the same way – that it’s part of being human and understandable given what someone’s life experiences have been and what they are having to deal with at the time. Many people do have UOA and demonstrated it with their support of Simone Biles on social media. However, there were also many others who did not demonstrate that and were quite critical and condescending. That’s an unfortunate product of the way many of us are culturized to view winning and losing. When I work with students or athletes, I like to always start by letting them know I have UOA and explaining what that means. I find that is something they welcome, and it opens the door to working together constructively. The country and world could use a good dose of UOA, including the sport world.
A second but extremely important thing is to teach and encourage someone to have an internal locus of control. Locus of control means where we see our feelings as coming from, what we see as the cause of them. The vast majority of people walking the planet have an external locus of control. That means they wrongly see what others say and do, or what happens (events of their lives) as being the cause of how they feel. We need only listen to the way people talk about feelings, i.e. “HE really pisses me off”, “THAT is really stressful”. Looking at life this way needlessly puts people at the mercy of others and their life events and often causes people to feel worse than is helpful or necessary. They often feel like a victim of others’ comments or their life events and see no way or hope of feeling better. Looking at things this way implies others must stop saying and doing what they do or change what they do for the better, or their life must get better for them to feel better. What if they never do? Most importantly, having an external locus of control causes people to miss many opportunities to feel better.
There is a simple formula for how life unfolds from moment to moment: EVENT + THOUGHTS = FEELING > BEHAVIOR. Anything others say or do, or that happens is just an EVENT in this formula. EVENTS can be external or internal (i.e. pain in a joint). They can be real, remembered or imagined. Imagined or remembered events can produce just as strong or even stronger of an emotional response as real events. Our brains are always trying to make sense of what happens in or around us, in part to discern whether anything happening might represent a threat. What the formula tells us is that it is really the THOUGHTS we generate that really cause how we feel. I like to say “THOUGHTS cause FEELINGS, not EVENTS”. We see evidence of this all around us as people often react quite differently emotionally to the same events. One person might laugh at the same comment or action of other that someone else goes ballistic over. Or we see someone’s emotional response change dramatically for the better or worse when they start looking at some event differently. One way to summarize this is “No one upsets you, you upset yourself”. That’s not something to be afraid of because it means you can choose to stop doing that, or not do it in the first place.
We all have a host of cognitive choices that we all make constantly that really determine how we feel. For example, how we choose to LOOK AT what happens, what MEANING we attach to what does, what we FOCUS ON, what we COMPARE things to, what we REMEMBER, IMAGINE or THINK about at any given moment, and how much IMPORTANCE we attach to what does happen. Another choice we have is what we EXPECT of others, ourselves and life. There are always multiple ways to make any of these choices. Some ways we might make them will make us feel better, others worse. Some ways will make dealing with what we don’t like easier, others harder. Athletes are always striving for perfection. That makes them more likely to note and focus or dwell on “mistakes”, because those are more likely to be perceived as threats. Doing so can easily snowball into a mindset and resultant anxiety that undermines performance.
The way we make such choices is made somewhere deep in our brains. Therefore, technically, no one can make these choices for us. It’s why Eleanor Roosevelt rightly said, “No one can make you feel bad about yourself without your consent (permission)”. It’s also why Dr. Victor Frankl’s famous quote is true: “Everything can be taken from us but the last of human freedoms. To choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances. To choose one’s own way”. However, it is perfectly understandable and part of being human for us to often adopt others’ ways of thinking or looking at things, even if it makes us feel worse than is necessary or helpful.
We all have a right to want whatever we want. That doesn’t mean we’re always going to get what we want. That’s a lesson we all are supposed to learn as children, but not everyone does. Another way to say this is that we all have the right to expect whatever we want of others, ourselves and life. If we adopt others’ expectations of us for ourselves, that is also quite understandable and part of being human, especially when we are/were young. Others’ expectations typically play an important role in the evolution of our symbolic self – the person we want to be and be seen as by others. However, in the end, what we expect of ourselves, others and life is totally up to us. As Shakespeare noted “Expectation is the root of all heartache”. What we choose to expect of ourselves, others and life sets the stage for whether we will perceive threats or not, and how big we perceive threats to be, and that determines whether we will generate e-motion or energy to move, and how much we will. It’s why pressure or stress, both a product ultimately of expectations, technically only comes from within us, not from outside us. Others have the right to expect whatever they want of us, but in the end it’s our choice what we will expect of ourselves. No one can technically put pressure on us, except by physically pressing on us in some way.
