Performing At Your Best In Critical Moments

This past week I had the opportunity to co-facilitate a session for Laid Off Calgary, a support group for people who have lost their jobs in the recent economic downturn in Calgary.  It is an awesome group, and is led by the equally awesome Bianca Sinclair.  What strikes me when I am on their group Facebook page and when I met with them directly was the overwhelming weight that comes with being unemployed for long periods of time and when the economic environment is such that changing that state of being has longer than normal odds.

During my session with the group, there were a number of discussions where we faced this state, with themes such as:

  • It’s not us, it’s them – what if we’re doing our best already, and the people doing the hiring don’t get what we have to offer?  For some, a sense of being a victim of these circumstances is hard to avoid.
  • It’s hard competing with all of these people – there are so many people out of work that the odds of success are really long.  It makes it hard to show up relaxed and confident in an interview under that pressure.
  • I’m past the point of expecting success – earlier on in this process we were buoyed by hope that the next job was just around the corner.  Now we’re well down the slope from that peak of optimism and it’s hard to get back to expecting to succeed in our search.

Our session together had the same title as this post.  It focused on performing at our best, hoping to give ourselves that critical edge to get to the top of the interviewers’ list. It culminated with techniques used by top-performing athletes to succeed when it matters. We talked about a five step process for leading ourselves to key successes in critical moments.  Credit for this process goes to Kent Osborne, author of Evocative Leadership: the Art of Coaching Competent People.

1. Become Centered (Present)

Centering is another word for being present and this is a critical first step in being able to perform at peak levels.  Worrying about what we should have done differently in the past, or what might get in our way in the future isn’t helpful to performing at our best now.  As one gets set to head into an important event having access to a technique that allows us to shut down the demands of past and future for our attention is important.  If you don’t already have a “go to” technique, the one I shared with the group is known as “seeking the still point”.

It goes like this: in a quiet space where you won’t be interrupted sit squarely on a chair with your feet on the floor.  Concentrate on breathing normally and be aware of your breath entering and leaving your body.  When your focus is entirely on your breathing, we seek the still point.  Concentrate on your exhaled breath and identify the short pause between when you stop exhaling and begin inhaling.  When you can do this five breaths in a row, you are likely as present as you are going to get.

Notice how you feel.  Is it quieter in your head?  How calm are you?  Are you ready to focus?

2. Relax Physically

Centered is part one of preparation for great performances.  Next comes feeling physically loose and supple.  In hockey there is an expression when players aren’t performing at their best:  they are gripping their sticks too tightly.  This can be an apt metaphor even if our challenge isn’t physical.  When we’re tense, we may still hold on to less positive emotions like anxiety or fear.

There are two ways I suggest to to release our physical tension.  One is to stand up and stretch and shake it out.  I like this option as motion is an easy way to change our state.  Unfortunately this isn’t always possible.  Imagine being in the lobby of a prospective employer and stretching and shaking our limbs … probably not what we want to be seen doing!  Another technique is to continue on from our breathing exercise and scan our body for tension.  Start at the top of your head and move down through your face to your neck and shoulders. Then check your arms, your chest and your abdomen.  Move down to your legs. It is often good to do this more than once: as we release large muscle tension we may find other smaller groups that need some attention.

3. Use Your Personal Power

Fully prepared, we can now focus on our “super powers” that allow us to succeed.  We all have  them – our problem is that we’ve been taught to focus on what we can do better, not what we’re already great at.  We’re also good at holding ourselves back, because performing at a very high level can feel like taking a risk. Listen for internal voices that tell you things like: “Who are you fooling? That doesn’t sound safe! Why do you think you deserve this job?”  We can quiet this internal chatter by knowing what we are great at.  We need to be able to confidently express to ourselves a short list of “I AM” statements that crisply capture what makes us great.

We do this over time by simply writing them down.  We write everything that comes to us:

  • I am a listener
  • I am analytical
  • I am energetic
  • I am sensitive to others
  • I am a facilitator
  • I am …

Before you are done this list should have at least 15 thoughts.  Now sit with those thoughts and distill them down to power words like “I am a dynamic listener” and “I facilitate progress for others”.  When we have these sentences we can then access them in our centered state and know we have what it takes to succeed.  Repeat your “super powers” to yourself several times.  Out loud is best but it isn’t always possible – but at least say them with your inside voice. And make sure you believe them.

4. Relive Your Best Moments

While being centered releases us from the noise of the past, accessing our past successes in similar situations is important to know that we will succeed in the future.  For those entering a job interview, it would be important to sit and think about their best interviews of the past. Focus on the things you did well and the way you felt in those moments of success, especially how your power statements helped you.  Feel like you are there again and create that same approach as you enter the interview. How to do that comes next.

5. Imagine Future Success

So as close as possible before the interview, we enter into a visualization. We use all the information we’ve gathered from our research on the company and the interviewer and we imagine the ending of the interview having gone as well as it could have (and perhaps even a little bit better than that).  We see the interviewer sitting in front of us and every nuance of their face, what they are wearing, etc.  We hear the background sounds. We take in the room we are in.  We sense our own physical and emotional state and notice that we are feeling fantastic on both counts.  We hear the interviewer tell us that they are very impressed … you get the picture.  It’s awesome!

We then reflect on what one or two things we did before and during that interview that allowed us to perform at such a peak level.  We focus on the details of what we did so we can do this same thing again.  When we know these things clearly we step directly back to the present and we ask ourselves “what’s the first thing I am going to do to set myself on this path to success?”
Following this approach doesn’t guarantee success, but I can state with confidence that it will improve your odds.  Entering any situation knowing you can succeed shows in the way you carry yourself and will give you a competitive advantage.  The average NHL hockey player scores on 9% of their shots.  The best players are at 15%.  So we don’t win all of the time, but we can certainly raise our odds above the pack.  Like the picture above, we can either see all of the things that get in the way or the open corner of the net we are going to shoot the puck in.

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Ian Munro @

Ian Munro is a leadership and vitality coach with a primary passion for working with senior professionals who wish to improve their connection to and vitality in their career, or who wish to make a transition to a meaningful and rewarding retirement. His methods are focused on helping clients understand why they present as they do in day-to-day life, discover their authentic self and give themselves permission to build a meaningful and rewarding future, both professional and personal. Ian’s love for this work has developed naturally as he built his career as an executive and leader in the IT services industry, serving in many roles and facets of this industry over 25 years. As he reached the pinnacle of his career he began to search more deeply for meaning and alternate rewards from his own career and to begin to plan for his own “first retirement”.

4 thoughts on “Performing At Your Best In Critical Moments

  1. Great process steps Ian — I didn’t realize that about hockey players. Good stat to know and remember! These processes would also work really well before giving a presentation, speech anything in front of a crowd.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. Really great post, Ian. I’ve shared with several others who I thought would appreciate your ideas. I thought you might be interested in a recent post by an IBM colleague and I about mindfulness and interviews…

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