I was heading up a snowcapped mountain on a gondola in Austria, about to attempt skiing for the second time in my life. The first time was 20 years ago. The ‘grand idea’ from the night before to skip ski lessons and see if my skills from three lessons 20 years ago would come flooding back to me, seemed like absurdity to me now. My palms were sweaty, my breathing was short and a lump formed in my throat as I was fighting back tears. Fear had gripped me like an icy vice. I wasn’t even on the mountain at this stage, my skis were packed away outside the gondola and I was sitting down comfortably inside observing the stunning view, whilst my mind was racing. The question popped into my head “where do you think your feeling of fear is coming from Claire?” Did I think my fear was coming from the mountain I was about to hurl myself down? Did I think it was coming from the long, thin, wooden planks that were silently staring at me, challenging me from outside of the gondola? Did I think it was coming from the snow? As I turned to look at my friend, I noticed she was videoing me, recording my emotions as they were playing out. We both started laughing. Nope, my fear was coming from my own thinking in the moment. I was causing my own intense distress with thoughts of accident, injury and perhaps even (drama queen), death. An imagined, made up illusion of what was ‘about to happen’ was in that moment, already affecting my performance.
Fast forward a few hours and I was gliding down the mountain, awkwardly but nevertheless, moving in a successful southerly direction. All previous thoughts had evaporated and I was actually enjoying the experience. And it got me thinking, how often does our performance become inhibited by our thinking of an imagined future? Answer: constantly.
You see it playing out everywhere. I was watching SAS Who Dares Wins the other night and one of the challenges given to the recruits by the Lead Officer was to fall backwards off a high platform ending up head first into the angry, icy, Welsh waters below. He didn’t just give the instruction, he showed them how to do it. One by one the team mates stood on the platform and fell back into the waters before reemerging having successfully completed the task…until there was one recruit left, frozen on the platform, unable to move. He was given encouragement, he wanted to do it, but you could see in his eyes and all over his face that the thoughts going on in his head were overriding any reality he’d witnessed by the 10 team mates going before him and coming out unharmed. This was a clear case of his thinking, creating feelings of fear, which created his experience of ‘I can’t’, affecting his performance. How often have you experienced this for yourself? How often have you stressed yourself out, or caused worry and anxiety within yourself from thinking the worst outcome of a situation, only for it never to happen? It was a ‘do or go home’ moment for the SAS recruit. Eventually he ignored the thoughts in his head, surrendered to the moment, fell back into the water and succeeded in the challenge. Feel the fear and do it anyway — there’s such truth in this statement.
I’ve spent the majority of my career in Sales, leading and supporting teams to achieve their targets. This gave me great insight into the role of thought and it’s affect on performance. When I was managing a telesales team a few years back, with a task such as picking up the phone to have a conversation with a potential new client, those that had thoughts about ‘what if they’re busy, what will they say, what if they’re rude’ but made the call anyway, were more ultimately more effective than those that would have those thoughts and try to overplan the call, trying to come up with responses to every possible scenario that may happen. Or, they’d get sidetracked by an administrative task and the call would be put off until later. It was never the client making them feel their insecurities, it was always their thinking in the moment about the client (and their imagined response), which ultimately drove whether they picked up the phone or not and how they would perform on the call.
There are hundreds of different techniques, strategies, tips, tools and methods available that promise to help increase, enhance or move the dial on performance. These change frequently and ‘the next new thing’ is always going to be the game changer. In my opinion, until we become conscious of the utter dominance our thinking in the moment plays on performance and learn how to get alongside that, then we will forever be looking outside of ourselves to empower us, our teams and businesses. And that is like chasing Unicorns.