A part of developing an internal locus of control is to learn what we can and cannot control, and to then focus on what we do control instead of what we cannot. I like to use a visual I call “The Circle of Conflict”. I draw a circle and divide it into two halves, labeling one “You” and the other “Them”. Then I write that formula that governs every moment of life around the circle twice, once around the “You” half, and again around the “Them” half. Whatever someone else says or does is an event for us. We generate thoughts about that, and those may trigger a feeling, i.e. anger. That may cause us to say or do something in reaction to the event. What we do becomes an event for the other person who does the same thing in their own minds and may say or do something in reaction or response to what we said or did. Two people can go around this circle quite quickly because so many of their thoughts, feelings and behaviors come so automatically from prior practice and rehearsal. It’s how conflicts can escalate quickly and get out of hand.
My question to students has always been “Which half of the circle do you really control?” I’ve never had anyone get the answer wrong when looking at the visual. We only control what we think, feel, say or do. We never can control what others think, feel, say or do. Many people think, talk and act as if they can, but they can’t. I also ask, “Which half do many people spend much time, energy and effort trying to control?” I’ve never had anyone get that wrong either. Both things are easy to see when you have a visual in front of you, but in the “heat of the moment”, it’s easy and common for people to lose sight of the reality, and think, talk and act like they do control what others think, feel, say or do. It’s also easy for people give away power and control over their emotional destiny to others by focusing on and perhaps trying to change what others think, feel, say or do. It’s a “fool’s errand” to do so. Other people can think, feel, say or do whatever they want to, and they don’t have to have a good reason for doing so, and it doesn’t have to make sense or be fair. Developing this aspect of an internal locus of control can be invaluable for anyone, but especially public figures, especially in an era of mass and social media.
A third part of developing an internal locus of control is to stop taking responsibility for how others make themselves feel. People routinely take needless responsibility for how others make themselves feel, and often generate needless and unhelpful shame and guilt because of it. Kids think it’s their fault mom and dad get upset. Girls think it’s their fault their boyfriends get upset. However, that’s not how life really works. Whatever we say or do is just an event for others in our lives. They have all kinds of ways they could choose to look at or think about what we say or do. Some of those could make them feel “bad”, and others better. We have no control over how they make those choices for themselves than they do over how we do. No one upsets them, they upset themselves. It’s their choice how they want to look at what we say or do, and that is what really determines how they feel, not what we say or do. Therefore, it’s their choice how they want to feel.
One common example of this is when a parent or coach says, “Go out there and make me proud of you”. No one can make another human being feel pride. Whether another person feels pride or not is a product of a host of cognitive choices that person makes, that they alone can make. An athlete for example never has control over how a parent, coach or fan makes those cognitive choices. An athlete or student could do a lot of things well or right and a parent, coach or fan could make their cognitive choices in a way that causes them to not feel pride. Or an athlete could do much less and those same people could choose to still feel pride. It’s perfectly understandable for kids, athletes and students to want others to feel proud and let them know they do. However, no one can MAKE someone else proud and it’s a fool’s errand in many ways to try. Doing so puts how we feel about ourselves at the mercy of others’ reactions.
Another important thing we can do, and I believe we should do is teach people the common types of irrational thinking that human beings tend to engage in. Dr. Albert Ellis identified and named four basic types of irrational thinking people engage in. He called them Demandingness, Awfulizing, Can’t Stand It-itis, and Labeling and Damning. Irrational means that thinking in these ways makes people feel worse than is necessary or helpful, makes dealing with what we don’t like harder, causes people to say and do things that make life worse for themselves and others rather than better. These thoughts are usually well practiced and rehearsed and therefore quite automatic. It’s why Dr. Ellis called them Automatic Irrational Beliefs. Dr. David Amen calls them Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) and jokingly says people have “ANT problems”.
