Former heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson once said, everyone has a plan—until they get punched in the mouth. When life is going well, it’s relatively easy to feel positive and confident. But as soon as there’s an unexpected setback or you make a mistake, negative thoughts and self-doubt start to seep in. You tense up and lose focus…and that can undermine your confidence enough to lead to a downward spiral and mediocre performance.

Bottom Line Personal spoke to performance psychologist Nate Zinsser, PhD, who, for the past 30 years, has trained US Army cadets and tactical units preparing for military deployment. His strategies to improve mental and emotional toughness can be applied to your performance on the playing field, in the office or in any aspect of your life…

Confidence Under Pressure

Nuristan province, Eastern Afghanistan. You’re circling the outpost of Bravo Troop, Third Squadron, Sixty-First Cavalry Regiment in a Black Hawk helicopter that is low on fuel. Suddenly, you come under machine-gun fire from the local Taliban. The blood is pounding in your temples—you start thinking, This is it. This is how I’m going to die.

Cadets who make it into the Military Academy at West Point typically are disciplined, intelligent individuals, but those traits aren’t enough to succeed in a combat zone when all hell breaks loose. Their survival often depends not just on what happens but also on how they perceive and respond to it, their resilience and their effectiveness at maintaining focus. Here’s how I teach cadets to regulate themselves physically and emotionally so they can build, protect and rely on their confidence when it matters most.

Preparing for Combat

Start with affirmations. A series of personal affirmations can produce energy, optimism and enthusiasm. The idea is to use these affirmations in advance of a tough situation to establish how you view yourself and bolster your confidence.

To create your affirmations: Start by thinking of at least three qualities or characteristics about yourself that you are relatively pleased with—things you’ve done well in the past and that left good memories. Think of your affirmations in the first person and present tense…and use positive, precise language. Example: NATO-service medal recipient and war veteran Dr. Alessandra Ross, who served overseas as an orthopedic surgeon for the US Army, created affirmations for many aspects of her daily life. They included, I remain calm when confronted with a difficult situation…I catch any self-criticism and instantly throw it away…I’m fully prepared for my cases with every diagnosis and treatment option…I live happily in the awareness that I control my thoughts and therefore my destiny…and I am radiant.

Recite your affirmations in your mind until they become the natural way you think about yourself. At West Point, I tell cadets to repeat their affirmations silently to themselves every time they walk through a doorway throughout the day.

Another strategy to create affirmations: The next time you are on a stationary bike or treadmill and start to feel tired or as if you can’t finish your workout, say to yourself, My breath is steady and full…or I love getting my heart rate up and my blood flowing. Once you make a habit of doing this, you will feel better throughout your workout and even may perform better simply because you are aligning your thoughts in the moment with the performance you wish to have.

Run “flat tire” drills. Getting a flat tire at night without a way to call anyone for help can be a minor glitch or a major crisis, depending on your preparation. When cadets train for military engagement, I ask them to imagine ways that things could go wrong, and then mentally rehearse how they would respond to those situations so if any of those things were to happen, they are mentally prepared to handle it. Steps to take…

Envision a potential problem, allowing yourself to experience fears and uncertainties.

After 10 seconds, cut it off by telling yourself with real conviction, Time to take control.

Now, re-envision that scene for at least 30 seconds, watching and feeling yourself respond effectively and confidently.

In the Combat Zone

Train yourself to relax on cue. Soldiers who want to become Army Rangers, part of the US military’s elite special operation forces, must attend a nine-week training camp in which they haul 120-pound rucksacks over swampy terrain and perform tactical exercises. They subsist on one or two meals a day and only three hours sleep out in the open. Under these conditions, it’s essential to employ “micro-breaks”—two-minute intervals in which they regulate and refresh themselves on demand. Micro-breaks lower their blood pressure and heart rate, optimize their oxygen ­levels and create a sense of personal control in stressful situations.

Key to micro-breaks: Breathing. First, inhale using a “down and out” motion, relaxing your abdominal muscles, feeling your belly expand outward and your lower ribs lift. Then exhale, using an “up and in” motion, tightening your abs toward your spine and shrinking your belly. Repeat the cycle comfortably three or four times. Helpful: Practice this breathing right after a vigorous gym workout or an argument with someone to see how quickly you can calm yourself.

Protect your energy at all costs. On the battlefield, soldiers think of their physical and mental energy as currency. You need to conserve it and spend it only on your biggest and most important goals. Cadets learn that if you can’t control something, let it go. Petty conflicts, complaining and negative emotions such as anger, fear and resentment offer little benefit and sap your energy.

Overpower negative thinking. In combat, soldiers can generate a lot of self-criticism and self-doubt but it’s essential to nullify that inner voice before it chips away at their confidence and distracts them. Create a competing positive voice to keep you focused on what needs to be done and builds you up. Make sure the positive voice gets the last word for the control of your mind. Steps…

Keep your internal radar up and alert to detect the arrival of any disabling thoughts. Refuse to let them wash over you and go unchallenged. Take charge of the encounter by talking back to the thoughts. Say, Okay, I hear you!

Silence the negative voice. Now, say in a determined internal tone of voice Stop! Add the visual image of a stop sign or a flashing police strobe. Keep a rubber band on your wrist, and snap it to trigger a clean break from unproductive thoughts and clear the path for more effective thinking.

Replace the negative voice with a strong motivational directive to yourself. Some West Point cadets like to say, Refocus and go! silently to themselves. You also can use your positive affirmations. Example: Lieutenant Colonel Stoney Portis, who commanded Bravo Troop, Third Squadron, of the Sixty-First Cavalry Regiment in Afghanistan and won a Bronze Star, would tell himself, I am the leader. I make decisions when it counts.

Cordon off mistakes. In basic training, a cadet who struggles to don his gas mask and suffers some rough moments in the tear-gas chamber can’t allow that slip to mentally fester. Otherwise, he diminishes his ability to act with conviction. When bad or unexpected developments occur, reframe them in a way that maintains your positivity and allows you to move forward constructively. Steps…

Think of the setback as temporary. Acknowledge it, but treat it as if it happened only that one time and is unlikely to reoccur.

Limit the scope of the mistake. Messing up how you put on your gas mask won’t affect how you will perform at the firing range.

Consider the mistake as nonrepresentative of who you are. Fumbling with your gas mask doesn’t mean you are incompetent or define how much you are capable of. Tell yourself, I know I am better than that. It’s not how I do things.

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