How do you prepare for those big moments of anxiety and stress? What would help you be your best in the most crucial moments? In sports they refer to this as being in the clutch. Someone needs to be the go-to person at the critical moments when everything is at stake. Many professionals can perform in normal situations, but can you when it matters most? In baseball, it is the person who comes to the plate at the bottom of the ninth inning. In basketball, with seconds left in the 4th quarter and your team down by two points, it is the person you want to have the ball. Is that you? How can you build that reputation? It’s your life. Having confidence in defining moments is what matters.
I still remember standing on third base in our high school’s district championship baseball game. We were down by one run. I was just a pinch runner, but any mistakes could cost us the game. There was a wild pitch and it went past the catcher. It was the perfect opportunity. I could have stolen home base and tied up the game, but I didn’t have the confidence. I played it safe. I knew I did not want the responsibility. I was nervous. I played it safe, and we lost the game. I have never forgotten that moment. Ouch.
In my life I had never been the go-to person. No one passed the ball to me in crucial situations, nor did I want them to. I simply did not have the confidence. I wished I had it though. Many of us want to be the hero, that person everyone looks up to or counts on. The big question is, how can you become that person?
A reputation is developed over time with consistency. Before you get consistency, you have to experience that inciting incident that gets noticed and instills your belief in yourself. How can you prepare for an opportunity like that?
August 25, 2001. Having won five levels in a speech contest, I was about to compete against eight of the best speakers in the world. Speaking under severe pressure without being prepared is almost impossible. Not having the mindset of a champion when you take the stage is equally, if not more, detrimental.
I looked back at past successes when I had felt that same pressure at the beginning of my stand-up comedy career. When I had no confidence, no presence, no talent, and no business being on stage, how did I go up there when every fiber of my body was screaming, “Don’t do it”? One strategy that worked was listening to three songs outside the comedy clubs before I walked in.
That helped then, so why not now? I was going to be under the most intense pressure of my life even though I was no longer the scared kid who had no business on a comedy club stage. Now, I was a telemarketer, a professional speaker wannabe about to speak in front of 2,000 people and competing against 8 of the best speakers in the world. I’m so thankful that I had made a commitment not to have any regrets along the way.
Dan Rex, one of the Toastmasters International executives at the time, put on my lapel mic, smiled, winked, gave me some encouragement, and sent me to the on-deck circle. I was standing on the back stage behind one of the enormous IMAG screens. Larry Lands, contestant number four, was giving his speech and getting huge laughs. Then I remembered that I had a note in my pocket. The two-hour before the contest Darren had written a note for the five-minute before the contest Darren. It was in my pocket. Anxious and tense, I pulled out my note to self and read, “Remember to have fun.”
When I read it, my entire body changed. It felt as if I had just shed three layers of stress. I stood a bit taller and smiled. It was a revelation that I had learned from my other coach, Dave McIlhenny. He told me that I tend to get too serious. I needed to remember to have fun when I was speaking. That was gold.
I also remembered my early days of standup comedy, sitting in my old, brown, 1976 VW Rabbit in a parking lot outside the comedy club trying to work up the courage to walk in. I used to listen to the song “Right Now” by Van Halen before walking into a comedy club. The principle I learned back then was to use music to drown out the voice of doubt. I now had three different songs in mind for the World Championship. The first was “Simply the Best” by Tina Turner. Not to be the best speaker, but, as I had learned from Mark Brown, to remind me to best serve the audience. “You Better Be Good to Me” by Tina Turner was my second song. I pretended the audience was singing it to me, reminding me why I was there. I was there for them. It was a privilege. My third song was the ultimate guy song, the tabernacle of testosterone, the theme from Rocky. How do you think I felt when I had finished listening?
I walked on stage as confident as humanly possible for me under those circumstances. Let’s do this. If you watch the recording you’ll see that when I walked off, I could not help myself. I did a big fist pump. To some it might have looked arrogant. The truth was I had no idea if I had won. I had no control over the competition, but I had lots of control over myself. I had two amazing coaches, and I had done everything I needed to. I knew as I walked off stage that I had given the speech I came to give under the pressure of the World Championship. Nailed it. I served the audience with my absolute best. The rest was up to God and the judges. I felt like I had done my part. I prepared like a champion, listened to my three songs, and asked myself a single question.
What did I take from this experience?
Know yourself and help yourself. I knew I was often too serious and having fun in this moment mattered. So I reminded myself. What do you need to remind yourself about?
Use the regrets of your past to motivate you. Your big moment will come, maybe when you least expect it. Will you be ready? Will you wish you had done more to prepare or be thankful that you had committed to preparing like a champion? That is the moment when either doubt or confidence is multiplied.
What are the songs on your power playlist? Why those songs?
Don’t have a power playlist? Make one, right now.
What do you take from this?
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