I like to use a visual I call the THINK-FEEL-DO Thermostat Model to help people see how they create unhelpful stress or pressure for themselves. There are three basic ways we can look at anything. We can not care about it, we can WANT, PREFER or DESIRE it, or we could think we NEED it, it’s a NECESSITY, and DEMAND it. For each way of looking at things, we can range from SORT OF to REALLY. For example, we could just SORT OF WANT something, we could REALLY WANT it, or be somewhere in between. There is a saying that “Blessed are those who expect nothing, for they shall not be disappointed”. If we choose to not care about what happens, there will be no perceived threat. However, once we start to WANT, PREFER or DESIRE something, there is always a chance that we might not get what we want, or might lose it after we get it. Not getting what we want or losing it will represent a threat. How much of a threat that will be is determined by how badly or much we want, prefer or desire something in the first place. That in turn will determine how much emotion we generate. Emotions like frustration, irritation, annoyance and concern are what we will feel. The frequency, intensity and duration of these will depend on how badly or much we want something.
The mistake people make according to Dr. Ellis is that they turn their THINK thermostat up to NEED, NECESSITY and DEMAND. This creates a much bigger gap between our expectations and reality if or when we don’t get what we WANT, PREFER or DESIRE, or lose it. It is the way people magnify perceived threats out of proportion to reality. The bigger the perceived gap between our expectations and reality (or at least what we perceive reality to be) the greater the perceived threat will be and the more emotion or energy to move we will generate. For example, anger instead of frustration, irritation and annoyance; anxiety instead of mere concern. People can even elevate things they simply want, prefer and desire to the same level as air, water and food in their own minds. Doing so magnifies the perceived threat way out of proportion to reality if or when they don’t get what they want, lose it, or just imagine doing either. In their minds the perceived threat becomes equivalent to suffocating, dying of thirst or hunger.
There is a second version of the THINK thermostat. There are a lot of things in life that are unpleasant, inconvenient or uncomfortable. If we want, prefer or desire something, not getting it will be unpleasant, inconvenient or uncomfortable to some degree. How unpleasant, inconvenient or uncomfortable it will seem will depend on how badly we want, prefer or desire to begin with. However, if we elevate our simple want, preference and desire to a need, necessity and demand, It will understandably seem much worse if or when we don’t get what we wanted, preferred or desired. It might seem awful, or like the worse possible thing that could be happening. If we equated our want, preference or desire to air, water and food, it would seem really awful. Suffocating, dying of thirst or hunger really are awful. We could die in minutes, days or weeks. Remember that the formula for anxiety is: CATASTROPHIZE + AWFULIZE = ANXIETY. Turning our THINK thermostats up to NEED, NECESSITY and DEMAND sets the stage for seeing something as a CATASTROPHY and AWFULIZING about it.
We can make DEMANDS of ourselves, others and life. Who or what we make demands of determines what feeling we end up with. Anger often comes from making demands of others, i.e. “They HAVE TO do what I tell them to”, and they don’t. Depression comes from making demands of life, i.e. “This SHOULDN’T be happening to me” and it is. Anxiety (stress, pressure) come from making demands of self and/or life before events, i.e. “I HAVE TO win gold” or “Everything HAS TO go as I planned”. Shame and guilt come from making demands of self after life events, i.e. “I SHOULD have done better”, “I SHOULDN’T have done that”. Dr. Ellis called this “SHOULDING on yourself”. We can SHOULD on others and life as well. I used to jokingly tell students, “It’s not good to SHOULD on others, yourself or life. It just makes you feel SHOULDY”.
If we listen to others talk when they are stressed out or feeling like they are under pressure, we will typically hear them use HAVE TO when expressing their expectations, or the converse of CAN’T. For example, “I HAVE TO get this done today” or “I CAN’T let this go until tomorrow”. We’ll hear ourselves talk the same way when we are feeling stressed out or under pressure. If we think in terms of HAVE TO and CAN’T before life events, we are more likely to think in terms of SHOULD and SHOULDN’T after them if things don’t go as we wanted, preferred or desired, and thought they needed to, had to, and demanded. Thinking and talking in terms of HAVE TO or CAN’T before life events, i.e. games or competition, will make any imaginations of things not turning out as we want a much bigger threat than it really is. Thinking in terms of HAVE TO or CAN’T actually makes people more likely to imagine things not going well. People tend to rise to excelling at something because they REALLY WANT TO. However, once the bar is raised they tend to shift to HAVE TO and that’s how things start to unravel.
