You’ve heard and doubtless enjoyed many creative performances. Whether on stage, on a playing field, or in business, people are often called on to perform. Even performance reviews are a type of performance!
George Gervin, the retired ABA/NBA star known as the Ice Man (his calmness under pressure was due to metaphorical ice in his veins) said in an interview that once you have the fundamentals, you’re free to be creative. Many agree. But these crazy “2020” Olympics have shown that even with impeccable fundamentals, stars like Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, and Novak Djokovic could not perform to their own and others' astronomical expectations. Pressure may be “a privilege” as Billie Jean King once said (and “the Djoker” misinterpreted) but performance pressure is very real, and sometimes uncontrollable.
I remember the first time I accompanied my mom, who was singing Cat Steven’s “Morning Has Broken” at a summer Sunday church service. I was 15 years old, sitting in a chair, Takamine acoustic guitar at the ready, and as the pianist approached the bench, I noticed my right leg begin to shake. Only my right leg. I felt no control over my leg! I was watching as it moved itself. Disconnected from the rest of my body and from my brain. I watched, amazed. Somehow, I was still able to play and got through the song, but the lack of control was unsettling to say the least.
Then there was tennis. A couple of years after that Sunday song, and after I had been elected Captain of our school’s league championship team, another wild case: One day in the off-season, a beautiful co-ed exchange student from Sweden asked if we could meet on the courts and hit some. Who would say no? After just a couple of rallies, all the sudden I simply could not control the racquet on the forehand side. Years later I learned this is called “getting the yips.” While she shot ball after ball across the net to me, my forehands flew every which way: onto other courts, over the fence on her side, and once over the fence behind me! The girl (thankfully I don’t even remember her name) asked, “You played on the team?” I hit a few serves, and backhands, trying to show some skills, and then we left. Needless to say, no date ensued. In fact, I never saw her again. Nor did I want to! I took about a month away from tennis and have (so far) yet to experience those unnerving “yips” again.
These were minor personal examples of what can happen to any of us at any time. Involuntary body movements are rare. More common is the freezing up before or, worse, during a speech. Or feeling nauseous, like both Barbara Streisand and Bill Russell prior to most of their professional performances (Streisand on Broadway, Russell at the Boston Garden and other NBA arenas). What can you do about it? Here are three ideas that may help you get a better Return On your Experience (ROE):
1. R is for Recognize. It’s natural to feel excited, or nervous, or whatever you want to call it, before any high stakes interaction. Recognize your feelings for what they are—natural and common.
2. O is for Observe. Become an observer. As it turned out, my curiosity over my shaky leg is what allowed me to get through that Sunday performance. I realized I couldn’t control it, so I just watched in amazement. Whereas the on-court fiasco was made substantially worse by my embarrassment and desire to do anything I could to just “make it go away,” all of which were accompanied by racing thoughts, including, “Why is this happening?" "I look so stupid!" "She can’t believe I am a tennis player.” Had I simply observed what was going on with my racquet or my wrist, it may have self-corrected. And if I had been able to focus my mind simply on the ball, that might have worked to get rid of the yips. Thank you to Timothy Gallwey (author of Inner Tennis) who taught me that technique a year or so later. Too late for the date, but thanks all the same!
3. E is for Experiment. There’s always more to explore. Another trick to try. Something you can do differently in order to overcome performance anxiety. Do a Google search now, when you are not faced with an immediate need.
Remember ROE: Recognize, Observe, Experiment
And sometimes, contrary to what some pundits were saying about Simone Biles, it pays off in the long run not to play or perform at that time, at that place. Years ago, a Russian gymnast was forced back into training too early and wound up breaking her neck, becoming quadriplegic, and prematurely dying at age 46. Sure, that’s an extreme and rare case. But sometimes in business, too, it can pay off in the long run to delay, postpone, or even cancel an interaction or engagement due to a given personal or professional circumstance. They may be rare, but remember, it’s not always true that “The Show Must Go On.”
More often, though, it must. And for those times, I like to remind myself of the bigger purpose, the bigger “Why” I’m there. What are my/our goals for the presentation or interview or call or meeting? Then, I go out, give it my best, and either Win or Learn. That’s what we do with every performance. Win. Or. Learn.