Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Minimize Your Fear and Maximize Your Focus

ne of the most important tasks you must learn is to manage your
fear. Everyone is afraid at one time or another. If you told me you
didn’t feel fear, I’d say you were lying. We are afraid of failure, afraid
of not measuring up, afraid that our creative wellspring of ideas will
run dry, afraid that the next Young Turk will come along and take
away our job.
Fear can wear you down and sap your energy. When faced with
fear, you have two choices: you can let it stop you, or you can move
beyond it.
Fear Is a Matter of Perception
Many people do not realize that fear is based not so much on objec-
tive fact as it is on the way that we perceive ourselves and our situa-
tions. I clearly saw how perception affects fear when I put a heart
monitor on two hockey players during a two-hour-and-forty-minute
preseason practice session. The figures show their heart rates during
that session. The dotted middle line drawn across the graph repre-
sents the median heart rate. The spikes represent the highest and
lowest heart rates during the on-ice sessions. The low points in the
graph represent time spent sitting on the bench, and the lowest
points represent time out in the locker room between periods. The
first graph is a young rookie defenseman who was trying to make
the team and the second is a veteran defenseman who had been in
the league for eight years.
Rookie’s heart rate. He has lots of energy but he gives it away; he’s not sure
how to get from point A to point B.
One of the first things you notice about the rookie defenseman
is that his heart rate is more erratic than the veteran’s. He starts at
100 beats per minute, goes up to 140 during the warm-up, then
drops down to 118. During the first period his heart rate rises to 181,
then drops to 118, and so on. The longer the practice, the more
erratic his heart rate becomes and the more jagged his transitions.
When you look at the graph representing the veteran defense-
man, you notice something different. No matter what quarter he’s
in, his heart rate glides up and down with tremendous consistency,
showing how focused he is on the moment. Whereas the rookie has a
10-point difference in his highest heart rates in all three quarters,
the veteran has only a 5-point difference. And each of the veteran’s
high points is so even, you could take a ruler and draw a straight line
across the top of his chart. The same is true of the veteran’s lowest
heart rates. While the rookie’s has a variance of 9 points, and is
always higher than his original heartbeat of 100, the veteran’s rate
drops right back down to between 95 and 97 every time.
Clearly the difference between the players is one of heart rate vari-
ability due to perception. The rookie has to deal with fear about his
performance. If he doesn’t play well for his team, he’s gone, replaced
by the next talented prospect. So while he has a lot of energy, he gives
it all away by feeling anxious and expending too much energy on each
task—because he’s afraid of the consequences of failure.
The veteran, however, has confidence in his skill and knowledge
and has learned how to manage his fear, using only the energy neces-
Heart rate of a veteran. He has less energy but much more stability; he takes
things in their stride.
sary to deliver a good performance. He has innate knowledge and tech-
nique based on his experience curves, which permits him to accom-
plish each task in a much shorter period of time. The rookie’s heart
rate fluctuates erratically under pressure, giving away precious energy,
but the veteran knows how to take the heat because he has learned with
experience to manage his stress. At the end of the practice, the rookie
is worn out. All he can think about is going home and going to bed.
The veteran is getting ready to head out to the golf course.
The concept that fear is a matter of perception is even more
clearly illustrated by the heart rate of the rookie goalie. Even though
he’s not involved in as much extended physical activity as his team-
mates, he feels the pressure not to let that hockey puck through. He
is filled with anxiety, which drains him of energy. This player would
lose twelve pounds per game because his nervousness made him
sweat profusely. His heart would pound in anticipation of the next
breakaway coming his way even when the other players were down at
the far end of the ice.
If fear is a matter of perception, what tools can you use to learn
how to manage it? How can you minimize your fear and maximize
your focus?
You Can Change Your Perception
Fear is not a true indicator of danger but only of what we perceive to
be happening. Often our perceptions are not based on reality. Many
people have anxiety and panic attacks because they are imagining a
scenario that never materializes. For example, some NFL players
fear having to carry the ball too many times during the game
because they know the statistics for getting injured go up dramati-
cally the more you carry the ball.
The fear resulting from an inaccurate perception of a situation
can turn you into your own worst enemy. Faced with a stressful situa-
tion, you will almost always imagine it to be much worse than it really
is. Sitting on the sidelines and waiting to go into the game, the board-
room, or the meeting is much tougher than actually being in there
performing. Too often you load yourself up with unnecessary appre-
hension, which threatens to weaken your performance. What can you
do to manage fear and to help you be at the top of your form?
Prepare for a Specific Task
One way to conquer fear is to know that you have prepared yourself
specifically for your task. This is done through conditioning and
doing repetitions, not just with your body, but also with your mind.
Then when you are finally called upon to perform, your experience
and training will be able to take over, neutralizing your nervousness.
When I trained Michael Spinks, who was then a light heavy-
weight, to fight heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, I decided not
to use the traditional methods of training boxers. Instead I focused
on training Spinks for the actual tasks he would have to accomplish
in the ring. Orthodox boxing training says that a fighter must go out
and run five miles. But I knew that a boxing match is comprised of
three minutes of fighting and one minute of rest. So I simulated
those tasks by doing interval training. Michael and I ran for three
minutes, then we rested for one minute.
It was so simple, but no one had thought to do it before. And it
worked. After he won the championship against Larry, he told me
our training methods truly simulated the fight conditions.