People can get caught up in a vicious cycle of telling themselves they HAVE TO or CAN’T before life events, and SHOULDING on themselves afterward – experiencing intense performance impairing anxiety before events and burdensome shame and guilt after them. If someone SHOULDS on themselves after an event, they are more likely to double down on HAVE TO and CAN’T the next time. People often talk about athletes “pressing”. We see athletes in all kinds of sports go into “slumps”. I believe this is how they get there. When well-known ones are interviewed about such slumps, you can usually hear how they got there mentally and emotionally, but also see that they don’t see how they did. These sometimes end in unfortunate injuries that sideline them, or even end careers. Injuries happen, especially when people perform at high levels, but they also serve a purpose in the lives of someone who has put themselves under a lot of pressure – they lower expectations and give them a break.
I like to use a football game metaphor to explain what’s often missing in athletic preparation. When preparing for a game, you want to have a good offensive and defensive game plan. If you have a great offensive game plan, but no defensive game plan, the other team will dominate whenever they get the ball, and you may never get to run your offensive game plan as much as you’d like. It’s why teams scout opponents ahead of time and develop both offensive and defensive game plans, and then practice countering what the other team might do on offense so it will be automatic in the game. Too often we encourage athletes to have a “positive attitude”. That’s like an offensive game plan. So is encouraging them to practice positive imagery. However, we don’t prepare them for the understandable, human thoughts that might start to creep into their minds that can snowball and start to undermine their performance. That’s like not having a defensive game plan. Teaching them what I’ve talked about is the missing defensive game plan. Unfortunately, some might perceive giving athletes such training as being “negative”. There’s are some old sayings that are relevant: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. If an athlete is “positive” and improving, fine, leave it alone. However, it makes sense to be on the lookout for any signs that they are starting to go from WANT TO to HAVE TO, or starting to SHOULD on themselves, and intervene early and quickly. Dr. Ellis used to say, “Therapy should be educational and education can be very therapeutic”. A little education at the first sign of trouble could be very therapeutic. They also say a picture is worth a thousand words. A visual like the THINK-FEEL-DO Thermostat Model can be very helpful. At the very least, this type of education could serve them well in everyday life.
Mindfulness and meditation are often encouraged as well. Their shortcoming is that they are analogous to OTC (over the counter) medications for the symptoms of the cold or flu. OTC medications will relieve the symptoms of a cold or the flu as long as their levels in our bloodstream are at therapeutic levels. However, once they drop below that level, the symptoms return. The simple reason is that those OTC meds do nothing about the cause of those symptoms – a virus. When people engage in meditation, they give themselves a temporary break from their life events and the upsetting thoughts they have about those and probably ruminate about, and the feelings those give rise to. However, once they stop meditating, those life events are usually waiting for them, if only in their minds, and the automatic irrational thoughts they have about them can quickly return, causing whatever feelings they had before to return. The meditation did nothing to counter the irrational thoughts. Meditation is like an offensive game plan, not a defensive one.
There’s a difference between temporarily feeling better and getting better. There are a lot of ways to temporarily feel better. Some are healthy (yoga, meditation) and others are not (smoking, drinking, using drugs). Getting better means permanently reducing the frequency, intensity and duration of troubling emotions. The only way to really do that is to change the way we think. Practicing helpful thoughts is one way to do that, and it can work. However, that’s just like an offensive game plan. We need to also have a plan to defend against those automatic irrational thoughts that are in our minds, just waiting for the opportunity to jump into our consciousness with the right trigger. Dr. Ellis called those helpful thoughts Effective Coping Statement. It was step E in his five-step process. However, it was preceded by step D, which stands for Disputing (questioning, challenging) our automatic irrational beliefs identified in Step B, which stands for Beliefs. Step D or Disputing is like a defensive game plan. For example, it might involve posing and having someone practice simple questions like “Why do you HAVE TO? You HAVE TO, or just want to?” and answering such question with a statement like “I DON’T have to. I just WANT TO”.
Personally, I would rather educate them upfront because people so often keep so much of what they are thinking to themselves. They may not verbalize what they’re thinking until it’s gotten out of hand. I was an athletic trainer for many years and would talk to athletes all the time while treating them. I was always on the lookout for signs that they were turning their THINK thermostats up the way I’ve discussed and would intervene if necessary. It’s quite amazing at how easy it is to help them and how quickly you can see things turn around for the better. They often look at you as if you’re some kind of “mind reader” and feel quite relieved that someone is aware of what they’re struggling with and welcome the help. It’s not uncommon for them to say, “That’s exactly what I’m thinking”. There are times though when they will be reluctant to “open up” because they think they have to be “tough” and see having any negative thoughts as not being. That’s where having Unconditional Other Acceptance, letting them know you do, and encouraging them to have USA or Unconditional Self-Acceptance can be very helpful. Sometimes you’ll never get any further with them if you can’t get them to choose to have USA.
