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The Psychological Trait That Separates Great Athletes From Everybody Else
I felt personally attacked when I learned this.
Athletes are a different breed of human.
The world’s greatest athletes are special, but it’s not because they can kick balls into nets or do spinning slam dunks. It’s not because they’re 7 feet tall and also it’s not because they have big muscles.
Athletes are special because they can do the things they do when the pressure is on and the stakes are high. What makes an athlete special is the same thing that makes a professional musician special or a professional actor special.
Knowledge is great, but success is not only about knowledge. Success is about what knowledge you can recall under pressure. Furthermore, there are certain psychological factors that inhibit and prohibit the ability to induce positive performances under a great deal of stress.
Athletes transcend this, and from the outside, it can seem like superhuman behavior. In reality, all it is is flow.
Some people possess psychological advantages that allow them to better tap into the “flow” experience that you have when you’re deeply lost in an activity.
Here’s how you can find flow just like a world-class athlete, even if you’re like me, and have a lot of anxiety.
The anxiety-excitement trope
Though you might not be able to change yourself to have the ability to perform under pressure like Michael Jordan, you can perform at a very high level under pressure even if you have a lot of anxiety.
This is self-help bullshit, either. This is neuroscience.
If you asked your brain, your anxiety is the same neurological experience as genuine excitement. The difference is the story that is attached to the emotion and the interpretation of that story. Simply put, anxiety is negative excitement.
Some people have the ability to turn a high amount of anxiety into a high amount of excitement under pressure.
I’ve done this in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and it’s helped me beat some of the best athletes in the world in my sport, but I’m not the only one. 30 to 60% of elite-level athletes experience performance anxiety.
In sports, we are told that it’s bad to be nervous, but pretty much all of us are nervous at some point. What separates those who perform from those who “choke” is that those who perform are able to deflect anxiety into a positive story and become excited instead.
When you are excited, it’s much easier to find flow, even if the social pressure has not been alleviated.
Neuroticism and flow.
According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow, a flow state is “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”.
To put it simply, flow is when you get out of your head. Flow is fun, but you aren’t thinking about how it’s fun. You’re not thinking at all, you’re just doing.
Neuroticism is the enemy of flow. People who experience high levels of neuroticism struggle to induce flow and therefore they are unhappy, they don’t perform well, and they don’t relieve their anxiety or improve their skills.
Neuroticism can literally ruin your life. It almost ruined mine, but I was able to create a strategy that helps me stay calm under pressure.
It started with martial arts, but this strategy has slowly found it’s way into everything I do.
I’m a neurotic athlete.
I have anxiety.
I compete in a “tough-guy” sport, so it feels a little uncomfortable to say that out loud, but it’s true. Confidence doesn’t come naturally to me.
I’d rather hide in a cave than talk to a stranger.
I’m anxious to order at restaurants, I’m anxious to talk to strangers, and it takes me 30 minutes to an hour at least to fall asleep every night. I experienced a 9-month episode of derealization as a result of not addressing my anxiety.
This anxiety also made athletic performance at a high level impossible for me for about a decade. I couldn’t hang under pressure until I was about 20 years old because when the pressure was on, I’d always draw a blank.
However, since about 2017, I’ve been able to transform my anxiety into excitement in one area of my life.
In Jiu-Jitsu, my anxiety and excitement are one and the same. The nervous energy that I have is transformed into excitement, and it actually makes me better at what I do and it makes it easier for me to induce flow.
But unlike most athletes, I am still high in neuroticism. I’m also not alone. Millions of people have anxiety, but most of them can never compete at the level that I or other anxious athletes do.
So what gives? Do I have mental superpowers?
In a word, no.
Instead, what I have managed to do is something that most competitive athletes manage to do without thinking, and you can do it too in any aspect of your life that you apply the skill and habits.
The skill is turning anxiety into excitement through mental training habits, self-awareness of your own strengths and weaknesses, and most importantly, constantly training yourself to become less neurotic in stressful situations through constant exposure therapy.
Familiarity decreases anxiety and induces excitement, and this better allows you to access a flow state. The flow state is the yellow brick road to improvement.
I had a conversation with my therapist one time a few years ago when I was thinking about how I’m anxious in everything I do in my entire life, except for Jiu-Jitsu.
I was thinking about how I am calm and focused when it’s time to compete, but if a waiter brought me the wrong order, I’d probably just shut up and eat what I was given.
“I’m just very low in neuroticism,” I said, completely serious, recalling the time I won a world championship in Jiu-Jitsu.
“No,” said my therapist, “no you’re not.”
Then we both laughed.
Obviously, if I was truly low in neuroticism I wouldn’t be in her office every week talking about my constant anxiety that makes my head feel like it’s splitting into a million pieces.
However, I was still having positive experiences with flow states in my life because I was able to get out of my head and focus in certain situations. This was because I was spending hours and hours doing Jiu-Jitsu every day. I was also practicing staying calm under pressure because I knew that this competition anxiety was a problem for me.
I approached anxiety like a challenge, not an obstacle.
As I started to do this in other aspects of my life, like dating or talking to strangers, or publishing writing on the internet, I noticed my anxiety decreasing in those other areas as well.
Perhaps that’s the real quality that athletes have that sets them apart. It’s not that they’re low in neuroticism, it’s not that they have the mental strength that other people don’t, and it’s not that they have grit.
What separates athletes is that we learn from the time we start competing that we must view all of our challenges as challenges, not roadblocks. As an athlete, you cannot afford to develop a defeatist worldview.
Imagine if more people adopted the same resolve.
If you liked this article, you’re gonna love my ebook…
This article follows the basic premise of the ideas and stories that I wrote about in my ebook that I published earlier this year.
If you want to learn more about overcoming performance anxiety in anything you do in your life (whether it’s talking to strangers or competing in martial arts), this ebook will offer you science-backed methods on how to do it.