Performing Under Pressure

by Dan McDonogh on Jan 18, 2016

Fitness Entrepreneur

Discover how to avoid “choking” in your fitness career.

Have you ever lost your train of thought or been unable to find your flow while doing something that normally is very easy for you? Have you ever been tired all of the time, no matter how much sleep you were getting? If you answered yes to one of these questions, then maybe you were choking under pressure. When you read my story just below, you’ll learn what choking is and what factors lead to it—so you can avoid it!

My Story

It was late 2012, and it was a big year for me. TRX® had one of its most productive years ever, and I was at the heart of it. I had traveled over 110,000 miles, and I had educated over 10,000 fitness professionals on how to use the Suspension Trainer™ and/or teach others to use it. It was also the year I received the IDEA Group Fitness Instructor of the Year award. I had hit the peak of my career, and things were going smoothly—or so I thought.

Later that year, things started to fall apart. I wasn’t sleeping well. I was losing my appetite, and along with that I was losing weight. My performance during my workouts was dropping, and I was sore. I had little energy, and, to compensate, I drank more coffee. I was becoming irritable and losing patience with everyone. Tasks that normally were easy became increasingly more difficult. I was forgetting things and making mistakes.

In one case, I was asked to deliver a TRX course at the last minute because the regular instructor had fallen ill. Under normal circumstances, this was not a problem. Not only had I played a major role in creating the course and teaching others how to deliver it, I had taught it in the field several times. I knew the course so well that I didn’t even take the TRX Leader's Guide with me to the facility; I grabbed only the 1-page agenda for the course. That turned out to be a big mistake. I won't go into how bad this experience was for me, but it was bad enough that when I got on the plane to go home, remembering it brought me to tears. Fitness pros were relying on me to deliver important information, and I had let them down. I had choked big time!

What Is Choking?

Choking is failing to perform effectively because of nerves or tension. We’ve all heard of choking in professional sports. It happens when the best athletes or teams make mistakes and/or lose the game when everything is on the line. They lose focus, they can’t get things together, and they make uncharacteristic mistakes.

As an example, consider Greg Norman’s performance in the 1996 Masters® golf tournament. Norman shot a 63 in the first round. He had a 6-stroke lead going into the final round. Then he shot a 78 and lost by 5 strokes (Berardino 2012). How does someone who is at the top of his game one day have it go all wrong the next? Why do some people choke?

One theory is that when you are under pressure you may focus more on potential threats or become more aware of being engaged in the task at hand (Sanders 1981). When this happens, you become anxious, your attention shifts away from your endeavor and you start to question your ability to perform a skill or finish the job.

In other words, when you’re under pressure, you can become self-conscious in a negative way and can start to question your ability. You think, “Can I do this?” instead of “I can do this!” A skill or motor pattern that normally is automatic becomes something you think about.

You don’t have to be a professional athlete to choke. Have you ever lost your flow or missed content when giving a presentation? Have you ever found yourself easily losing patience with your clients when normally you do not? Has any of this happened to you in an unfamiliar environment?

What Causes a Choke?

Several factors can lead to a choke: an unfamiliar environment, fatigue, overtraining and lack of preparation. Here’s a look at each of these, along with tips to prevent choking on each one.

Choke Factor #1: An Unfamiliar Environment

Being in a new environment can cause stress. Have you ever struggled to teach a class at an unfamiliar facility? New faces, a new sound system and even teaching in a room that you’re not used to can throw you off. If you’ve choked in this circumstance, it may be because you were unprepared or had not visited the facility beforehand to make sure everything you would need was in order so that things would run smoothly.

How to prevent a choke. When I travel to a different facility—especially to present a workshop—I always check the room, test the equipment (audio/visual) and tour the facility. This review provides a sense of comfort, so when the time comes to deliver, all I need to focus on is the immediate task.

Choke Factor #2: Fatigue

Do you constantly feel lethargic? Are you more irritable than usual? The reason for this could be as simple as lack of sleep or as bad as adrenal fatigue. Most adults need 7–9 hours of sleep just to help regulate hormones and aid in cell function. Repeatedly getting fewer than 5 hours of sleep can lead to poor performance. If you do not wake up feeling refreshed on a consistent basis, you may need to sleep more. You make time for your clients, your workouts, your meals and your chores; make time for sleep as well.

