Sports psychologists have long known that an athlete's mental state is as important as conditioning and training. Factors that negatively affect performance are distractions, lack of self-confidence, pressure to perform, and fear of failure. These can provoke physiologic responses that trigger a downward spiral toward defeat. Breathing shallows, the heart races, the muscles tense, the mouth goes dry, and vision narrows. This is the fight-or-flight response, and nobody performs well in this state.
These same responses can manifest any time you perform, whether it's a musical solo, a public speech, or a P.E. license exam. You might even feel uneasy simply introducing yourself at a conference roundtable.
The mentally tough are not vexed by these physical reactions. In his book, Mental Toughness Training for Sports, James E. Loehr describes an "Ideal Performance State" that is calm, confident, energized, and joyful. Psychologists like Loehr say that mental toughness can apply to work and life, not just sports.
There are proven techniques to attain an ideal performance state. Many are holistic or Zen-like systems for self-improvement. The Inner Game of Tennis and other Inner Game books by W. Timothy Gallwey are classic examples. However, just knowing you need to calm down won't help. The specific techniques of relaxation, visualization, and concentration will.
Relaxation starts by controlling your breathing. Steven Ungerleider, in his book Mental Training for Peak Performance, writes that proper breathing "reduces stress and anxiety, and increases performance." Try taking six full breaths, inhaling each over six seconds, holding for three seconds, exhaling for six. Maintain a comfortable, steady tempo thereafter. (Hyperventilating is just as pernicious as shallow breathing.) Then relax your musculature. Slowly clench your hands into fists, hold six seconds, then let them go limp.
Can you feel the difference? Continue with forearms, shoulders, chest, abs, legs, even your jaw. You might find that some muscles had been tensed without your knowing it. This "progressive relaxation" should put you into a calm but ready state.
Top athletes visualize their desired outcome. Jack Nicklaus sees a putt roll into the hole before striking the ball; Lindsey Vonn, eyes closed, hands curving and twisting, imagines her run at the top of the downhill course. You can prepare for an interview by picturing yourself confidently entering an office and firmly shaking hands as your eyes meet those of your future boss. "See yourself succeed," Ungerleider writes. Relive your greatest successes and try to recapture your feelings from those times. Relive your happiest moments, too. Smiling precipitates a positive mindset (and frowning the opposite).
Concentrating is as much about not focusing on distractions as it is focusing on the immediate task. "Trying hard to concentrate doesn't work," Gallwey advises, saying it comes naturally from an interest in the undertaking. Intense study or relentless repetition immediately before a challenge is misguided. Many people benefit from a period of physical isolation. Of course, preparing well beforehand is imperative; it boosts confidence, enabling the ideal performance state. But as the challenge approaches, your concentration should consist of being "in the moment," fully aware of everything, distracted by nothing.
It is best to practice achieving an ideal performance state, which makes getting there easier when you really need it. But even if you master mental toughness, you will be anxious and nervous at times. Learn to savor these emotions. Think, "I love this feeling of butterflies. It's so exhilarating!"
Mental toughness training is beneficial for anyone, including engineers. An ideal performance state can help with everything from interviews to confrontations to presentations, even a thorny design challenge. Relax, visualize, and concentrate.
JAMES G. SKAKOON is a retired mechanical design engineer and a frequent contributor.