5 Ways to Be Your Best
Having the mindset of an athlete can help you achieve success in any area of your life. Performance expert Peter Jensen tells you how.
Performance expert Peter Jensen offers tips to help you succeed
You may never stand on an Olympic podium, says Peter Jensen, but you can still put in a gold-medal performance in any arena of your life. A psychology coach, Jensen has worked with Canadian athletes at every Olympic Games since 1984. He believes that what sets elite competitors apart-and what anyone can emulate-is their approach.
“If physical fitness is power, strength, endurance and flexibility, then mental fitness is perspective, energy management, imagery and focus,” says Jensen, author of Igniting the Third Factor, a book on helping people reach their potential. He reminds his students that athletes’ physical gifts only partly account for their triumphs. “Getting mentally fit sets the table for success.”
Jensen says that his involvement in sports, growing up in a small mining town in northern Quebec, led to a fascination with sports psychology. “From a very young age, I competed in everything: baseball, hockey, football,” he says. “I had a very excitable personality, and learned that my excitability got in the way of performing at my best in certain situations.
This was a lesson that laid the groundwork for his philosophy as a performance coach. “If an endeavour is at all competitive, the mind can play a huge role in success or failure.”
His work with national teams, Olympic coaches and premier athletes led Jensen to found his consulting firm, Performance Coaching, in 1991. Helping athletes win Olympic medals is one aspect of Jensen’s business; helping people in organizations perform like Olympians is the other.
But just how can we achieve our potential? Jensen and a few medal-winning athletes share their best advice.
1. Understand Pressure
You might think that competing in a world championship is nerve-racking. But athletes rise to the occasion because they’re ready, not because they excel under pressure.
“Most pressure comes from being unprepared,” says Cherie Piper, a member of the Canadian Olympic women’s ice-hockey team, who played in the Olympics in 2002 and 2006, and is a 2010 hopeful. Before a big game, Piper is relatively calm. Nerves aren’t bad, but why should Piper feel pressure? She has trained for just that occasion.
One of the things she has learned from Jensen is managing the “arousal level.” Two factors drive up that level-the perception of an event’s importance and uncertainty about its outcome. When your arousal level gets too high, you can lose focus and make mistakes.
Whether playing sports, trying to ace a business pitch or writing a test, being primed breeds confidence. You think Roger Federer shakes when he’s down love-40 and serving to save the match? He’s aced that serve thousands of times, so he knows he can again. That’s not pressure. Pressure is meeting a client when you haven’t reviewed the file.
2. Focus on the Now
How often have you heard the athlete’s cliché of taking it one period/quarter/inning/game at a time? In high-level athletics, performance expectations can be overwhelming, says Jensen. Thinking about the future isn’t beneficial. You’re aware of the ultimate objective, but you need to narrow your focus to: What do I need to do right now?
This means ensuring a focus on expectations. Consider a salesperson thinking of how to make the year-end numbers. It’s as daunting, in its own way, as a championship is to an athlete. What’s constructive is thinking about the next chance to perform and improve-just as the salesperson should simply concentrate on the next sale. “And the results take care of themselves,” Jensen says.
3. Be Self-Aware
Jennifer Botterill has been part of the 1998, 2002 and 2006 Olympic women’s ice-hockey teams, and she’s a hopeful for this year’s Games. Yet she’s still mindful of fundamental tasks while playing, like staying low in her stride or being vocal. She says it’s a matter of being acutely conscious of what’s needed to perform.
After a shift on the ice, Botterill’s teammate Piper is just as aware of controlling her emotions and staying focused: “If you’re screaming on the bench, you’re not getting reflection time. You have one to two minutes to process a lot of information. That’s when you want to think about what you just did and what you want to do better next shift.”
Managing body, mind and feelings is a learned skill, says Jensen. He cites a parent who’s shouting at his child. In the midst of the rant, the parent thinks, I can’t believe I’m saying this. That’s your inner voice, Jensen says, and you know immediately that you’re not performing well as a parent.
Whether you’re in the middle of a game, business encounter or discussion with your child, notice what you’re thinking or saying and decide if it’s helpful. “We have the capacity to step back, observe ourselves and ask what’s required in this situation,” says Jensen.
4. Banish the Negative
Seven-time Canadian ice-dancing champion and Olympic medalist Tracy Wilson describes a skill Jensen taught her, called “reframing.”
“There is always more than one way to look at a situation, so you might as well reframe it in a way that is positive,” she says. “I learned from Peter that your feelings move in line with your thoughts. So if I was to think negatively-that the judge is bored or doesn’t like our performance-the natural reaction would be to tense up, try harder or panic, none of which would help me excel.”
This took time to learn. When Jensen started working with Wilson, he looked at the book where she logged notes on her training. It was filled with reminders of what she shouldn’t do: Don’t do this and don’t do that. “Everything was expressed in the negative,” says Jensen. “I said to her, ‘What do you want to do?’”
There’s a huge difference between trying to win and trying not to fail, explains Jensen. “Trying not to do something is very hard, like trying not to think of a blue elephant wearing pink running shoes.” He points to a saying in golf, that amateurs notice the hazards and pros notice the landing areas. Any weekend hacker knows that thinking too much about the sand trap or water will land you right there. “When you’re motivated by a fear of failure, you eventually reach the point of diminishing returns,” says Jensen.
5. Visualize to Win
Do you think athletes get into the right mindset by dreaming of Olympic medals? Think again. Piper always visualizes before a game, but she’s not seeing the scoreboard with Canada on top. “That’s hope,” she says, “not preparation.” Instead, she’s envisioning specific circumstances, like what she would do in a two-on-one break.
Our bodies continually react to images. Envision throwing a ball, and your neuromuscular pathways fire in exactly the same way as if you were throwing a ball. Images, says Jensen, are “events” to the body, which doesn’t distinguish between what’s real and what’s imagined.
Painting a clear and concrete picture of what you want to achieve fills the gap between theory and execution. “Imagery is the language of performance,” Jensen says.
The goal isn’t necessarily to win gold. “John Wooden, the famous basketball coach, never spoke about winning,” says Jensen. “He had his players striving each day to be better. This is something we can all do. Being the best may not be attainable, but being better always is.”