Choosing Your Perspective
Whenever you participate in an important performance or event, or even a not-so-important event, thoughts will run through your head before the event (and sometimes during and after the event). You may say certain things to yourself about what you think might happen and begin to feel strong emotions related to those thoughts. Are the thoughts running through your head going to help or hurt your perspective and your performance? Are they going to help or hurt your experiences and your life? Are your thoughts making you worry or freeing you from worry? Are they helping you feel confident or shattering your confidence? Are they helping you focus on the right things or leading you to focus on the wrong things?
What triggers your emotional reaction to an event is the way that you perceive the event, or what you say to yourself about yourself in relation to it, rather than the event itself. A simple shift in your perspective about the importance or meaning of a particular event, or a shift in your belief about your capacity to cope with it positively, can change your focus and your emotional reality. Nothing changes except the way that you perceive yourself, interpret the event, or view your capacity to cope with it, yet that simple positive change in focus can give you inner strength and confidence, release you from stress, and free you to live, perform, and contribute more joyfully. You can choose the perspective that you carry into your daily life and your performances.
Let’s take performance stress as an example. If you take some sportscasters seriously, you might begin to believe that stress is external and inescapable, like rain pouring down from a dark cloud: "You can almost hear the tension out there . . . this is it . . . do or die . . . the world is watching . . . there’s real pressure on these athletes here today." Yet some performers are able to enter those situations and stay focused on doing their jobs without becoming overstressed. They perform extremely well and may even feed off challenging situations to raise the level of their performance. How is that possible?
The explanation lies in two reasons. First, these athletes are focused on preparing themselves to do what they came to do and then focused on doing what they came to do. Nothing outside that focus shapes their day. Second, stress or anxiety doesn’t float around out there waiting to pounce on the performer like some kind of bogeyman. Stress is strictly internal; it does not exist outside the person’s mind. Certain performance situations may tend to get the adrenaline flowing, but the person is not required to become anxious in those situations. And even if the performer begins to feel anxious, he or she can regain composure by shifting focus back to the simple steps of executing the performance or game plan.
Situations do not become anxious; people do. We are anxious when we accept a situation as stressful or when we become too concerned with outcomes or consequences of failing or falling short of our goals. Performers who enter the performance arena feeling excited and fully focused on the right things remain in control. They repaint the anxiety-filled picture that others may have painted for them. Successful performers create a picture that is positive, focused, and filled with opportunity.
We experience stress and frustration in performance situations and other areas of life largely because we want to be perfect at everything we do. We expect the performance situations that we enter to be perfect, which of course they almost never are. We also want our partners, children, parents, coaches, teachers, athletes, colleagues, bosses, and others to be perfect. Sometimes we set ourselves up for stress or frustration because we have impossible expectations of ongoing perfection for ourselves and others.
Ellis and Harper (1976, 25) identified several perspectives or beliefs that can interfere with your capacity to perform to your potential and live a joyful life:
- The belief that you must always have love and approval from all the people you find significant
- The belief that you must always prove to be thoroughly competent, adequate, and achieving
- The belief that emotional misery comes from external pressures and that you have little ability to control or change your feelings
- The belief that if something seems fearsome or threatening, you must preoccupy yourself with it and make yourself anxious about it
- The belief that your past remains all important and that because something once strongly influenced your life, it has to keep determining your feelings and behavior today
You cannot have the love and approval of all people at all times, no matter what you do or how much you give of yourself; nor can you always be thoroughly competent at all things. None of us is, or ever will be, perfect at all things. We all screw up sometimes, and that’s OK. That’s being human.
We all have the capacity to change our perspectives, improve our focus, and directly influence our feelings. We are not locked into the limitations of our experiences. This ongoing capacity to change and improve is what makes sport and life such a wonderful adventure. We all have room to grow and to engage continually in the process of becoming.
The excessive worry that destroys skilled performance usually comes from exaggerating the importance of the outcome of an event, from viewing it as if your physical or emotional life is at stake, or from thinking that your entire meaning on earth rests in the balance. We know that this is not really the case in most performance situations, but we sometimes act as if it were. On rare occasions, in some high-risk events, a physical life may hang in the balance (and even in this case, a full focus on the task is your best way through it). But never is our emotional life or overall meaning on the line in other kinds of performances, no matter how much we may tell ourselves or how much others may lead us to believe that it is.
If you approach a performance as if it is the only important event in the world, as if your life will be useless unless you do well, then you set yourself up for needless stress. If you incessantly worry about your performance or about appearing incompetent, you are probably too focused on negative possibilities or too concerned with what others might think and not focused enough on the positives or not focused fully on the task at hand. The worry is usually worse than the event itself. Your performance (and people’s reaction to it) rarely turns out to be as terrible as you might have imagined. And it would turn out a lot better if you did not dwell on the negatives in the first place.
This is an excerpt from In Pursuit of Excellence.