Part Three - Unleashing Optimal Performance
In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari points out various remnants of an earlier time that we still carry with us today. We still have the same anxieties and ambitions that we possessed as hunter-gatherers when we were not yet at the top of the food chain. The domestication of fire was an important first step, as that helped us fend off predators and cook food, allowing us to safely ingest more calories than we had previously. Today, we still find comfort in a roaring blaze in the fireplace, even though we have a perfectly capable furnace. Even our tendency for gorging on high-calories, low-nutrient sweets can be traced back to a time when we ate entire trees of ripe fruits when they were available. Even though the food is still readily available for many people, this intrinsic competition for resources drives much of our behavior.
The only reason you have anything in your physiology is for survival. When you’re in danger, you don’t have time for abstract thinking - you need brain shut down. Your thinking has to become binary. So you either have fight-flight-or play dead. Two choices. You either just drop to the ground and faint, or you’re prepared to slug it out or run. Anything more sophisticated than that is unnecessary. You’ll be lion food.
We tend to be aware of the fight or flight response because I think we imagine that in a life or death situation we’ll either fight to the death or get away safely. However, at least 75% of people caught in a catastrophe freeze or wander around in a daze. They can’t think. They can’t act correctly. It’s been called “do-nothing sickness.” It’s an understandable response. If you were out on the prairie and a sabre tooth tiger was sniffing around, the worst thing you could do is move.
During the early stages of every National Football League broadcast, the viewer will see a group of players on the sideline in a circle, going through a pep talk (typically from the quarterback), which also can include dancing, slapping each other’s helmets, and a lot of screaming. This ritual is universal among teams and is meant to prepare the players for an upcoming violent battle that will put their physical and mental wills to the test. Ostensibly, the reason for this preparatory is to increase energy and intensity so they may play at their highest level and win the game. Soon after, the kickoff happens, and one of these “hyped up” players commits a penalty, typically of aggression, and is called to the sideline to be admonished by the coach. At this point, the coach may tell the player to “calm down and get their head in the game.” They need to play smarter than that.
This kind of scene plays out in most sports and can involve different procedures that serve to prepare the player for the intensity of the game to come. Some may sit in the corner of the locker room with their headphones on, some may consume copious amount of caffeine (or other “performance enhancers”), while others engage in repeating positive mantras that serve to reinforce imagery that will put them in the right state of mind to perform. Yet, most of the time, none of these techniques help very much. You’ll hear athletes talk about methods for getting rid of the “butterflies” in their stomach, which in no small part, they helped to create. They, unwittingly, have induced panic in their system and all kinds of destructive chemicals and hormones flood their system, which ultimately impairs performance.
Training ourselves to behave correctly in the right conditions is critical to success. Any system is an aggregate, rather than isolated, individual parts acting independently. Unfortunately, we’re no better off in the business world. In response to the pressure cooker that is the work environment, underpinned by looming deadlines, financial problems, traffic, competition, and conflicts, we tend to employ similar tactics as on the playing field. Before the big presentation, we put on our uniform and chant to ourselves “I’m a great salesperson” after consuming three cups of coffee and two donuts. We walk into the prospect’s office, wide-eyed, ready to go, and promptly forget everything we prepared to say.
According to Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Dave Grossman, in the book On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace, during World War II 25% of ALL U.S. soldiers admitted to peeing in their pants. 12.5% admitted to pooping their pants. Similar surveys among SWAT and police officers find that this loss oh physiological control is more common than expected. In extreme, life-or-death situations, we can learn some important lessons. When under stress, the most important thing you can do is find something you can get conscious control over, even when you are in a chaotic environment. Tactical breathing is a technique to control your self-regulated sympathetic (Fight, Flight, Freeze) response. The only two responses of the nervous system that you can control are your breathing rate and blinking of the eyes. During their training, Special Ops personnel have to demonstrate tactical breathing by intentionally slowing their heart rate from a stress-induced high to an average resting rate within a few minutes. Why do they do this?
Electrically speaking the heart generates thousands of times more electrical output than the brain. If you want to record somebody’s brain waves, you have to mathematically remove the heartbeat since it is so much larger. If you start to control the rhythm of your breath that will start to change the physiology and you’ll start to become more coherent. When you change that pattern, you’re sending better quality fuel from the heart to the brain, and the entire physiological system will work better. And when the brain works better, you’re more perceptive, you’re more insightful, you’re more clear-thinking, you can understand how to problem-solve. In business, we’re so focused on psychology and tactics that we tend to ignore the fundamental basics of getting into a coherent state.
The setting in which a pilot is more likely to enter an incapacitating condition is after a bailout and because of the lack of familiarity with that stress situation, you are at risk of losing control of your physiologic response in that situation. To counter these unpredictable circumstances, pilots use tactical breathing to reassert control over overwhelming physiological response.
Although the actual ideal frequency and duration of the breaths require further research, Dave Grossman teaches a 4x4x4 technique.
- Breath in through the nose for a slow 4-count.
- Hold breath for a slow 4-count.
- Breath out through the mouth for a slow 4-count.
- Hold breath for a slow 4-count.
- Repeat cycle 4 times.
We just think things…but how often do we think about why we think what we think? As we learn to control our physiological and emotional state, we can begin to create better outcomes for ourselves, our communities, our businesses, and our families. Creating a positive, passionate, winning attitude doesn’t guarantee success, but a negative one almost always leads to failure and ensures you will not adapt to challenges and obstacles.