The Sky of Smiles
Adventures in Prachuap, Thailand with an invited group led by Larry Henderson...
Eighth article in Dan BC's series on training for peak performance, extracted from his much-loved book, Above All Else… __
It is all working for you. You know what your best is and you are certain that you will deliver it. You and your team are confident in your abilities but don’t expect or demand perfection from yourselves or each other. You don’t fear making mistakes. You keep your sport in perspective and enjoy it for the fun and love of the game and the personal challenge it presents. You have learned to appreciate your teammates for who they are, not just for what they can do.
But you arrive at the meet and your heart is pounding, your brow sweating and your fingers tingling. You’re scared…
Or are you?
The physiological sensations we interpret as fear are also signs of an intensified state of readiness. If properly used, becoming excited and tense in competition can be a very powerful tool and a great benefit to you. Don’t fear it. It is natural when in competition to experience a higher state of arousal than normal. Our hearts pounding and fingers tingling are symptoms of being alert, energized and ready for action. Don’t interpret this as fear. It is only a game. There is nothing to be scared of. Don’t allow yourself to go down that path.
Our hearts pounding and fingers tingling are symptoms of being alert, energized and ready for action. Don’t interpret this as fear. It is only a game.
It is not how we are feeling, but how we respond to these feelings, that will decide if we emotionally stay and fight or run in flight. It is our response that will determine the outcome. And only we can choose how we want to respond. When you experience the physical symptoms of a high arousal level, stop, sit back and take a few deep breaths. Confirm your goal and remind yourself of your training. Your goal is to do your best. You know exactly what your best is and you know how to deliver it. You are not going to try to do any better and you will not accept any worse. Calm your mind down and allow your instincts to take over. It has worked in training and it will work now.
It is not how we are feeling, but how we respond to these feelings, that will decide if we fight or run
These are calming, confidence-building thoughts. Your goal is clear and you know you can achieve it. You’ve done it many times before. When you confirm your goals and think logically, the fear fades away and the sensations you are feeling tell you that your senses are on high alert and that you are ready. The sensations you once interpreted as fear are the source of competitive magic. Trusting our instincts to lead us to our best performance, in combination with this heightened arousal level, sets the stage for those moments when we do the unbelievable and actually perform beyond our best.
We don’t usually peak at meets and reach a level of performance we have never achieved before by “trying” to do better. More often we accomplish these amazing feats when our goal is clear, we have proven in training we can deliver it, and the circumstances of the moment demand that we do deliver it. The competition pressure or “fear” raises our arousal level. This high arousal increases our potential for strength, speed and mental sharpness. When we calm our minds, our instincts take over and we perform at our true best, at this higher potential.
It is a miniature version of what enables true heroes to perform miraculous tasks. What life-guard, soldier, fireman or policeman ever saved a life without being terrified? What parent has rescued their child without their arousal level going through the roof? Their fears are far more intense than an athlete’s competitive anxieties will ever be and they performed far greater feats than will ever be asked of us. If when faced with fear or experiencing a high arousal level they can perform these tasks, surely we are capable of performing at our best or better.
At the 1995 World Championships the meet was very close between Arizona Airspeed (USA) and the French. We exited the aircraft on the fifth round with the first formation of the sequence intact. The key person signaled to break (release) the grips of the first formation but some of the team didn’t see the key. There was total confusion as some of the team transitioned to the second formation while others were still building the first one. We were scrambling, total chaos. Our first reaction was one of anger and panic.
Suddenly we froze
Suddenly we froze. We took a breath, calmed down and got control of our emotions. Without speaking a word, the decision was made to build the second formation. Our focus was intense and targeted only on the next point. We broke that formation and continued with the sequence faster than we had ever gone before. We didn’t “try” to go faster. Our anger had significantly raised our arousal to a level off our charts. But when we stopped and took a moment to calm down we were able to control ourselves at this level of arousal. Our instincts took over and we came back on fire. We recovered, accelerated and maintained the fastest speed we’d ever gone all the way to the finish line. Had we allowed our fears and panic to get the better of us we would have lost the jump and probably the meet. Instead we did what was very possibly the fastest 4-way jump that had ever been done up to that time.
We were flying so fast that the meet organizers thought we must have been using a performance-enhancing substance. It was really quite a compliment. They couldn’t imagine that we were able to do this without some kind of extra chemical stimulation. The following year, at the 1996 World Games, they began random drug testing to insure the athletes were clean. Of all the Formation Skydiving athletes, I was the only person that was tested. I passed. We won.
We were flying so fast that the meet organizers thought we must have been using a performance enhancing substance
Our team had long conversations trying to figure out what exactly happened that had brought about this level of performance. We determined that it was a combination of conditions and circumstances.
