New Orleans Saints fans were instructed to make some noise whenever the visiting Los Angeles Rams had possession in the NFC championship game. They did and it worked--until Greg "The Leg" Zuerlein took the field.
How Zuerlein maintains his focus and keeps his cool when tens of thousands of fans are screaming at him to fail offers a lesson in peak performance--in sports or in business. Whether you're making a pitch that could propel your business or interviewing for your dream job, these mental habits are critical.
With seconds to spare in the NFC championship on Sunday, Zuerlein made a 48-yard field goal to tie the game and send it to overtime. He then made NFL history by kicking a 57-yard field goal in overtime, the longest game-winning kick ever made in a postseason game. The Rams will face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.
Although Zuerlein seems to be a man of few words, the words he has spoken speak volumes about his approach to the mental game.
Don't Overthink It
After the Los Angeles Rams won the game, a reporter asked Zuerlein, "What was going through your mind?"
"I really wasn't thinking much," Zuerlein said.
Peak performance psychologists say that's exactly the right thing to do. In Choke, Dr. Sain Beilock of the Human Performance Lab at the University of Chicago writes, "Holding on to thoughts and worries under stress leads to an inability to perform the tasks you are faced with."
In a 2017 interview with his old high school's newspaper, Zuerlein explained exactly how far he thinks ahead--which isn't very far at all. "I just want to make my next kick," he said. "That's all I can ever do. So that's my goal: to make that one."
He's able to stay positive and in the present because his mind isn't filled with what psychologists call "Pink Elephants." If you tell yourself not to think of pink elephants, it's exactly what you'll see.
Great field goal kickers don't approach the ball with a head full of pink elephants such as: Thousands of people are watching. If I miss, we'll lose the game. I'll let down my teammates, fans will hate me, and I'll lose my job. Those kinds of thoughts would make even the best players crumble.
Now, think about how you approach pitches, interviews, or presentations when the pressure is on. According to Beilock and others, if you think about messing up, you're more likely to do so.
When Zuerlein was a rookie in 2012, Yahoo Sports asked him about the secret to his kicking performance. The reporter was expecting a dissertation on physics, angles, and trajectories. Instead, this was all he got from Zuerlein: "It's not too complicated a thing. You try not to overthink it."
Trust Your Practice
"It's definitely a very, very mental game," Zuerlein told his old high school newspaper about field-goal kicking. "Hundreds of thousands of times, I've taken my same steps back, over and over. When I'm out there, it's not really nerve-wracking at all. It's more calming because I've done it and it feels familiar."
In The Pressure Principle, famed sports psychologist Dr. Dave Alred writes that performance anxiety produces tension in the body and creates all sorts of emotional distractions, whether it's playing in a championship game or giving a presentation to a group of investors. If you've already performed the task many, many times, you'll have more confidence when it's time to step up.
Champions put in hours and hours of deliberate practice. You need to put yourself in a big-game situation. If you have a presentation, stand up, deliver it in a voice that you'd use in an auditorium, and rehearse the entire presentation again and again.
Better yet, perform in front of an audience, even it's just a few of your friends or peers. "Never underestimate the power of effective, deliberate, and enjoyable practice," writes Alred.
Follow these two mind hacks to raise your game when you need it the most. The less you have to remember and the more practice, the easier it will be to perform under pressure.