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Thrive under pressure like a pro athlete
November 2nd, 2011
12:49 PM ET

Thrive under pressure like a pro athlete

Editor's note: CNN contributor Amanda Enayati ponders the theme of seeking serenity: the quest for well-being and life balance in stressful times.

The young entrepreneur walked in and sat down. She was focused and calm, with wonderful posture, her hands casually in front of her, just so.

“I looked at her and thought, ‘I wish I had that much poise,’” said my friend Jenna, a communications coach who works with MBA students to help them perfect the art of interviewing and presenting ideas.

“We talked for five minutes, had a normal conversation.” Then the woman started to explain how she has trouble speaking in front of people. “Out of nowhere everything about her started to change: her face began flushing, her hands were shaking, her voice was trembling.”

The entrepreneur’s metamorphosis under pressure was so dramatic, Jenna was still thinking about it days later when we spoke.

“Pressure can be an amazing gift. It sharpens our mind, sharpens our focus.” Says Dr. Michael Gervais when I ask him about how to handle debilitating stress during critical moments—like, say, in a job interview or during a presentation—when you have to perform well.

I so badly want to roll my eyes from here to the end of creation, but Gervais knows what he’s talking about. He is a high-performance psychologist. He works with some of the world’s top athletes to help them develop strategies to not only perform better, but to thrive, under extreme pressure.

“All stress means is that we are engaging in change. Everyone wants to grow, but somehow no one wants to change.” But you can’t have one without the other.

According to Gervais, there are two ways to view change: eustress, change that you see as being positive, or distress, change that you view as negative. What’s most important in any situation that causes anxiety is that the performer—the person going through the stress—can determine for him or herself whether the change is in the eustress or distress category. When we perceive something as being eustressful, that stress helps us. On the other hand, when we feel distressed, we need greater reserves of physical and emotional energy to regain balance.

So how do we all start eustressing instead of just stressing in difficult situations?

The key to peak performance in high-stakes environments is a disciplined mind.

“If you’re looking at an important performance opportunity like, say, a world championship, your body will respond (and cooperate) by activating.” The challenge is what to do with the physical and mental energy. Too much energy puts you over the edge and not enough energy leaves you under-engaged. “It’s a balancing act—like a teeter totter,” says Gervais.

“A disciplined mind is aware of the body’s activity and when it reaches an optimal place, it hovers in the area.” Gervais calls this “hitting the sweet spot.”

Gervais recommends three steps for learning how to hit—and stay in—the sweet spot:

Calm your body. Understand how to generate and maintain a sense of calmness wherever you are. Simple breathing may be the best tool to calm your body. Gervais recommends practicing the following breathing exercise for ten consecutive days: Find a comfortable, quiet place to sit or lie down. Begin by breathing normally and then taking slower and deeper breaths through your nose, with your lungs expanding as fully as possible. Place your hand on your abdomen and inhale deeply to feel your hand rise and fall each time you exhale. Continue for ten breaths.

Refocus your mind. The natural state of our mind is continuous wandering. “As a guiding principle we are looking to deepen our self-awareness so that we can focus the mind and be aware of our emotional experience, which then allows us to be present in whatever activity we are engaged in.” Gervais finds that regular meditation helps build and increase focus and awareness. He holds regular meditation sessions—sometimes for as little as ten minutes, three times a day—with his clients.

Generate confidence. Generate confidence wherever you are by learning how to guide your thoughts. Your best tool here is self-talk. According to Gervais, it’s first important to have a clear understanding of your internal dialogue and to be mindful of the conversation you are having with yourself in stressful situations. If you appreciate the self-talk and it helps support the direction in which you are going, great! But if the running commentary in your head is biting, cutting and destructive, you can acknowledge it and then guide your thoughts toward a more productive place.

“If you’re an athlete staring down a 60-foot cliff, thinking to yourself, ‘I shouldn’t have stayed up late. I wish I had done more in the gym. These skis feel off,’ this is a destructive dialogue. In that moment, you must take a breath and turn the conversation to a position of strength: ‘This is what I do. It’s what I’m trained to do. I’ve done this my whole life. I’m going to stomp this turn. Let’s go!’” 

There are different ways of accomplishing this. You can gain insights and take inventory of your internal dialogue through writing or maintaining a journal. Sometimes Gervais even has his clients text their thoughts and insights to someone several times a day. But, notes Gervais, “not all people appreciate writing. Conversation can be equally powerful.” The key is to develop an understanding and mastery of your internal dialogue in safe environments so that it becomes automatic, reflexive and affirming in what you may consciously or unconsciously perceive as hostile or stressful situations.

