How Peak Performers Manage Stress and Anxiety

“Everyone is going through something.”  This was the title of an article written by NBA all-star and champion Kevin Love when describing a panic attack he had during half-time of a game.  As recently as ten years ago, these words being put on the page by a professional athlete of Love’s stature would have been unheard of.  Peak performance, in any field, was synonymous with optimal functioning at all times.  Admitting any sort of vulnerability or mental struggle would be perceived as some sort of character flaw.  However, individuals at all levels of functioning can suffer from anxiety and depression, which are both currently on the rise in the United States.  Earlier this year, a survey from the American Psychiatric Association found that 39% of individuals in the United States report feeling more anxious than they did a year ago and that, overall, the U.S. “national anxiety score” increased by 5 points.

Before his panic attack, Love says that dealing with and publicly addressing his mental health could be perceived as a “form of weakness that could derail my success in sports or make me seem weird or different.”  Another NBA all-star, DeMar Derozan, recently has opened up about his struggles with depression, saying, “It's one of the things that no matter how indestructible we look like we are, we're all human at the end of the day."  While peak performance and mental health struggles are often seen as antithetical concepts, this could not be further from the truth.  Peak performance depends on openly admitting and addressing these issues in an adaptive way, not pretending they don’t exist. 

Stress-induced anxiety affects individuals in two ways when trying to professionally perform – there is the anxiety they feel stemming from on-the-job stressors (e.g., Being overwhelmed, having a dysfunctional team, pressure to be perfect, etc.), and whatever issues are happening in their lives outside of work that can affect their performance (e.g., Mental health disorders, family issues, financial struggles, etc.).  

To learn more about how peak performers manage stress and anxiety that stem from both their professional and personal lives, I spoke with one current NFL player (Mitchell Schwartz:  NFL all-pro offensive tackle for the Kansas City Chiefs who recently started his 100th consecutive game), and one former NFL Player (Dr. Damian Vaughn: Tight-end for the Cincinnati Bengals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers who recently completed his Ph.D. in Positive Developmental Psychology).  Both of them are able to offer a unique perspective in sustaining peak performance in the face of constant pressure, having made it to the highest level of their field competing against some of the best athletes in the world.

Stress and Anxiety Caused On-the-Job

When speaking with Schwartz about his approach to managing mental health in order to achieve peak performance, he discussed the power of energy, “I was freaking out to go against Von Miller [Outside Linebacker for the Denver Broncos].  It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have a lot of nervous energy – take that and use it to focus your energy in…it’s just a form of energy at the end of the day.” 

According to Schwartz, being able to channel your energy to improve your level of focus requires an unwavering confidence in your technique and that “nervousness leads to poor technique.  If you had confidence to use the right technique you’d be fine.  The fear of failure inhibits performance.”  Acquiring confidence in one’s technique is a matter of diligent preparation.  At work, if one is preparing for a big presentation, the fear of public speaking can be managed by thoroughly understanding the content being presented. 

The right amount of preparation allows one to experience flow and be in the zone when the lights come on.  Flow occurs when the challenge of the situation in front of you does not exceed your level of skill, where you are able to completely focus your attention and achieve optimal performance, free of worry and distraction.  When in flow, one feels complete control over the situation and knows exactly what he or she is trying to accomplish. 

Dr. Vaughn, who is currently a Management Consultant and researched the flow experience among NFL players for his Ph.D. dissertation, echoes Schwartz’s point about preparation, “I would train so I could focus my attention for long periods.  Training requires a daily grind of repeating techniques you’ve done a thousand times and a focus on technical mastery.  Training often occurs when no one is watching and learning to manage your effort and energy.”  

For both Schwartz and Dr. Vaughn, learning to manage energy and attention is what allows them to mitigate the anxiety that can occur on the field in a high-stakes game against an elite opponent.  This can be done through the mastery of technique, where the right move essentially becomes automatic in the game because it’s been practiced so many times.