I often will show them a copy of the THINK-FEEL-DO Thermostat Model and do a little bit of explanation. As they say, a picture can be worth a thousand words. It’s always better if you educate them ahead of time, but you can do what is called “brief therapy” without any prior knowledge on their part. Then I’ll ask them, “So where are you setting, you’re thermostat now?”.
My grandfather taught me the solution to this cognitive problem when I was a child. Whenever I would suggest to him that I HAD TO do something he didn’t want me to, he would say “You don’t have to do anything except die and pay taxes”. That’s where we want to get athletes, or anyone to get to and stay at – setting their THINK thermostat at REALLY WANT TO, but not letting it creep up into HAVE TO (CAN’T). And, to recognize when they do push it up and know how to turn it back down. The simple way is to practice and rehearse the attitude “I don’t HAVE TO do anything. I just WANT TO”.
In summary, stress and pressure are really anxiety. Anxiety is called a figment of imagination because it’s about things that could happen but haven’t yet and often never do. The formula for anxiety is: CATASTROPHIZE + AWFULIZE = ANXIETY. A simple strategy to reduce or prevent anxiety is called “Staying in the now”. It simply means saying, “That might happen, but it hasn’t happened yet. And if it does, I’ll deal with it. Just like others do. Just like I have other things in the past. Another is to target the second ingredient in the formula for anxiety, AWFULIZING. We can do that by brainstorming what are called Effective Coping Statements to counter the perception that something would be AWFUL. For example, “It wouldn’t be the end of the world”. We can even create “Coping cards” and carry them with us.
A second thing we can do is to choose to have USA or Unconditional Self-Acceptance. It means choosing to see whatever we think, feel, say or do as part of being human and understandable given what our life experiences have been and what we have to deal with at the moment.
A third thing we can do is choose to have an internal locus of control. That means realizing and reminding ourselves that “No one upsets us, we upset ourselves”. It means realizing that it’s really what we choose to think about others, ourselves, life and what happens that really causes how we feel. THOUGHTS cause FEELINGS not EVENTS. We always have and make a host of cognitive choices. There is always more than one way to make any of these choices. Some ways we might will make us feel better, others worse. Some ways will make it easier to deal with things we don’t like, others harder.
Reminding ourselves of what these choices are and choosing to make them in the best possible ways is the way we can have and exercise maximum control over our emotional destiny – how we feel from moment to moment.
Developing an internal locus of control also means learning to focus on and work with what we have control over instead of what we don’t. We never can control what others think, feel, say or do. We only can control what we do, and for most of us it’s a big enough job to do that. Developing an internal locus also means learning to not take responsibility for how others make themselves feel. Others can make themselves feel as good or bad as they want to. We’re responsible for what we say and do, but not how they make themselves feel about it. No one upsets them, they upset themselves.
Finally, we can use a THINK-FEEL-DO thermostat model/visual to help see where we and others are at any given moment mentally (cognitively), emotionally and behaviorally and how those three things are connected. We can also see where we want to be instead and what it will take to get there. Too often people turn their THINK thermostats up from WANT TO to HAVE TO. That sets in motion events within our minds that can lead to unhelpful anxiety or stress and pressure. People can also SHOULD on themselves after things don’t turn out as they would have liked instead of simply WISHING it hadn’t. People can get into a vicious cycle of thinking they HAVE TO before life events (i.e. competition) and feeling anxiety and SHOULDING on themselves after events and feeling shame and/or guilt. They can literally start to see everyday life events as much more threatening that they really are and even plug into their fight or flight response. It’s hard to function at a level we want to or are capable of when we have an overwhelming urge to flee a perceived threat. It’s how anxiety impairs performance.
The simple solution to this tendency is to constantly remind ourselves that no one HAS TO do anything, and that SHOULDING on ourselves just makes us feel SHOULDY. Them we can strive to keep our THINK thermostat at REALLY WANT TO. That is our best hope of achieving what we want to.