How do you handle pressure at work and at home? Are there lessons you can learn from elite sport athletes to harness pressure and nerves and convert it into positive energy? I was glued to my TV screen on Saturday night to watch Usain Bolt run his last professional race. However, as the athletes were being introduced my thoughts were not about Bolt but the American athlete Justin Gatlin. At every mention of his name he was being booed by the audience like Captain Hook in a Peter Pan pantomime. Bolt was under pressure to win his final race but whatever the result he would leave London a hero. How did Gaitland channel the negative energy of the crowd to win the most publicised race of the IAFF World Athletics Championship in London 2017?

Earlier this year I had attended a discussion panel chaired by sports performance psycologist Dr Steve Bull alongside retired world record breaking long jumper Jonathan Edwards and Olympian Daryll Neita. Dr Bull has spent the past 20 years working with top athletes who are the best in the world and want to improve their performance even further. They are under extreme pressure and yet they constantly push themselves to the limit physically and mentally. Dr Bull demonstrated how his experience with athletes can be translated into the business world in a method he has named as ‘control the controllables’. He describes being in a situation where you can’t control the outcome and therefore focusing on what elements you can control. 

Jonathan Edwards admits he was always extremely nervous before an event and even now gets anxious before he presents on TV. ‘I visualised losing, faced my fears, understanding that I got scared but it wasn’t going to stop me’. His controllables were as simple as ‘run fast and jump’. At 20 years old, Daryll Neita is new to the world of pressional athletics, winning a bronze at last summer’s Olympics in Rio. She explained that the difference between losing her individual race and adding to Team GB’s medal tally in the women’s relay race was her focus. ‘My [safety] pins weren’t clipping on my bib in my first Rio race, I was losing my focus. I reflected on what had gone wrong and reset my focus for the next race’. Daryll’s ‘controllable’ is as basic as ‘go’ as soon as she hears the gun. ‘It is as simple as running as fast as you can focus on your goals and your tasks and just smash it’. Jonathan agrees and says ‘forget everything else, focus on one goal’. 

I tried this technique with, Julie a PA I am mentoring. She had organised a large high profile event and the thought of the week long event was making her anxious, causing her to lose focus and make mistakes. She was panicking about what could go wrong, so taking Dr Bull’s advice and focusing on what she can control she came up with this list: drinking coffee instead of water (coffee made her jittery and more nervous), turning the notifications off on her phone and email to avoid distractions. Finally, If everything gets too much then walk outside for five minutes to refocus. We also discussed how Julie could prepare ahead for any eventualities she thinks could arise from past experience. Jonathan Edwards advised that there is no substitution for being prepared and Dr Bull agreed ‘it is like training your brain, using muscle memory’. Daryll adds ‘preparation helps when it comes to delivering’. So Julie and I went through the tasks she could complete before the event and the possible eventualities she could prepare ahead. She told me the week went without a hitch and she was able to enjoy it rather than constantly worrying that something major was going to go wrong. 

Dr Bull also recommends focussing on your breathing, slow down, stand tall and smile. By doing this you are creating positive body language which helps focus your mind and boost your confidence. It is important not to dwell on your failures but keep thinking about what has gone well in the past write down your successes and focus on these; ‘know what your strengths are and leverage those strengths’. ‘Elite athletes experience fear but what they are good at is managing and harnessing it’ Dr Bull goes on to say. Perhaps it was the fear of being booed that enabled Gatlin to convert this into the power to run the fastest when it counted the most. How will you channel your fear and control your controllables? 

Thanks to the event hosts STH Live, The Telegraph and Sports Editor Jim White.