“Once you learn how to do these three things—calm your body, refocus your mind and generate confidence—you can adjust to whatever comes your way,” says Gervais.

And when his clients have mastered performance under pressure, Gervais coaches them to move beyond, to the next level, toward what he calls “dissolving pressure.”

“Where does pressure come from? It comes from the interpretation that something is threatening to you.” But what’s most important, suggests Gervais, is going out of your way to build capacity to handle more in your life. Stretch your limits, do things you might normally shy away from, get out of your comfort zone on a regular basis and stay there as long as possible in order to generate a new reference point or adaptation.

“Why do people want to change? Often because they are experiencing pain. A strong motivator for many people is to avoid pain and find a sense of comfort. What I have found working with some of the best and brightest in the world is that they tend to do the exact opposite. They willingly move into circumstances and situations that test their internal skills. They make themselves uncomfortable and they stay in that space as long as they can in order to force a new adaptation of the way they respond. That’s a very different way of looking at performing. “

“Because pain is brilliant. And it is necessary.”


soundoff (74 Responses)
  1. lordbawls

    Tim Tebow sucks under pressure.

    November 2, 2011 at 14:49 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Brenda Jo

      LMAO, that is David Freese ....

      November 2, 2011 at 16:17 | Report abuse |
    • amjp

      Brenda Jo is absolutely right! Why are so many of you so sure of what you say or write that you get it wrong? It's easy to check. I did. Or do you just put down whatever comes into your head whether it's right or makes any sense at all.

      November 2, 2011 at 17:09 | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      Brenda Jo

      They changed the photo

      "Duh"

      November 2, 2011 at 17:12 | Report abuse |
  2. Joe

    If you had seen Tebow's performance during the game pictured, you would not have used it as a lead-in for this article.

    November 2, 2011 at 14:55 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Dan

      I see Freese in the picture.

      November 2, 2011 at 15:45 | Report abuse |
    • Brenda Jo

      LMAO, OMG people that is David Freese ...kudos to those who know who he is lol too funny

      November 2, 2011 at 16:16 | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      LMAO

      OMG

      ...they changed the photo...

      LOLZ!

      OMGZ!!

      LOLLOLLOL OMFG!!! LOL!!! OMG!! LIKE OMG!!!

      November 2, 2011 at 17:12 | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      Brenda, the picture was changed because everyone was mocking CNN for the photo choice. A guy in a broncos jersey bearing number 15 being pursued by Detroit Lions is most certainly Tim Tebow.

      November 2, 2011 at 17:14 | Report abuse |
    • Nadia

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      November 16, 2012 at 01:54 | Report abuse |
  3. Adam W.

    Anybody else think it's ironic to have a picture of Tim Tebow with this article?

    November 2, 2011 at 14:55 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Matt

      I thought it was some sort of joke at first.

      Now I'm thinking they just went with the stock NFL photo that cost the least to use.

      November 2, 2011 at 15:07 | Report abuse |
    • Tim

      The photo was used for one reason and one reason only. It is going to attract traffic. He is a figure that both supporters and non like to give their opinion on.

      November 2, 2011 at 15:17 | Report abuse |
    • Brenda Jo

      people that is David Freese

      November 2, 2011 at 16:18 | Report abuse |
    • Pat in IL

      Whoever is saying this is an NFL stock photo is on something. This is clearly David Freese's of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.

      November 2, 2011 at 16:53 | Report abuse |
    • amjp

      It's not ironic because it's NOT Tebow. Duh!

      November 2, 2011 at 17:06 | Report abuse |
    • Jimmy V

      The original picture was Tim Tebow. They changed it.

      November 2, 2011 at 17:09 | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      People...

      They changed the picture...

      It was originally Tim Tebow...

      All the comments then laughed at how ridiculous it was to have Tebow be the picture of "clutch"

      CNN, in shame, changed the picture to Freese...

      Are you really that dumb, guy?

      November 2, 2011 at 17:10 | Report abuse |
  4. EpicFail

    I guess they haven't actually seen Tebow play, bad example to use CNN. Check out last weeks beat down on Tebow by DET

    November 2, 2011 at 14:57 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Brenda Jo

      IT'S David Freese duh

      November 2, 2011 at 16:19 | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      YOU'RE David Freese

      DUH

      November 2, 2011 at 17:20 | Report abuse |
  5. josh

    Hey Amanda, you fail as a reporter/journalist opinion writer in this article. Tim Tebow as a pro in the nfl is a terrible example. Accountability and editing are clearly not parts of your work.

    November 2, 2011 at 15:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Jay

    Tim Tebow is not thriving under pressure. That image needs to be changed out; it undercuts the article.

