I have had several conversations with elite athletes, Special Operation’s operators from the Navy Seals and Delta Force along with highly respected law enforcement professionals. The one universal agreeable strategy was that if you panic you are done. It is not uncommon to watch varying levels of athletes lose their tempers and go into a panic zone over fear of loss or underachievement. I have been fascinated for years on how composed some professionals and top junior athletes are while others can quickly lose control of their emotions and sabotage their chances of winning and improving. There is little doubt that as leaders, mentors and coaches it is a challenge to keep our athletes in a peak performance zone, and when they edge into the panic zone, find ways to mitigate it.
When an athlete's heart rate increases and panic-mode sets in during competition, he can slip into what is known as "Condition Black" (a more common word for this is "freezing" under pressure). The normal resting heart rate of an average person is 60-80 BPM. I would argue that most elite level athletes maintain a lower BPM and can be registered in the sub 50 BPM range. It is important to note that when your BPM approaches 115 your fine motor skills begin to deteriorate. Complex motor skills, visual reaction time and cognitive reaction time at 145 BPM will further deteriorate according to experts. It is also known that the optimal survival and combat performance level is somewhere between 115-145 BPM. It would certainly make sense based on these variables that an athlete should be aware of their heart rates during competition and recognize the cause and affect of losing their emotions. For an athlete to diminish their cognitive processing, experience loss of depth perception, peripheral vision and near vision could be devastating in competition. Therefore, it is critical to identify the loss of emotional control as a result of pressure and how to control that emotion so you can stay in your optimal levels of performance.
I had the honor to learn how to coach tennis under one of the world’s best coaches, Hall of Famer Robert Lansdorp. His students are a who’s who of tennis: Tracey Austin, Pete Sampras, Maria Sharapova, Linsey Davenport, just to name a few. Robert once told me how critically important is was to train for the pressure of competition. He often used the example of athletes playing up in age and how the pressure was often times diminished. He always tried to present both ends of the pressure continuum by putting his players in pressure situations during training. Playing against your peers, teams or players that you normally beat presents a different kind of pressure versus “playing up.” This was a very important training element that all coaches and players should think about in their development. Elite Special Operations personnel will always tell you that it is fine to have disagreements but in the end, if you don’t agree you better have a solution to the problem. I believe the first part of the solution to handling your emotions is to identify the problem and come up with logical solutions to increase your performance. Stress in competition will occur and we must understand how critical it is to pay close attention to how it is affecting the athlete physically as well as mentally.
Too often the fear of loss, failure of reaching the goal, and/or disappointing others causes athletes stress during competition. It’s very hard to let that go and has to be addressed as a key component in training. This could take many weeks, months and years but to disregard it would be a major mistake. Coaches, leaders, mentors and players should have serious discussions about the cause and effect of stress, emotions and how to maintain a peak performance level. ASP has developed individual programs that help athletes overcome emotions under pressure. These systems have been developed by being on the road with athletes and working with them in their natural training and competitive environments. As a result, we believe no two athletes are the same so it is critical to design a program that fits the athlete’s needs. Lastly, we also work with coaches on becoming better leaders by giving them some additional tools to use during development.