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3 ways thinking like an athlete will improve your communication skills

We’re all experts at communicating to some degree, yet when the pressure is on, we can overthink this very natural, practiced skill and end up with what feels like an out-of-body experience.

3 ways thinking like an athlete will improve your communication skills
[Photo: alexemanuel/iStock]

Simone Biles has been at the forefront of the Olympic headlines. After learning about the “twisties” or the “yips” in sports, I could not believe the comparison to communication skills. In sports, “An athlete may try to compensate for increased physiological or cognitive stress or a lack of confidence by trying to consciously control movements that were previously automatic,” according to LiveScience.

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Communication clients I work with regularly report similar experiences when they are presenting.  Even seasoned speakers will take a hit to their confidence after over-thinking a presentation and then feeling like they bombed.

We are all experts at speaking to some degree. We spend a lot of time every day communicating with colleagues, family, and friends. But when the pressure is on, we can overthink this very natural, practiced skill and end up with what feels like an out-of-body experience.

If you regularly experience the speaking “twisties,” or just get caught off guard occasionally—particularly now as we move back into talking to people IRL again—here are three techniques to prevent the “yips” when you yap.

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Rehearse your behaviors

Sports psychologist Kelli Moran Miller recommends athletes replicate the stressful aspects of competition during practice. This allows the stakes to seem more familiar when it is time to compete.

I use a similar technique with my communication clients which I call: The First 10 Seconds.

The first ten seconds of any presentation are essential to establishing credibility.  It is also usually the most nerve-wracking ten seconds of the presentation for the speaker.

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For the exercise, I have each participant walk to the podium, wait five seconds, then say their name, their title, and that they are glad to be here with all of us. Sounds easy enough, right? It never is.

From the perspective of the speaker, those five seconds of silence can be excruciatingly vulnerable. From the perspective of the audience, those five seconds of silence command focus and exude confidence.

By rehearsing The First 10 Seconds before your next presentation, you can train your mind and body to relax. Now those first moments can ease you into your presentation instead of contributing to your anxiety.

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Rehearse your thoughts

Mental imagery is an essential tool for athletes. They picture their stance. They imagine throwing the perfect pitch. They see the goal line. By using these tools of imagery, they better prepare for a performance or a competition when the pressure is on. It may sound a bit fantastic, but studies have shown that these types of visualizations are effective. This is another tool you can steal from athletes to apply to public speaking.

Prior to giving an important presentation, spend time imagining the event as a success. Begin simply by visualizing walking to the stage (or wherever you’ll be talking). Imagine the feeling of both feet on the floor and either the space in front of you. In your mind, see the room and the space. See yourself being relaxed, authentic, and engaging. Speaking in public is a skill—and while it may sound counterintuitive, you can rehearse this in your mind to help execute these skills when the pressure is on, and your performance matters the most.

Rehearse your breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing is an absolute game-changer. Athletes use it to improve performance by reducing anxiety. You can use it to become a better communicator.  This “tummy breathing” will allow you to stay focused and in the moment.

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Diaphragmatic breathing is the natural way to breathe. The easiest way to remind yourself how to diaphragmatically breathe is to place your hand on your stomach when you are lying down. Notice your breath falls into your stomach and fills it like a balloon. Remember this sensation when you are upright.

Start practicing this now. When you are listening to other people, notice how you are breathing. When you are speaking notice how you are breathing. By letting ‘tummy breathing’ become a habit you will have another tool to reduce stress when you feel the “twisties” or “yips” take hold.

By developing these habits of rehearsing your behavior, thoughts, and breathing you have a better chance at “sticking your landing” while you’re communicating and get the results you want.

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Vanessa Wasche is the owner and founder of On Point Speaking.


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