    November 2, 2011 at 15:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. GeorgiaDAWG

    Tim Tebow!! This is the worst picture you found to go with this article. He is at his worst under pressure to say the least. I'm Te-bowing right now.

    November 2, 2011 at 15:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Jim Cole

    Tebeau is a perfect example. Check out the motto on the practice field at UF. It's also etched in stone. Performing under pressure is outstanding. It is really outstanding when your actions lift the others around you.

    November 2, 2011 at 15:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Oops

    Sometimes CNN turns itself into The Onion. Maybe next time we can see a picture of Keith Richards with a story about how to defy aging.

    November 2, 2011 at 15:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. niteman

    oh come on... anyone ever see John Elway when he first started playing?

    November 2, 2011 at 15:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Mike

    Great article!

    November 2, 2011 at 15:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. JSC

    Replace that Tim Tebow picture with a Joe Montana picture and then your article will work correctly. "Returning to my Te-Bow pose now." Out..........

    November 2, 2011 at 15:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. DrewMan

    Wow! You are showing a picture of Tebow worse game of his life. He spent most of the time facing face down on the ground. NFL network ran a story of his home town news calling him the worse QB in the NFL this year. He has no arm, his mechanics are the horrible. The lions sack him 7 times .
    that game. When he plays a team with a good run stop defense he cant throw his way out of a paper bag. He was TE-OWNED. Another bum UF QB.

    November 2, 2011 at 15:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. bainwah

    Tibow!?!?!

    November 2, 2011 at 15:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. swiftdeer

    All of you Tebow-haters have some short memories. The man won two national championships in Florida and he won the Heisman Trophy. He's played two and a half professional football games and he won one of them.

    How many college football championships have you won on national television? What is your record as the quarterback of a professional football team?

    November 2, 2011 at 15:28 | Report abuse | Reply
    • MayanMan

      Football is a team sport. Teams win championships, not individuals. The Broncos won't win a championship with their current team, regardless who is QB. That being said, Tebow has a lot of work ahead to become a NFL caliber QB.

      November 2, 2011 at 15:42 | Report abuse |
    • GeorgiaDAWG

      dude talking about short memory, he had an excellent offensive line at UF. He had enough time to do a little victory dance before he threw any of his passes. Thank his offensive line and give credit where it is deserved. Now that Tebow is in NFL, now real athlete is coming out. A terrible one.

      November 2, 2011 at 15:53 | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      Tebow in NFL is and will always be fail. Tebow in this article is silly

      November 2, 2011 at 15:57 | Report abuse |
    • kinglywarrior

      If your memory is better, you will remember that Tebow played with 11 or so other NFL players on those UF teams. His shortcomings as a passer were hidden by UF's overall dominant offense and he ran ALL the time. Those days are over and his failure to improve as a real QB is on display for everyone to see.

      November 2, 2011 at 16:38 | Report abuse |
    • Nikhil

      Good day I am so excited I found your wbpeage, I really found you by mistake, while I was researching on Digg for something else, Regardless I am here now and would just like to say thank you for a fantastic post and a all round thrilling blog (I also love the theme/design), I don’t have time to go through it all at the minute but I have saved it and also included your RSS feeds, so when I have time I will be back to read more, Please do keep up the excellent job.

      April 14, 2012 at 14:43 | Report abuse |
  16. MayanMan

    A picture of Tom Brady or Eli Manning would have been a lot more appropriate for this article. Tim Tebow was a T-Bone under pressure last week.

    November 2, 2011 at 15:30 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ronald

      they are kids you moron, you never wish anything like this on kids! wait till your son, aedghtur kids knocked out. see the pain you feel from thiers!

      April 9, 2012 at 14:38 | Report abuse |
  17. Eggic

    So when did they change the photo? I see a picture of World Series MVP David Freese at the top of the article. A much better choice.

    November 2, 2011 at 15:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. joe

    Growing up in a predominantly black community in the Northeast, hence the Urban Ghetto, I literally learned to handle stress by holding on to my groceries while I walked by that mean looking gang of thugs starring at me. Pro athletes do in fact deal with alot of stress but that is easy stress or good stress especially if your'e a baseball reliever who is being paid two million dollars a year to throw away a world series championship. Now, take a single mother who has to raise a kid or several kids and balance a budget on a thin paycheck. Now, that's real stress.

    November 2, 2011 at 15:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. W.H.Y.

    You might as well switch the picture back to Tim Tebow so the comments make sense.

    November 2, 2011 at 15:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Matt

    TEBOW!!!! LOL!!!!