In other professional contexts, the path to achieving technical mastery may not be as clear.  While a quarterback may practice the technique of his throwing motion, it is more difficult to know what the equivalent would be in a job where we may be staring at a computer screen all day.  Technical mastery may be more intangible, such as gaining the confidence to speak up in meetings or, for leaders, giving clear feedback to our employees.  In these types of jobs, it is vital to think about the skills we want to improve to get to the next level, and think about realistic situations to practice them.  In the example laid out above about speaking up in meetings, one strategy could be to sit down before every team meeting and write down one point you want to express out loud during the meeting, and practice in real time.  For the leader seeking to give clear feedback, she could try role playing with a colleague before the actual encounter.  Whatever it is we seek to work on in our respective field, there are ways to practice our technique to achieve mastery.

Stress and Anxiety Caused Off-the-Job

As previously mentioned, on-the-job stressors are only one component of the mental health struggles one can face on a daily basis.  However, a stigma remains about openly admitting and addressing mental health struggles, especially in peak performance contexts.  Schwartz says that it’s becoming more accepted for players to see a therapist and that the stigma has decreased. 

Players can be weary of going to the team’s psychologist because of skepticism surrounding confidentiality of confiding to a team employee, and he encourages individuals to absolutely seek help independently and talk to someone they feel they can be completely transparent and honest with.  As Dr. Vaughn says, “Competition isn’t clean.  There is always risk of exposing vulnerability and fear of it being used against you, not just for retaining our job but also people exploiting it.”

Beyond seeking independent help, both Schwartz and Dr. Vaughn mention the influence that leaders have in opening up the conversation about mental health.   Dr. Vaughn mentions the culture that Pete Carroll (Head Coach of the Seattle Seahawks) has set, where the relationships among players and coaches is a core value of the team’s philosophy.  Carroll’s Seahawks won the Super Bowl in 2014.  Competition is inherently emotional, and humans are emotional beings, and it’s far better “to embrace it than pretend [emotions] don’t exist.” 

From a leader’s standpoint, according to Schwartz, small gestures can be quite powerful.  If a player seems distracted, a coach can simply ask, “Hey, you don’t seem quite like yourself, is everything alright?”  These offerings help create a bridge between the leader and player and indicate that it is ok to talk about issues that don’t necessarily have to do with work and help create an environment that encourages open dialogue around mental health issues, therefore alleviating the emotional suppression that can have devastating long-term consequences.

Changing the Conversation

As Love, Derozan, Schwartz, and Dr. Vaughn are all doing, the conversation about the relationship between mental health issues and peak performance must change.  Stress and anxiety are felt by everyone at some point, regardless of their professional field or stage of life. 

Optimal functioning does not imply an absence of stress and anxiety – on the contrary, peak performance depends on stress and anxiety.  Humans are hard-wired to feel a stress and anxiety response when presented with incoming danger, allowing us to utilize the surge of adrenaline to physically respond to the threat. 

While humans no longer have the threat of being chased by large predators, modern life presents its own set of serious ‘threats’ – to our jobs, reputations, relationships, health, finances, etc.  The anxiety that is triggered is designed to help us adaptively deal with these situations, but oftentimes individuals can have a stress reaction that exceeds the severity of the original stressor.  Peak performance depends on channeling it into a focused energy – where we can enter a state of flow on the job. 

According to Schwartz and Dr. Vaughn, this requires both internal and external effort.  The internal effort is diligent preparation to achieve technical mastery, where individuals are confident enough in their ability to the point where on-the-job responses become automatic.  The external effort is seeking help when issues arise, whether from a professional, loved ones, colleagues, or leaders.

Mike Robbins, Organizational Consultant and author of the book “Bring Your Own Self to Work,” argues that achieving our optimal performance depends on being able to be our authentic selves at work, where being open about who we are and what we’re dealing with allows us to uncarry the burden of trying to be perfect and frees up the emotional and physical energy necessary to perform. 

This requires vulnerability.  As Dr. Brené Brown (research professor at the University of Houston and expert on vulnerability and courage) says, “When we find the courage to share our experiences and the compassion to hear others tell their stories, we force shame out of hiding, and end the silence.”

Peak performers deal with stress and anxiety like anyone else, and establishing authentic connections to discuss it and strategies to manage it are what leads to true greatness.  It is time to end the silence once and for all.