How to Prepare for a Big Moment


11954348431437107035Gerald_G_Balance_Scale.svg.hiWhen it comes to approaching a major performance test, most of us follow advice that can be distilled into three words: Focus on success.

That is, we prepare ourselves by banishing doubt and visualizing the positive. We vividly imagine ourselves making all the right moves with fluid grace, with zero mistakes or missteps. And it feels good.

What’s interesting, though, is that when you look closely at world-class performers, most don’t use this feel-good approach. In fact, they do the opposite — what you might call the Feel-Bad-First approach.

It goes like this: First they focus on the mistakes — and figure out, in detail, how they will react to them. Then they visualize the positive.

A great example of this is the Green Berets, the U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers. Teams spend weeks training for a mission (most of which happen at night). On the day of the mission they follow a two-part routine.

First, they spend the entire morning going over every possible mistake or disaster that could happen during the mission. Every possible screwup is mercilessly examined, and linked to an appropriate response: if the helicopter crash-lands, we’ll do X. If we are dropped off at the wrong spot, we’ll do Y. If we are outnumbered, we’ll do Z.

After some hours of doing this, the team takes a break and has lunch together. They socialize, relax, and maybe take a nap.

Then they spend the afternoon in phase two, talking about everything going exactly right. They review each move, visualizing each step, and vividly imagine it going 100 percent perfectly.

You might call this Balanced-Positive Approach: equally split between negative and positive, and ending on the positive. Notice the complete wall of separation between the two phases. They don’t toggle back and forth between positive and negative. The two phases are kept as separate as night and day: first comes all negative, then all positive.

Many top performers (Peyton Manning and Steve Jobs jump to mind) embody this approach. Half the time, they are persnickety, chronically dissatisfied, negative, doubtful, obsessed with potential failures. The other half of the time, they’re incredibly positive, confident performers.

This isn’t surprising. The balanced-positive approach helps you avoid the pitfalls of positivity — namely, that you get surprised and demoralized by failure — and replaces it with a preparation that matches the reality of the world and also leaves you ready for performance. Good things and bad things will happen, and you can’t control either. But you can prepare.

If you have any other tips on preparation you’d like to share, I’d love to hear them.

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8 Responses to “How to Prepare for a Big Moment”

  1. Robert says:

    I was traveling 10 years ago and decided in advance that I was already home having had a great time.
    I missed the flight from France due to overbooking, was late to USA and had to travel to another airport, lost my luggage in middle of New York from the bus, found the luggage, new bus, missed flight and had to sleep over and go next day.
    The guy picking me up had no idea where I was and I was about to present a 2 day seminar, the adress I gave the cab driver after 20 minutes in the customs interrogating me and almost didnt let me in Canada and then he called the number I had and found the correct adress, arriving there and none in sight, walked into the hotel and asked and they said no seminar here.
    After some talk there suddenly they said oh but thats in the basement walked there, 2 minutes to the seminar should start, put down my gear, went up there and started to talk.

    In this time all I did was to keep my previous set expereince already home and had a great time so I had.
    I can take note of the above seperating the bad and good as you are planning you need to have a scenario in place if things might not work out as you need a behaviour guide to act on.

    I work with golfers and their game and swing. I have to find out what dosnt work for them first and foremost so I can understand whats not working and what is needed to work and either adjust current actions or build new ones. I also need to know if it dosnt work if they did this correctly or added some idea they themselves thought was better even when it might not be.
    Once knowing what works making them stick with it is not that easy due to many just add things along the way that simply blocks them out from performing at their best.
    Making them aware they do that and how it happens makes them aware of what they do that dosnt work and what does work and then finding the middle road to trust what works and go with that toa chive the results they seek.

  2. Ray Chantler says:

    Astronauts do a lot of negative contingency planning “what’s the next thing that could kill me?” Check out Chris Hadfield’s new book.

  3. Timothy says:

    As a young distance runner I practiced a form of visualization that was really only an extension of childhood imagination, like pretending you are making Kirby Puckett’s (or whoever you idolized) clutch hit while playing backyard whiffleball. Pretending you are in a race and surging and reacting to seemingly insurmountable surges by opponents or challenges of rough terrain was, in retrospect, invaluable training of the mind. As I got older the mental games I would play were more mature, but the visualization process was still effectively working.
    These things were not coached at the time,though I would teach aspects of this when I coach runners in the future.
    In the wildland fire program we practice situational awareness scenarios that rehearse the helps to develop a team and individuals to most effectively respond to complicated and at times, life threatening emergency events. This, of course, is very similar to military squad,crew and team scenario drills.

  4. Bert says:

    Top golfers plan their play of a hole by first examining the places they shouldn’t hit it. Then their last thoughts are to visualize a shot that lands where they want it to go.

    Poor golfers think, “Don’t hit it OB.” And of course, the last thing their brain is hearing is “hit it OB.”

  5. MdM says:

    It’s interesting to hear how the green berets approach this, but do they have a track record of extraordinarily successful missions that pressure performers would want to emulate?

  6. Robert says:

    Its classified with green berets.

    You can compare it to go shopping, did you put gas in the car, did you read the paper about traffic, listen to radio for the route, plan for the kids wanting candy, etc…
    if you pre-plan anything it will work more efficient as you already have a plan in place.

  7. GSPFanBoy says:

    George St Pierre, the UFC Welterweight Champion has a similar approach towards his upcoming fights. He visualizes alot of the possible mistakes (e.g, if he’s in a bad position on the ground, if he gets blindsided by a kick, etc).

    Skip to the 0.34 mark

  8. […] Daniel Coyle describes how the Green Berets use negative visualization (as well as positive visualization) to prepare for missions. They rehearse a mission with every possible thing that could go wrong, going wrong (the Murphy’s Law version), and a later rehearsal where everything goes smoothly. […]

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