    November 2, 2011 at 15:50 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Simonel

      wow i should rlaley send some of my clips in ive returned 2 kicks and a field goal for a touchdown a int for a touchdown (was about to get tackled from the side and i pitched it back at the last second so the defender tackled the wrong guy) and tons of running jukes and spins with d will

      April 7, 2012 at 23:20 | Report abuse |
  21. Rick in L.A.

    I must see something entirely, because the picture I see is David Freese, the BEST story in sports in the past 5 years, easily.
    Now THAT's what I call handling pressure. Way to go David!!!

    November 2, 2011 at 15:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Maura

    It is obviously Freese in his Cards uniform, no one here see the World Series?

    November 2, 2011 at 16:02 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Anomic Office Drone

      Did you consider reading the comments and figuring out what's actually going on before just assuming everyone but you is too stupid to differentiate football and basketball?

      November 2, 2011 at 17:43 | Report abuse |
    • Cristina

      I agree, this season is aeadrly a success for him.  But he still has pressure for next season. If he doesn't have a winning record or get to the playoffs again next season his starting QB job will up for grabs.

      April 9, 2012 at 10:42 | Report abuse |
  23. Me

    What does this lady know about being a professional athlete?

    November 2, 2011 at 16:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. StlMelz

    The baseball player pictured is David Freese, 2011 World Series MVP and St. Louis Cardinal's 3rd baseman. He is also a St. Louis native – home town boy success story if there ever was one!

    November 2, 2011 at 16:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. steve

    David Freeze has ice running thru his veins.
    Best clutch performance in all of the playoffs he played in ever!

    November 2, 2011 at 16:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Dan FitzGerald

    I think soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines thrive a considerable bit more then athleates do. The environment are usually worse and there is no oppertunity to go home at night.
    Sports figures should give their paychecks to the fighting servicemembers protecting this country. 30K a year to protect the freedom of a nation, so papmered sports figures can parade around like what they do really matters. There are no Pele's left in the world who can unite contires based upon a shared love. Give it up sports figures, you dont matter and dont have any support from me.

    November 2, 2011 at 16:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Debra in Chicago

    I find it funny that the ones who can't figure out their sports figures on this post are all male – especially since Tebow is a football player, NOT a baseball player as pictured. SMH

    November 2, 2011 at 16:42 | Report abuse | Reply
    • I don't get it....

      They switched the picture, presumably because Tebow was such a laughable choice. Freese fits better with the message of the article.

      November 2, 2011 at 16:51 | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      EVERY one of them thought it was Tim Tebow and you didn't stop to think that possibly the picture got changed?

      Occam is rolling over in his grave.

      November 2, 2011 at 19:42 | Report abuse |
  28. ellio45

    To help support Brenda Jo, That IS David Freese. How could you people get that confused with Tim Tebow? He has a baseball glove on. And second, what in the heck do you people know about pressure? Tim Tebow does perform well under pressure. He won a Heisman and TWO NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS playing in front on hundreds of thousands of screaming fans. His performance in the NFL is due to the fact that he is just not good enough to play quaterback in the NFL, plain and simple.

    November 2, 2011 at 16:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. cards fan

    Um..That's David Freese.

    November 2, 2011 at 16:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. STLBroker

    I'm guessing they must have changed the picture (currently David Freese of the St. Louis Cardinals) because many folks are convinced that the picture is of Tim Tebow. Most folks know the difference between a football player and a baseball player so the picture must have changed.

    November 2, 2011 at 17:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Maura

    People. He has a St. Louis Cardinals uniform on. He played in the greatest game of the World Series in history. He is David Freese, not Tebow, for heaven's sake.

    November 2, 2011 at 17:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Matt

    ITS TIM TEBOW!!!

    GO ST LOUIS TEBOS!!!!!!

    November 2, 2011 at 17:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Bill

    Is/was Amanda Enayati a pro athlete? Not sure how she can write this article if she isn't/wasn't. It's like those idiot newscasters that question/criticize/ridicule an athlete's performance and they themselves have never played pro sports. Like that midget Bob Costas.

    November 2, 2011 at 17:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Russell

    DUH! Everybody knows that's David Tebow, the 7th baseman for the St. Louis Broncos!

    November 2, 2011 at 18:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. T3chsupport

    Pay me a few million dollars, and I'll thrive wherever you want me to thrive!

    November 2, 2011 at 18:16 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Paul

      yeah .. what about earning them first ... huh ?

      November 2, 2011 at 19:36 | Report abuse |
  36. Paul

    It's really funny .. all the guys here saying Tim sucks under pressure .. yeah .. they know what they are talking about .. look the level of success they have, they are all pro in their field, so much they have plenty of time to go around and criticize others ... Tim instead, such a sucker and loser .. yeah it's amazing so incredible that he gets paid millions of $$ when the real pro are all here bashing him, since they know a lot better than him ..yeah .. right ...

