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4 Best Practices CEOs and Public Speakers Can Learn from Athletes

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What struggles do CEOs and public speakers have in common with athletes?

For one, there’s the problem of nerves.

Part of my work as a public speaking coach is helping entrepreneurs overcome their fear of speaking in public, which according to one widely-quoted survey, was worse than dying.

Athletes like Lionel Messi and Hall of Fame basketball player Bill Russell also experience the same anxieties before huge games. So much so, that they’ve been known to throw up because of the pressure!

The importance of the mental state in athletic performance is why teams like Chelsea FC hire sports psychologists to help their players overcome mental blocks. Those that do often describe being able to go “in the zone” during clutch moments in a game or match.

This experience is what psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as Flow, or the state of complete immersion in an activity, often resulting in a loss of sense of space and time.

The late Formula One triple world champion Ayrton Snna offers a vivid description of a Flow state he experienced during a qualifying circuit for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix. He explained:

“I was at one stage just on pole, then by half a second, and then one second… and I kept going. Suddenly, I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my teammate with the same car. And I suddenly realized that I was no longer driving the car consciously.”

But what’s great about Flow is that it’s not exclusive to athletes.

In an article, Csikszentmihalyi writes that Flow can be triggered by having clear goals that require specific responses. It’s why Flow is easier in games like chess, tennis, and poker, where rules and goals are clearly defined for players to follow without having to think.

For public speakers and CEOs, a Flow state can mean being fully in control of a speech or presentation.

Everything just clicks: from rehearsed lines to gaining the audience’s trust, and even nailing the perfect timing with jokes.

The key to getting this peak performance? Practice, practice, and practice. Below are four sports psychology techniques used by athletes that you can apply to prepare for your next speech or presentation.

1. Practice Mindfulness Meditation

In 1988, Canadian researchers Terry Orlick and John Partington conducted a study on 235 Canadian Olympic athletes who participated in the 1984 Olympic Games, seeking to find differences between those who medaled and those who didn’t.

They found that the only significant difference between the two groups was mental preparation.

This is where mindfulness meditation—Mindfulness Meditation Training for Sport (MMTS) in the sporting world—comes in. It’s a mental conditioning technique used by pro athletes to overcome their fears through meditation focused on acceptance.

Mindfulness meditation can teach your mind to accept the fear of public speaking as just that—a fear. By acknowledging this sensation, it becomes easier to detach yourself from this fear and focus on your performance instead.

The science backs this up too. One study found that just eight weeks of regular mindfulness meditation practice, whether through yoga or simply focusing on making slow breaths a few minutes each day, was enough to shrink the amygdala. This is the part of the brain that regulates the body fight-or-flight response. The findings of another study of 24 patients also show that an eight-week meditation regimen was able to reduce the blood pressure of more than half of the patients by 10 systolic (the higher value) points and 5 diastolic (the lower value) points.

Being mindful is not inherently spiritual in nature. Instead, it’s the mental practice of detaching yourself from the need to impress. Interestingly, when you also come from a space to serve your audience, then your energies will be focus on helping them instead of thinking how you may impress them.

2. Develop a Pre-game Routine

On the surface, pre-game rituals and routines can seem absurd. But for athletes, the comfort and familiarity of a routine are the keys to getting in the proper mindset before a competition.

Players in all kinds of sports follow different routines and rituals because it gives them a sense of control. For example, Michael Jordan used to wear the same set of University of North Carolina (his alma mater) shorts under his Chicago Bulls uniform because he believed it brought him good luck.

To the casual observer, it sounds like superstition.

But to Jordan, he believed in those shorts, and that’s what matters most.

And research shows that such rituals are powerful, capable of reducing anxiety before stressful tasks. In a study analyzing stress before singing in public, a ritual found to be capable of reducing the singer’s heart rate by three beats per minute (BPM) — 4 BPM and 3 BPM lower than singing without a ritual and actively trying to calm down, respectively.

That being said, what kind of pre-speech routine should you have? Here are a few basic examples you can use:

  • An hour before your speech, warm up your voice with vocal exercises.
  • Walk around the room, hall, or theatre to see what it’s like for people looking at you on stage. Make sure you know where to stand so you’re visible at all times
  • Walk around the stage to get comfortable
  • Test the microphone and sound system
  • Run through your notes one last time
  • Listen to calming music
  • Meditate quietly in an open space or your seat
  • Talk with and engage audiences who are early so you build some pre-engagement rapport with the people there


3. Be in Competition with Yourself

During the men’s 200m butterfly final at the Rio Olympics, Chad le Clos made the mistake of losing focus on his own lap, looking at Michael Phelps, who was in the lane next to his, in the middle of the race.

Phelps would go on to win his 20th gold medal that day.

The lesson here is that, while competition can be a good source of motivation, if it’s not channelled to improve yourself it’ll only cause you to lose focus of your own performance.

In his book, Drive – The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, author Daniel Pink shares research warning that extrinsic motivation, or motivation from financial reward and competition, is unsustainable. Harvard Business Review also presents a strong case against being motivated by competition, noting that for some people, it just doesn’t work.

In contrast, intrinsic motivation, which comes from a desire to do well and improve one’s self, drives long-term performance.

In other words, if you’re going to compete, the better approach may be to compete against yourself. One way to do this is by setting goals for your public speaking performance, which can include:

  • Learning to manage your emotions on the stage
  • Learn from other speakers and how they deliver speeches
  • Learn to give a memorized speech
  • Practice talking in a clear and crisp voice
  • Learn to research and talk about a topic you’re not familiar with


4. Practice Visualization Techniques

The quote, “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve,” by Napoleon Hill is perhaps the best one-sentence explanation of how visualization works.

In sports psychology, visualization, also known as guided imagery and mental rehearsal, refers to the process of creating a mental image of what you want to feel or happen in reality. Research on the subject has also shown promising results, so much so that Olympic athletes swear by it.

In one study, two groups of volunteers were monitored over a three-month period to determine the effect of mental exercises on muscle strength. One group carried out physical exercises in the gym and saw a 35 percent increase in strength. The other group performed mental exercises and increase their strength by nearly half as much (13.5 percent).

Similar results were found in a study on visualization on public speaking, with students who were asked to visualize feeling less anxious about making a speech than those who were not asked to do so.

Examples of basic visualization exercises for public speaking include:

  • Visualize positive results every day leading to your speech. Find a quiet place where you can calm your mind and meditate on a positive outcome.
  • Visit the location of your speech or presentation. This will help you know what to expect and visualize your performance more vividly.
  • Visualize your body language. Imagine yourself standing confident on stage, ready to answer questions succinctly.
  • Visualize applause and positive reception. This will help build your confidence and enthusiasm to deliver a great presentation.


Wash, Rinse, Repeat

Consistency, practice, and vision are things the world’s top athletes use to set themselves up for success on game day. Public speakers and CEOs can also use these sports psychology techniques leading up to a big public speaking event to mentally condition themselves for peak performance. If you have a strong aversion to public speaking, this will be easier said than done. But as Muhammad Ali said about training,

“I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’”

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