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Fear And Stress: Performance Tools For Athletes And High-Performers

Manage stress for golf

I was watching an NFL playoff game recently, the Chiefs vs the Ravens, and the commentator said something about the Chiefs’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes. He was describing Mahomes as one of those rare athletes who seem to become calmer when the pressure is on. The more stressful things get, the calmer they get. Why is that? Where does that special ability come from? 

Genetics? Sure, some people are born with athletic ability and that innate calmness. Hard work? Of course, the best athletes are often the ones that work the hardest. But there are plenty of gifted athletes, who work their butts off, yet still can’t rise to the occasion when it matters most. So what else could it be? I have a theory, and it comes back to Flow. 

The reason these athletes are so capable under pressure is because of their access to flow. When the pressure is on and the stress is high, they get in the zone and perform to their peak potential. But here’s the thing, we all have access to that ability. We just have to build a new relationship with fear, pressure, and stress. Once we understand that fear and stress are precursors for Flow, we can leverage that knowledge and use them to our advantage. We can turn them from a negative to a performance tool.

Tennis legend Billie Jean King has been quoted as saying “Pressure is a privilege”. She’s right. If we truly want to be the best version of ourselves, to perform to the peak of our potential, then we need to be willing to take on pressure and take on stress. We need to seek it out and welcome it. But once we get there, we need to learn how to handle the pressure and manage the stress, and we can do that by learning some of the basic science of a flow state.

Flow expert Steven Kotler describes the three stages of Flow as struggle, release, and flow. So you see, stress is built into the stages of flow. Without struggle, pressure, or stress, there’s no reason for flow. I think of it as a built-in backup system for life’s most challenging moments. But finding struggle is the easy part, the harder part, and the reason why many people crumble under the pressure and fail to rise to the occasion, is their inability to achieve the second stage, to release. What does that mean, to “release”? Is it a physical release, a mental release, or an emotional release? Yes to all of them. The type of release you need depends on the struggle you’re looking to release from. If you’re dealing with an emotional form of stress, such as the kind that may happen when you’re serving for the match at the US Open or attempting to make a birdie on the final hole to win your club championship, then you need to learn how to release the fear and doubt and shift to a positive emotional state. So how can we create that release? For that, let’s look at another form of stress.

Exercise for mental health

Why is exercise good for us? Because it’s a form of physical stress that our body and mind respond to in a positive way. The pressure provided by exercise forces our body to change - our muscles get stronger, our endurance improves, and our mind tends to stay in a more positive state due to a shift in our neurochemistry. But if exercise is a form of stress, can it also be used as a trigger for Flow? And if so, how do we create the important release stage? That’s where breathing comes in. The most powerful peak performance states I’ve ever achieved have always been the result of a combination of high-intensity training and meditation. This lines up with the stages of Flow - the intensity of the exercise provides the struggle, and the meditation provides the release. So you can use movement and breath to trigger Flow. Great. But that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to trigger it when you actually need it. You can’t go for a run and meditate every time you need to perform. Luckily, I figured that part out for you, and it’s what the Move-Breathe-Flow formula is based on. 

Any great athlete or high-performer knows that results depend on the work you invest into developing your abilities. The time you spend in the gym, in practice, or working on your mental game will have a significant impact on your performance. The same goes for triggering Flow. If you want to use breathing to take control of fear and stress in those important moments, you need to work on it in practice. The practice formula is simple. Every time you go for a run, or a workout in the gym, or anything else where you can push your physical limits, take some time afterward to focus on your breathing and take control of that positive stress. Some days you’ll feel more focused, other days you may trigger a full-blown mind-bending flow state. 

Move, breathe and flow

The more often you practice, the easier it gets, so when you find yourself in one of those important moments when you need to unlock your peak potential and perform at your best, you’ll have the confidence you need to take a few deep breaths and turn fear and stress into a peak performance. 

To learn more about the Move-Breathe-Flow program, check out my page.

Patrick Sebastien

Performance Coach


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