    November 2, 2011 at 19:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Tr1Xen

    Ugh... that picture. I'm still having nightmares about game 6 of the WS.

    November 2, 2011 at 19:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Jduhbuhyuh

    Interesting article, though what I find most intriguing is that the choice of picture selection has shadowed all the disfluencies in the text. Are they there to make it seem more like speech? Is this something reporters and or contributors are being encouraged to do?

    "-like, say, in a job interview or during a presentation-" Certainly different enough from i.e. or for example to get my attention.

    "If you’re looking at an important performance opportunity like, say, a world championship," there it is again, did someone edit this and if so were they a teenager or in a fraternity or sorority? I get that it's inside a quote, but I was under the impression that disfluencies or connecting words were not included in quotes. And certainly it seems required in this case though I don't see any uhhhhhs or uhs or hmmms in the story and I'd be impressed if those didn't happen.

    "I so badly want to roll my eyes from here to the end of creation, but Gervais knows what he’s talking about. He is a high-performance psychologist. He works with some of the world’s top athletes to help them develop strategies to not only perform better, but to thrive, under extreme pressure."
    If graphs like that can make it on to CNN, I want a job, now! I will like totally do such a great job -like, say establish a syntax that people like read as if some one was speaking ineffectively or I could like edit that stuff out so that it was like easier to read and didn't give readers the impression that it was done by a student.

    Still an interesting article and I enjoyed reading it, Amanda Enayati, I don't know if you had anyone edit this but if in the future you'd like some more help I'd be glad to offer an opinion for part of that byline. Just look me up on twitter.

    November 2, 2011 at 21:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Dennis Johnson

    Taking an acting class and the stress I experience through being on a stage in a room full of people can at times be overwhelming but I've found that saying to myself these people don't matter helps me relax.

    November 2, 2011 at 22:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. lordbawls

    What's wrong with all of you? That's clearly Michael Jordan. DUH.

    November 2, 2011 at 22:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Autistic Reader

    What if you hate change for its own sake? Then, change always = distress. That's the way we autistics are. Some handle change better than others. Since we have poor control of our emotions, we can't simply think our way into making change good. The change has to be good per se for it to be perceived as good.

    I also take issue with the article's definition of pressure. To me, pressure is having to make decisions faster than I normally do. Winning a championship is not pressure, as one can prepare in advance. Having a deadline imposed from nowhere is. Since I can only work at one speed, pressure eliminates any ability to cope emotionally. Personally, I'll meet the deadline and turn into a madman when I'm away from the source of pressure.

    November 3, 2011 at 09:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. JOE

    You people who keep bashing Tim Tebow sure don't know anything about football whatsoever. First of all, this is only Tim Tebow's second year in the NFL on a revamped and rebuilding Denver Broncos. Let's face it, it takes time to flourish in any professional sports and therefore you shouldn't expect Tim to lead the Denver Broncos to an undefeated season in his second year. Your scrunity of him is unfair and outrageous.

    Secondly, the ratings of an NFL quarterback is based on a system that is simply flawed and stupid to say the least. First of all, let me say that Tim tebow is one of the greatest athletes of our time and barring a career ending injury, he may turn out to be the best NFL quarterback of all time. So you think Drew Breese or Peyton Manning of Tom Brady are great quarterbacks right? Let's face it , these quarterbacks are OVERRATED. Sure they have won superbowls but did they win these superbowls or rather, their offensive lines? In other words, a great quarterback can be defined as a quarterback who keeps the chain moving or gets the job done when his offensive line breaks down, ie...Joe Montana, John Elway, Michael Vick, Tim Tebow.

    So can Peyton Manning, Drew Breese and Tom Brady keep the chain moving and sustain drives when their offensive line breaks down? I don't think so! Have you ever seen Tim tebow slide or run out of bounds to avoid being hit? Never! Tim Tebow earns his money and whether you like him or not, Tim Tebow will always be considered one of the greatest NFL/College quarterback and athlete of our time.

    November 3, 2011 at 12:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. Christopher Dycha

    Grace under pressure will always be the deciding factor of possessing leadership quality. Christopher Dycha

    November 11, 2011 at 07:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. BC

    True the best thing to do is to force yourself to be in stressful situations. Then you can overcome your weakness and build strength. Public speaking, if you practice it enough, you will do much better. Practice makes perfect.

    January 8, 2012 at 00:27 | Report abuse | Reply
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