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Managing nerves to deliver the goods


Do you get nervous before delivering an important presentation or when pitching for new business? William Winstone outlines several ways to keep those nerves at bay before the big day.

In the world of sport psychology, some athletes are more prone to performance anxiety and nerves than others. And while in pure performance terms it can help to be a Clint Eastwood-type gunslinger under pressure, the good news is there are plenty of more emotional athletes – like cyclist Victoria Pendleton or Jonny Wilkinson – who learn how to calm their nerves for competitive gain.

In the world of work, different situations give managers sleepless nights, from media and job interviews to board presentations and chairing important meetings. In my time working with elite athletes I've picked up some simple tips that will help you manage your nerves and deliver the goods when it counts.

Understand the physiology

Nerves are a vital way of preparing the body for action by releasing hormones: mainly adrenaline, as if we were excited. A key part of performance psychology is how we interpret our own emotions. So when you're well prepared, you can welcome the nerves and truthfully say to yourself “this means I’m ready to deliver”.

Plan your game plan

Ask yourself, "What must I do well?" So when you're chairing a meeting, plan for the critical agenda items and talk to key staff to make sure everyone knows their part in the meeting. In athlete terms we call these 'process goals' – what must I execute really well to underpin my performance? As a tennis player this might be my ball toss on the serve – I can be completely in control of this, but if I don't execute it well, my serve will come under real pressure.

As you plan for each key section, you might feel that some of your skill areas are less developed. For example, you might go quieter or lose warmth and tone as you present. So work on improving the skills with the biggest impact on the end result. This may mean rehearsing, recording and reviewing the presentation, or practising a tricky bit of a conversation in a meeting. Rehearsal is a powerful way of upping skill levels and impact.

Bolster your confidence to avoid severe anxiety

While nerves are something you should expect, severe anxiety can be utterly debilitating. There are three factors which – if you bring them under control – will help you keep the anxiety at bay. The good news is that you don't need to worry about all three of them: just identify the most powerful for you and concentrate on it.

What you say to yourself

We all talk to ourselves – sometimes even out loud. That internal voice, though, can say things that we wouldn't stand for from other people. Monitor your 'self-talk' for toxic self-criticism, especially predictions of doom. Clean up these messages and replace "I'm rubbish at presentations" with "I'm determined to improve my next presentation, and the planning and practice I've put in will help me do that". Not easy, but very calming.

Your mental imagery

How you visualise things goes hand in hand with your self-talk, and can be either powerfully positive or hugely negative. That's because our internal videos fire the same neural pathways as if we were experiencing the real thing. So negative pictures summon up inhibiting anxiety and tension, while positive pictures are calming and confidence building. Athletes from David Hemery through to Padraig Harrington have used positive imagery in their mental routines. So find a quiet space and vividly imagine yourself executing the critical parts of your task really well. Do this daily, and in the hour before you go on, and you'll see the difference.

Your body language

How you hold yourself physically has a direct link to how confident you are, and how you inspire confidence in others. When we're stressed, we can overtense some muscle groups and leave others collapsed. So two quick ways to regain body equilibrium are:

  • Breathe into your stomach. When you're stressed your breathing gets shallow. Instead, gently push your tummy out as you inhale – you’ll breathe like a musician, slow your breathing and calm down
  • Practice 'progressive muscular relaxation'. So tightening up various muscle groups, one at a time, for 10 seconds, and then relax them. Try it now - tighten your shoulders by bringing them up to your ears, and then let go. You'll know which muscle groups you tighten up, so include them in your routine.

Sleep better to be sharper

You can also use progressive muscle relaxation (see above) on your whole body if you're struggling to get to sleep. It can be a big help the night before something stressful is going to happen. Just choose the main muscle groups from your toes to your eyes, and you'll often find yourself drifting off to sleep before you finish.

As you read and experiment with these suggestions you'll identify elements that jump out and are particularly powerful. It's not a checklist, but a guide to finding the exercises that practice shows work for you. There's a lot you can do on your own, but we all have blind spots, and where a skilled coach can help is in quickly developing routines that work specifically for you in overcoming the challenges of your situation.

William Winstone is a director of Performance 1, a consultancy that brings insights from Olympic sport to helping business leaders 'run a better race', through executive and team coaching.

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