What to Do When It All Falls Apart

I was watching a college basketball game the other night, and the team I was rooting for played well for 38 out of 40 minutes. Then in the last 2 minutes, everything they had been doing right seemed to abandon them. They made wild passes, took bad shots, and generally fell apart. When it came down to the wire, they reverted back to old habits and patterns that didn’t serve them or the team well.

I’ve been noticing that tendency in other places, too. In a tough competition, form and technique that an athlete has been working on for years can fall apart. When a speaker realizes everyone is looking at them, they often abandon the good habits they’ve practiced and start talking faster and more quietly. 

There are a couple of reasons this happens. In the case of the basketball team, I suspect that the pressure of the moment and the need to win made them get in their heads. Instead of doing what had worked for the whole game, staying loose and staying connected to each other, the individual team members started playing like individuals. 

For the speaker, the feeling of vulnerability in front of the crowd is new. She hasn’t felt that when she practiced, and her reaction is to get smaller and get it over with. 

The paradox in each case is that the behaviors they reach for in the feeling of crisis is exactly what will not help them prevail. The point guard who decides that the outcome of the game is on his shoulders alone starts throwing up bad shots instead of finding an open teammate. The speaker who shrinks from her audience hides her message from them.

When it feels like everything is falling apart, that’s the time to rely on what you did in practice. That is what practice is for. Practice is what carries you through the moments when the voice in your head is yelling at you, terrified. Turn down the volume on that voice, and lean into what you practiced when everything was a little calmer. That was when you made good decisions. That was when you set yourself up for success. 

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