August 28, 2013

Is your mental game up to par?

I recently watched a documentary about a group of cyclists who race 2,700+ miles from the Canadian border to the Mexican border along the Continental Divide. The race is called the Tour Divide, an "ultra-cycling challenge to pedal solo and self-supported the length of Great Divide Mountain Bike fast as possible."

Only a few people attempt it and fewer finish (in 2008, the year this documentary was filmed, 16 started and 8 finished). One competitor who had a particularly hard time was Mary Metcalf-Collier, who suffered physical hardships along the way, including severe swelling in her legs.

She came close to quitting many times, but she knew the key to staying in the race was her "mental game," and she continued to push herself past her discomfort, eventually becoming the first woman to complete the race.

She says in her blog, "The most important lesson that I picked up last year was about flexibility. As I read back through my journals from 2008, I probably had 3 days total that went exactly as planned."

Most of us aren't facing this level of physical pain when preparing for a presentation. But many speakers' mental game is not up to the challenge of overcoming anxiety and the resulting resistance and avoidance.

The mental game of speaking includes:

1. Planning and preparation for things that might go wrong

What happens if your computer crashes in the middle of your PowerPoint? What happens if you lose your place? What happens if someone gives you a hard time during Q&A? Are you prepared?

2. Reframing anxiety and nervousness into positive attitude and energy

There is no difference between "bad" and "good" adrenaline - it's your mind that makes it so. Thought stopping, positive self-talk, relaxation and other mental and physical tools can get you in a calmer state to face your audience.

3. Visualizing a successful presentation

Have you visited the venue in advance so you know the layout of the room and any challenges? Have you envisioned yourself in front of a satisfied and smiling audience, giving waves of applause? Successful elite athletes use visualization and mental rehearsal both to imagine a successful outcome of an event and to rest and relax.

4. Giving 100% when you only feel 50%

Got the flu, but can't find a replacement? Performing on two hours of sleep? Distracted by personal problems? Your audience can't and shouldn't know this. Give them what they came for and rest later.

5. Handling mishaps onstage in the moment with grace and humor

Everyone makes mistakes and most of the time your audience doesn't even know you've messed up. Suck it up, laugh it off, and move on!

6. Being flexible

Sometimes you're prepared to speak for an hour, but the speaker or meeting before you goes long and your time gets cut. Sometimes you expect an audience of fifty and it ends up being an audience of five. Sometimes you get stuck with a microphone that's attached to a lectern. Having a strong mental game means being able to shift gears at a moment's notice, take what you're given, and run with it.

As you can see, the mental game of speaking parallels the mental game of sports, and speakers can learn a lot from athletes who use these tools. Read more posts about the connection between athletes and speakers here.

What else would you add to my list? Please share in the comments!

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4 comments. Please add yours! :

Peter Billingham said...

What happens if? Thats a great line to keep asking in preparation. Your list is quite comprehensive, but just as with the story about the cyclist, I would imagine that she put in many hours training before setting off on 2700 miles of cycling. Quite often it is the preparation, rehearsal and "over learning" and a presentation that allows you to be relaxed in the moment no matter what circumstances face you. In my experience, when you are not prepared and then the unexpected happens it can really rock a presentation. But if you have put in sufficient time in learning the content, it is much easier to deal with the what if? Thanks again for another interesting perspective on public speaking.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks for sharing, Peter. I did mention planning and preparation for things that might go wrong, but not planning and preparation in general! The core foundation of the mental game!

Ian said...

Hey Lisa. I just bumped into you again while on Twitter looking up #speaking. Clearly Twitter has some effect.

Re your post, I like to think of it in terms of mental agility and tenacity. Back in 2009, I did what was then the hardest race on earth, the Marathon Des Sables (or the MDS, amongst friends) - a 240 km self-sufficiency race across the Sahara.

We lost a supply jeep in a flash flood (yes, a flash flood in the Sahara), then had our base camp wash away. And about 80 of us actually had to get rescued by the Moroccan army - and all this was before the race had actually even started.

And once the race did improve I had to traverse a mountain, in a sandstorm, in pitch darkness. My Backpack broke about 110 km in. I developed a blister on my right heel that grew to the size of the palm of my hand. And I managed to come down with dysentery. I was just about reduced to crawling across the finish line.

It was the toughest mental and physical experience I've ever faced in my life. But looking back on it, it was also one of the best classrooms I've ever been in when it came to picking up life lessons.

Mary's point about flexibility is spot on. Adversity happens. And if you want to get across the finish lines in your life you have to be prepared to deal with it. Public speaking is certainly no exception.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Wow, Ian. What an amazing story! I imagine you use this liberally in your presentations. :-) We all have our "things," be they mental or physical, and for each of us, our personal triumphs may not mean anything to anyone else, but the accomplishments are still significant and propel us to keep moving forward.

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