1) We were a very well trained team. We knew what our best was and what we had to do to perform at that level.
2) At that moment there was no performance anxiety. We had already made a huge mistake that had cost us 20% of our working time. Since we had already screwed up we weren’t worried about it any more. We had no concern for the final outcome. But we had total and complete concern for the moment and the immediate task at hand.
3) When we calmed down our anger transformed into pure determination. The situation suddenly demanded our absolute best, and we were going to deliver it.
The situation suddenly demanded our absolute best, and we were going to deliver it
What was the formula to our achieving our true peak performance?
1) Being well trained.
2) Zero performance anxiety.
3) Calm, determined and just a little bit pissed off.
At the 1997 World Championships we had a similar experience. After eight rounds we were in first place with a six point lead over France.
The jump was off to a good start and we were several points into it. The key person broke the formation, but like in '95 everyone on the team didn’t see the break. This time the result was far worse. The confusion that followed cost us 6 points. In one jump we had given away our entire lead. We went into the final round tied. One jump – the entire meet was coming down to one jump. We were confident that we were the better team but, as we had just proven, anything can happen in one jump. Fortunately, we had the experience from 1995 to reflect on. Performance anxiety wasn’t really a factor. Having won the 1994, 1995 and 1996 US National and World Championships we were able to keep the “victory” itself in perspective. We were ALWAYS playing to win. But we also knew that this victory alone did not define our value as human beings and competitors. The love and respect we had for each other and our team would not be changed by the results of this one meet. We weren’t scared of losing. That being said, playing to win means hating to lose. The circumstances demanded we deliver our absolute best performance and that was precisely what we were going to do.
The entire world meet was coming down to one jump
When we lined up in the door to exit the plane on the final round our determination was unquestionable, and previously unmatched. We paused prior to giving the exit count. Looking into each others' eyes it was obvious that there was no fear, and no doubt. It was pure determination, pure certainty; we knew exactly what we were about to do and how to do it. It was easy to let go of any concern for the final results and focus only on the task at hand because this one jump would alone determine the outcome.
We weren’t scared of losing. That being said, playing to win means hating to lose
We knew our arousal level was high and took one more deep breath to calm ourselves down so that our instincts could take over. We were calm. Our eyes were locked together, clearly communicating our feelings and intentions. We exited the plane and instantly established total control. We had chosen to be confident before even boarding the plane. That instinctive confidence took over and we had one of the best jumps of our lives. We beat the French team by three points in one jump. The meet was over.
Again our team spent time analyzing the circumstances that lead to this peak performance. We decided that our first evaluation was correct.
1) Being well trained.
2) Zero performance anxiety.
3) Calm, determined and just a little pissed off.
By keeping things in perspective and appreciating each other for who we are we learned to keep our performance anxiety to a minimum. We knew it was necessary to stay calm and had trained ourselves to do so.
about this having to be a little bit pissed off, what’s up with that?
But about this having to be a little bit pissed off, what’s up with that? Why do we wait until after something goes wrong, and the situation demands it, before we are determined enough to deliver our absolute best performance? It finally hit us. It appeared that in order for us to be completely relieved of any and all performance anxiety we had to prove to ourselves AGAIN that our self-worth was not dependent on our performance. This was proven to us when, after making a huge mistake we recognized that we were the same people – no better and no worse – than we were prior to the mistake. We needed to be reminded again that victory alone would not define us as winners and defeat would not make us losers.
victory alone would not define us as winners and defeat would not make us losers
We landed on the final round of the 1997 World Meet with an incredible feeling of success. But the feeling of satisfaction we felt after succeeding paled in comparison with the feeling of confident anticipation we felt prior to exiting the plane for that jump. Eagerly anticipating the coming challenge was far more meaningful and fulfilling than looking back on it.
Prior to boarding the plane we had already decided our future. It was our jump and we would choose what to do with it. We knew exactly what our best was and we had no doubt that we were going to do it. We had trained and prepared for this moment and we were unquestionably determined to see it through. From the time we boarding the plane, until we were standing on the ramp ready to exit, our confidence and determination only became stronger. We didn’t know if we would win and we really didn’t care. It didn’t matter. We knew that we had to deliver our best. Nothing less would do. Standing in the door of the plane with this pure confidence and purpose was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. My heart was racing but I was fearless. I had never felt more like a winner than I did at that moment. And we hadn’t won yet! The personal experience of the actual ‘victory’ paled in comparison to these moments leading up to it.
We didn’t know if we would win and we really didn’t care
This perspective, attitude, belief and determination are the qualities that define what it means to be a winner. These are qualities you bring to the game. They aren’t a result determined by the final outcome of the game. It wasn’t about winning after all. It was about playing to win.
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