The British Open (now called the Open Championship) is a true test of skill and mental discipline. The fierce wind, pounding rain and thick brush of a links-style course challenges even the world's most elite golfers.
What makes Shane Lowry's Open victory on Sunday even more remarkable is that he won in his home of Northern Ireland--with the hopes of a nation riding on his back. Adding to the pressure--Lowry had to battle the recurring thoughts of blowing a four-shot lead in another major championship in 2016.
On Sunday at the 2019 Open, Lowry entered the final day of the tournament with--you got it--a four-shot lead. This time, however, he was mentally prepared. How Lowry kept his calm for four days of intense competition offers a valuable lesson for anyone who needs to achieve peak performance when the pressure is high--on a golf course or on a podium to give a presentation.
Put Your Performance in the Proper PerspectiveOn Wednesday night before the tournament began, Lowry met with his swing coach for coffee and a chat. Lowry said he felt very nervous and anxious about the week's tournament. Forty minutes later, Lowry left the conversation "full of confidence." What happened in those forty minutes?
Lowry's coach, Neil Manchip, helped his student reframe his anxiety, lessening the negative impact it would have on Lowry's performance.
According to Lowry, "We just put everything out in the open, everything out on the table, what could happen, what might happen." Lowry and his coach talked about the possibility of winning or losing, and put the outcomes in perspective. Here's how Lowry recalls the conversation:
Psychologists who study anxiety in sports and public-speaking say anxiety creeps up when we're afraid of failure. It's exactly what caused Lowry to lose his lead a few years earlier. Lowry acknowledged that the fear of failing, the fear of letting people down and "not living up to expectations" sparked his anxiety. Before Lowry's meeting with the coach this week, "Missing the cut was in my mind."
After their short talk, Lowry no longer focused on failing--or missing the cut. He managed his anxiety by putting the tournament--win or lose-- in perspective. "It's funny how a little chat can change how you feel," Lowry said.
Lowry's right. A little chat--and a little reframing--can work wonders.
Don't Eliminate Anxiety; Embrace It
Lowry also did something that everyone should do before an anxiety-provoking event like a speech or presentation. He embraced the nervous energy.
"You wouldn't be human if you weren't nervous or uneasy about playing in the biggest tournament in the world," he told reporters on Saturday, the day before the final round. "I just hope I'm nervous on Sunday afternoon. It's right where you want to be, and you have to tell yourself that when you're there.Would you rather be here or sitting at home watching on TV?"
Most of us have some social anxiety when it comes to performing in front of others--it's natural. It's nearly impossible to "eliminate" anxiety and, frankly, you wouldn't want to get rid of all your nerves. Nerves or 'butterflies' is your mind's way of fueling your body to perform to its highest potential.
The secret to controlling nervous energy is not to eliminate the butterflies; it's to get the butterflies flying in the same direction. Lowry did it by focusing on what those nerves would mean on Sunday. Nerves meant he had a chance at winning. No nerves would have meant he was out of contention and watching the winners on television like the rest of us.
Harvard business professor Alison Wood Brooks says that numerous studies-- including those done on public speaking-- show that "reappraising negative emotions is more effective than suppressing them." In other words, acknowledge your anxiety, but view it as excitement instead of dread. "Saying I am excited represents a simple, minimal intervention that can be used quickly and easily to prime an opportunity mind-set and improve performance," says Brooks.
The next time you feel anxious about an upcoming pitch or presentation, embrace the feeling and tell yourself that what your feeling is excitement--you're excited to have an opportunity to share your ideas. Focus on what you'll learn, what you'll teach the audience, and how great you'll feel when you win them over.
Like golf, the secret to a great presentation lies in the six inches between your ears. Manage your emotions before they derail your success.