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Michael Phelps, Michael Jordan, Steph Curry, and other champs tell you how to handle the heat
Some athletes have the steely nerves of a Quentin Tarantino-scripted assassin.
What separates the prime-time players from the choke artists? Here, five champs explain how they kept their emotions in check when the lights shone brightest.
REHEARSE EVERY POSSIBLE SITUATION
U.S. Swimmer, 23 Olympic Gold Medals
The world’s most decorated Olympian and owner of the scowl that launched a thousand memes, Phelps is also one of the most mentally prepared athletes in history.
To stay calm, he visualises both good and bad outcomes—imagining what could go wrong and how to fix it.
“He’s the best I’ve ever seen and maybe the best ever in terms of visualisation,” his coach, Bob Bowman, told the Washington Post.
Over and over before a race, Phelps rehearses what he’d do if something goes wrong.
“If my suit ripped or if my goggles broke, you know, what would I do?” Phelps says.
Bowman elaborates: “He has all of this in his database, so that when he swims the race he’s already programmed his nervous system to do one of those. And he’ll just pick the one that happens to come up. If everything’s perfect, he’ll just go with the perfect one. If he has to make a change, he’s got it in there.”
Rather than focus only on the perfect scenario—or the perfectly awful one—Phelps imagines every situation so nothing can catch him off guard.
NEVER, EVER THINK ABOUT WHAT’S AT STAKE
Shooting Guard, Six-Time NBA Champion
The first time Michael Jordan reached the NBA Finals, his nerves got the better of him.
“We came into the first game as nervous as can be, and we lost the first game,” said his coach, Phil Jackson, of the 1991 Finals.
Jackson told ESPN that Jordan had allowed his adrenalin and the pressure he felt to exhaust him. Jordan drove into double and triple-teams and failed to pass the ball to open players.
But a simple question from Jackson—“Who’s open?”— prompted Jordan to revert to the routines the Bulls had relied on to make it to the Finals.
Jordan started sharing the ball and took the game moment-by-moment.
“I would tell players to relax and never think about what’s at stake,” Jordan said. “If you start to think about who is going to win the championship, you’ve lost your focus.”
His team went on to win the 1991 NBA Finals—their first of six titles spread throughout the ’90s.
PRETEND IT’S JUST A PRACTICE ROUND
Guard, Golden State Warriors
Two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry dazzles fans with his long-range threes and dizzying ball handling. His pre-game ritual of taking jump shots from half court and from the tunnel to the locker rooms brings fans to Warriors’ games hours early.
Before his first trip to the NBA Finals, Curry relied on that pre-game routine to relax.
“You’ve got to approach it like normal,” he said to the press in a YouTube video. “The routine that you set up all season long—you’ve got to rely on that.
The routine Curry relies on involves taking more than 2,000 shots every week. He takes at least 250 shots per day, plus another 100 before the game, according to the Washington Post.
Curry said: “I don’t know what I’ll feel when I walk in the arena. There’s no preparing yourself for that. But, I’m going to have the same routine from the time I shoot around to the time I go home to the time I go to the game, and that should hopefully be able to calm myself down. And once the game starts, your preparation should take over and you’ll be ready to go.”
FOCUS ON ONE PLAY AT A TIME
Quarterback, 2010 BCS National Championship Game
When Alabama Quarterback Greg McElroy stepped to the line of scrimmage for the first play of the biggest game of his life, he’d had 5 weeks to freak himself out about the enormity of that moment.
“You end the [regular] season around Thanksgiving and then you don’t play until the new year—that’s a long time to sit and think about the game,” McElroy says. “You can imagine a lot of scenarios and psych yourself out.”
How did he steady his nerves while staring down the University of Texas defense? When the game wasn’t going his way, McElroy tried to focus on each play rather than on how the game was going.
“Every play is a new beginning and has nothing to do with the last play,” he says. “If I did something boneheaded or brilliant, [each new play] was still a chance to start over.”
By focusing only on what he could do in the moment—not what had already happened, or what he had to accomplish over the coming hours—he kept his nerve and helped his team to a 37-21 win.
ASK YOURSELF: WHY NOT ME?
Olympic Fencer, 2008 Silver Medalist, Two-Time U.S. National Champion
At the 2012 London Olympics, Morehouse faced the second-ranked sabre fencer in the world. Just before the match began, he saw his opponent’s hand shaking.
“I was immediately calm when I saw that,” Morehouse says. “Here’s a guy, on paper, who should beat me, but his mental game wasn’t there.”
Reminding yourself that your opponent is probably more freaked out than you are is a good way to calm yourself down.
Even though his team medaled in 2008, Morehouse is equally proud of his non-medal 2012 effort. He reached the quarterfinals by defeating two tough opponents—a Russian and a Belarusian who were both ranked higher than he was.
“I just looked at my opponent and said, ‘Why shouldn’t I be the guy who wins the gold?’” he recalls. “Just asking that question made me feel like I could beat anybody.”