How to prevent a choke. Use these tips for getting a better night’s sleep (Smith, Robinson & Segal 2015):

  • Aim for 7–9 hours of sleep a night.
  • Aim for the ideal sleeping temperature of 63 degrees Fahrenheit/17 degrees Celsius.
  • Make sure the room you’re sleeping in is dark and quiet.
  • Don’t skimp on your mattress, your bedding or your pillows. You spend a lot of time in your bed, so treat yourself!
  • Avoid having a TV or computer in your bedroom. Studies have shown that peace and quiet in the last hour before bedtime can help you sleep.

Choke Factor #3: Overtraining

Has your performance level dropped even though your effort and output are the same? Are you constantly dealing with nagging injuries? How many hours a week do you spend working with others, teaching classes and doing your own workouts? If all of this adds up to more than 12 hours, you’re on the verge of overtraining and burning out, which can affect your performance—and play a role in a choke. Increased volume can lead to overtraining and fatigue.

How to prevent a choke. Try these tips to avoid overtraining:

  • Reduce intense physical activity to fewer than 12 hours/week.
  • Include a variety of exercises to help promote a healthy body.
  • Include time for regeneration.
  • Eat antioxidant-rich foods and drink lots of water. If you’re traveling to a fitness convention or a weekend of education, plan ahead by packing meals that provide you with the energy you need.

Choke Factor #4: 
Lack of preparation

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you knew you were underprepared? If yes, how did that affect your stress level? Your sleep? When it comes to delivering content to an audience or producing great results in athletics, it has been said that top performers spend 90% of their time preparing and 10% delivering.

How much time do you spend preparing? Are you juggling too many projects or training at too many locations to truly give everything the attention it deserves? Have you heard of the 10,000-hour rule? The rule suggests that those who have truly mastered a craft have spent a minimum of 10,000 hours living, breathing, researching and practicing their craft. How many hours have you spent? While you may not yet be at the 10,000-hour level, have you done everything under your control to prepare? If you have, then in most cases it doesn’t matter if things like the environment change. You can handle it!

How to prevent a choke. Use these tips to be prepared:

  • Find a quiet place where you cannot be disturbed.
  • Put your mobile device in a separate room, or put it on mute.
  • Blocking off prep time on your calendar—as if it were an appointment—can help immensely. Then apply the 90/10 rule. For example, for every hour of content or choreography that needs to be delivered, spend 9 hours practicing/rehearsing it.
  • Practice choreography or educational content “out loud” before you deliver it. Practice in an empty room or with someone who can give you feedback.

A Happy Outcome

I never want to choke again like I did that time in 2012. But I’m glad it happened, because it forced me to change my habits, address my workload and look at life a little differently. I now sleep more, travel less, laugh at myself if I make mistakes and say “no” more often. I no longer fear that if I say no I might miss out on something. I do my best to be thankful for what I do have and not focus on what I don'thave.

I love what I do, and I love the industry that I am in. I now get up every day and am eager to experience whatever comes my way and to learn how it can help me make a difference.

References

Berardino, M. 2012. 1996: Nick Faldo makes up six shot deficit to win Masters. Accessed Nov. 17, 2015. www.augusta.com/masters/story/history/1999-nick-faldo-makes-six-shot-deficit-win-masters.

Sanders, G.S. 1981. Driven by distraction: An integrative review of social facilitation theory and research. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 17 (3), 227–51.

Smith, M., Robinson, L., & Segal, R. 2015. How to sleep better: Tips for getting a good night’s sleep. Accessed Nov. 20, 2015. www.helpguide.org/articles/sleep/how-to-sleep-better.htm.

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About the Author

Dan McDonogh

Dan McDonogh IDEA Author/Presenter

I am currently the Senior Manager of Group Training & Development at TRX in San Francisco. I am an very avid Cyclist and when I am not on the bike, I love watching movies and spending time with friends