If you prepare specifically for your task, you will be able to man-
age your fear and be at your highest level of performance. There are
many ways you might do this. For example:
• If you work in an office, keep abreast of new technologies in
your field that will enable you to stay on top of your job.
• Volunteer for or request a special training program offered by
your corporation, even if that means paying for this training
session out of your own pocket.
• If you have a job that is highly people-oriented, or if you have
received a promotion that places you in a position of leader-
ship, review and refine your people management skills so that
you can communicate with your team more clearly.
Sharpen Your Skills
A client of mine named Deborah is a systems analyst and program-
mer in the computer industry. Deborah is often asked to work on
teams that include one or more people from out of town. These indi-
viduals are supposed to serve as conduits between her development
team and the people at the site to which the software is headed.
During one such project, Deborah ended up with a woman on
her team who seemed to feel that her status as a “visitor” meant that
she didn’t need to take the time or effort to be likeable or coopera-
tive. Instead, her modus operandi was to issue curt orders to all of
the software developers, to lose her temper when things weren’t pro-
ceeding as she expected, and to generally act out in an abrasive and
unpredictable manner. This behavior caused everyone on the team
to feel unnecessary stress, fear, and loss of self-esteem. Because of
these factors, the efficient functioning of the group and the smooth
completion of the software development were jeopardized.
While looking for ways to improve this situation, Deborah discov-
ered that her company offered its employees the Dale Carnegie
course in developing self-confidence, communication, and con-
frontational skills. Since she was stuck with this uncooperative team
member for the seven months of the project, she quickly availed her-
self of this program.
This training prepared Deborah for the specific task of complet-
ing her work on this project and restoring a measure of harmony to
her team. One of the most important things Deborah learned was
that we allow other people to walk all over us and destroy our confi-
dence. This program enabled her:
• To regain her objectivity about herself and the situation.
• To learn valuable tools to help her work and communicate with
people who manipulate others through anger and intimidation.
By regaining her self-confidence, Deborah learned how to man-
age her fear of her abrasive coworker effectively. Once she con-
quered her fear, she was able to stand firm, be decisive, do her job
well, and regain the respect of her boss, this coworker, and the other
members of the team. As a result, the project came to a smooth and
successful conclusion, and she was spared several months of unnec-
essary stress and misery.
Practice Internal Dialogue
Having an internal dialogue is another important tool for conquer-
ing fear. By internal dialogue, I’m talking about a conversation with
yourself, like a computer checking its internal programming. When
you conduct this kind of internal dialogue, you are basically asking
• What type of person am I?
• What do I believe in?
• What are my standards? Am I willing to compromise them? If
so, by how much?
Audit Your Inner Self
Another important question to ask that will help you develop percep-
tion and control fear is: What do I want out of this particular situa-
tion? A client of mine always asks herself this question when the heat
is on at work and she is stressed, angry, or afraid. “All I have to do is to
ask myself, ‘What do you really want out of this situation? What are
your goals?’ When I can answer that clearly to myself, I can always put
my feelings into perspective and feel much more in control. I can
understand that the task at hand is not proving I’m right to everyone,
getting the last word, or sometimes even being completely under-
stood. It’s about seeing my ultimate goals clearly and knowing I can
conquer my fear and move forward if I keep calm and focused.”
Taking an internal audit helps you to neutralize fear by creating
an intense state of self-awareness. You know what you are capable of
because you now understand specifically what you want to achieve—
and you have a pretty good idea of how to get there. This is similar to
what an athlete does when he goes out onto the field and says to him-
self, “My opponent is not going to beat me because I know who I am
and what I’ve got.” If you can take stock of yourself, telling yourself
honestly that you are good at what you do and that you believe in
yourself, you can be confident of handling almost any situation.
Visualize Your Outcome
Internal dialogue also involves clearly visualizing your outcome. If
before an athlete goes up to the plate he says to himself, “I can’t strike
out,” he’s not focusing on the task at hand; he’s only thinking about
the consequences of possible failure. In other words, he’s walking up
to the plate with a picture of striking out in his head. And sure
enough, nine times out of ten, when he stands up to bat, his body is
going to follow the picture of failure he is visualizing in his brain.
But if his self-talk and internal imaging are all about ball place-
ment—how he’s going to wait for the pitch, how he’s going to see the
hit, and where he’s going to place it—his body is going to do every-
thing it can to get him to that point.
I used this technique with my mom recently when she was very
sick after a stroke. She wasn’t paralyzed, but she couldn’t swallow
and had to be fed through a tube. The doctors gave her a week to
live and told me to start making arrangements for the funeral. Even
though they had given up on my mother, I couldn’t.
I knew I could only help her if I enabled her to conquer her fear
and to visualize a good outcome. She was not able to speak but she
could hear me, so I told her what a wonderful mother she’d been to
me, and I told her to visualize herself as better. I made sure that
everything the doctor and I did for her was focused not just on pro-
longing her life for a short time or easing her suffering, but also on
her visualizing herself as being well. And, guess what? She got better.
As of this writing, she just turned eighty-eight and is able to swallow,
eat on her own, and communicate, and she has her full mental facul-
ties. The doctor was amazed but told me that he has seen many situa-
tions where the power of the mind had directly affected a patient’s
well-being or longevity.
That’s what I call effective internal dialogue coupled with exter-
nal performance. Our actions and results always reflect what we
think. And ultimately that’s the best strategy for managing fear.

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