Performance psychologist Charlie Unwin delivers mental training to some of the world’s top performers in sport, business and the military. As a former front-line commander and international athlete, he’s knows all about getting your head in the game so you can do your best when it matters most. So who better to mine for tips to help you stretch what you’re capable of? Seeing as he’s helped clients like England Football, double Olympic champion Lizzy Yarnold and elite military forces perform at their best under intense pressure, you’re going to want to take notes. Over to Charlie.
Scientific research consistently demonstrates that confidence is one of the best predictors of performance in elite athletes. Why? Because when we have belief in our self, our ability and our plan, this manifests itself in thousands of other ways, affecting our energy, our focus, our commitment, our resilience, our creativity – in fact, everything that makes us good at what we do. Confidence is also the top trait in people who are considered most attractive. Therefore, it’s all very well having great clothes to wear, but actually feeling confident in what you wear and what you do is the key.
As tempted as we are to try and generate confidence from the external recognition of other people (e.g. likes on social media), true confidence originates from deep inside us, something I call inside-out confidence. Fundamentally it’s about being comfortable with who we really are rather than projecting an image of Superman. Research shows that being more authentic actually makes us more likeable, trustworthy and influential.
In my experience, those people best at developing inner confidence are the ones who regularly ask themselves three questions: ‘What am I best at?’, ‘What do I love doing?’ and ‘What’s most important to me?’.
Once we are confident in our self we must then have a plan we can be confident in. People generally don’t like to plan. It’s much easier to just turn up and do something as opposed to piling on the pressure of expectation that comes with setting goals. This was the exact challenge surrounding England and their history of failed penalty shoot-outs. That was until they decided to plan and practice penalty shoot-outs as if it was a sport in its own right. In the same way, Olympic gold medals don’t happen by accident, they are a result of meticulous planning and execution. Ok, so we wouldn’t want to go into this forensic level of detail for everything we do in life, however, once you have made the decision to be good at something it seems a shame to let your ability down by not doing the thinking up front.
Goal-setting should always be done on a piece of paper. Start by asking, ‘What are the 3-4 most important components of achieving a successful outcome?’. For each component break it down further asking ‘How can I achieve this?’. Keep asking the same question until you get to a point where you feel 100% in control of achieving the outcome – even if it’s going to take a bit of hard work.
Now you have a plan, you can accelerate your way to success using visualisation – an essential skill for high performers. For the brain, thinking is the same as doing. When you’re rehearsing something in your mind, say a presentation or a speech, you’re using the same neural pathways in the brain as if you were doing it for real. This is a priming process and reinforces the ease and accuracy with which the behaviour or skill can be repeated. It therefore evokes a sense of familiarity around the activity which leads to greater confidence. The more accurately you imagine it, the more precise the pathways being developed in the brain. Therefore for visualising your speech, it’s not enough to go through the words alone, you must imagine the whole reality of that situation including what you can see, hear, smell and feel.
I think this is an under-rated skill in everyday life. I work with elite athletes and special forces soldiers for whom visualising is an essential part of being able to respond to what the mission or the game throws at them. In the same way, it can help us all learn new skills quicker and respond more effectively to some of life’s challenges.
It’s easy to avoid situations that make us feel uncomfortable, but it’s our tolerance for discomfort that often defines how well we maintain our confidence under pressure. To do this well we must practice emotions in the same way we would practice anything else. Therefore challenge yourself little and often to do something a little uncomfortable. These small inoculations will allow you to develop a healthier relationship with fear and excitement, emotions that are an inevitable part of a well-lived life.
One of the overwhelming messages from elite sport is that an athlete’s ongoing physical performance is only as good as their recovery. If we don’t recover physically and mentally, then our performance starts to degrade and will inevitably affect confidence. This is one of those areas we give little thought to, and yet it is easy to address by getting into the right habits.
In today’s technology-driven world we find ourselves permanently wired, but with our attention diluted aimlessly across multiple streams of data. This is the antithesis of focus and therefore performance. In order to develop a better ‘on’ switch, we must create a better ‘off’ switch. Sleep is the most important component of this and is the single greatest contributor to poor performance in the workplace. On the flipside, there is very little that can’t be addressed after a good night’s sleep!