Think Like a Champion
An unpublished excerpt from Chapter 4, “Engage,” of THE UPSIDE OF STRESS by Kelly McGonigal
Growing up in West Bromwich, England, Martin Turner played on a football team that didn't win a single match in five seasons. Sadly, this record tanked Turner’s dream of becoming a professional footballer. However, it did prepare him well for his current career as a sport psychologist. As he puts it, “It taught me a lot about mental toughness.”
Turner, who now runs a research lab at Staffordshire University, works with professional footballers, cyclists, equestrians, archers, and rugby [BK1] players. He specializes in helping athletes train their minds. More precisely: he teaches them how to transform the kind of stress response that makes athletes choke into the kind of stress response that helps champions win. Just like Jeremy Jamieson—who works his mindset magic on student’s math anxiety—Turner knows how to turn a threat response into a challenge response.
I asked Turner to tell me how he helps athletes channel their stress. He gave me a recent example that demonstrates not just how he trains champions, but how any person can better prepare for a high-stakes situation.
This particular athlete —we’ll call him Neil—was coming back to the national futsal team after a serious injury. (Futsal is variation of football, played with a smaller ball and on a hard court instead of a field.) Even though Neil’s injury had healed, he was afraid he would not be able to perform to his previous level. The first game back was his chance to prove that he still had it.
The only problem was, Neil wasn’t sure he did. He worried that he would choke in his first game, and confirm to himself, his coach, and everybody else that his best days were over. He also was afraid of reinjuring himself, and this fear was keeping him from taking risks on the court. Playing it too safe would hurt his team and destroy his dream of making a full comeback.
Instead of taking Neil to the futsal court to face his fears, Turner took him to his psychophysiology laboratory. He hooked Neil up to a machine that measures heart rate, blood pressure, and cardiac output. Turner gave Neil a few minutes to relax, then asked him to think about his first game back. Neil’s heart rate soared and his blood pressure spiked. He was having a classic threat response.
Why was Turner interested in Neil’s off-court stress response? Because his research shows that the stress response you have when thinking about an event predicts how well you’ll perform. This is true not just for sports, but also other high-pressure performances like exams and public speaking. If you have a threat response while thinking about an event, you’re more likely to freeze under the pressure. If you have a challenge response, you’re more likely to excel. Moreover, Turner has shown that if you train yourself to have a challenge response during your mental preparation, you do better when the stakes are real.
Consider what this means. What was the last high-stakes event you worried about? If you’re like me, the time you spent thinking about it vastly exceeded the duration of the actual event. And yet you probably never considered that all that worrying, planning, or imagining, was setting the course for your real performance. And yet according to Turner, what your body does during these mental rehearsals can determine your success.
Neil’s threat response in Turner’s office predicted a disappointing first game back. But Turner knew that if he could transform Neil’s stress response when thinking about the game, he could help make sure Neil had a challenge response on the big day.
Turner’s favorite tool for training a challenge response is a very specific form of mental imagery: He asks athletes to imagine their opening moves. As they settled into their first coaching session, Turner asked Neil to imagine himself stepping on to the futsal court. Forget the rest of the game and focus on the first moment. If Neil were feeling confident, what would his body language be like? Where would his attention be? In response, Neil imagined himself striding on to the court. His shoulders were pinned back and his chin level. He looked out at spectators and senses the support of his teammates. Behind Turner’s simple instructions was a goal: for Neil to imagine the event in a way that inspired a sense of control and confidence. Turner then asked Neil to imagine taking his place at kickoff, in a centered and grounded posture. As Neil did so, Turner continued to monitor Neil’s cardiovascular response. Already his stress response was shifting from threat to challenge.
The next step: Shift Neil’s attention from what he was afraid of (“I don’t want to get hurt” and “I don’t want to disappoint my coach”) to what he wanted to accomplish. Turner's work makes clear that avoidance goals prime the body and brain for a threat response, while approach goals prime a challenge response. That makes focusing on what you want to do, and not what you want to avoid, a key mindset reset.
When Turner asked Neil what he wanted to do in that first game back. Neil said he wanted to be able to take risks on the court. What, Turner prodded, would that look like?
Neil came up with three concrete, physical goals, and added them to his visualization. He imagined himself making an assertive tackle, a pass forward, and a run in to space. Under Turner’s guidance, he brought in all of his senses, trying to make the imagery feel as real as possible. He imagined what he would see, hear, and even smell. He imagined the feel of his foot on the ball, and the sensation of running down the court. Even the sting of sweat in his eyes.
Importantly, Turner had Neil focus his imagery on these actions, not outcomes he couldn’t control. They didn’t spend time imagining the team winning, or his coach congratulating him on a great first game back. This choice was strategic. The kind of imagery that transforms fear is not wishful thinking. It’s about seeing yourself, and sensing yourself, engaging with the challenge.
Fantasizing about success may feel good, but it doesn’t build resources. The visualization Turner created for Neil was more of a rehearsal. Psychologists call this kind of imagery a future memory. To the brain, it’s as real as a lived experience. Future memories inspire confidence as much as actually going through a stressful experience. When you finally do find yourself in a situation that matches the mental rehearsal, the body and brain think: I recognize this. I know this. I’m ready to rise to the challenge.
Turner and Neil refined and practiced this mental imagery until Neil had a consistent cardiovascular challenge response whenever he thought about his first game back. Every time Neil imagined himself making those opening moves, he was building his resilience.
On game day, Neil took a few moments in the locker room to go through the visualization. Then he stepped on to the court, exactly as he had imagined it. Right before kickoff, he brought his action goals to mind: tackle, pass, and run. The training paid off. Neil took risks, challenging for the ball instead of holding back. He played so well that his coach gave him extra time on the court. His team won, six goals to three. As great as the win felt, the best part for Neil was the confidence he felt on the court.
Transform Stress: Imagine Your Opening Moves
You can borrow Turner’s approach for preparing for your own challenges. In fact, Turner has taken his sports psychology strategies to other high-pressure environments. He’s taught students how to prepare for exams, executives how to prepare for talks, and technology workers how to prepare for job interviews. As with athletes, he always focuses on the opening moves.
If there is an upcoming event that you are anxious about, create a visualization that inspires confidence:
1. Visualize the situation. Where will you be, and what will it be like? Bring in as many senses as possible. What will you see, hear, and smell? If anxiety comes up, include it in your imagery, rather than trying to suppress it. Imagine yourself welcoming the anxiety as energy.
2. Visualize your approach. How would you like to enter the experience? What will your posture or body language be like? Where will your attention be?
3. Visualize yourself in action. What is one thing you want to be sure to do? What will it feel like to do it? Choose something you can control, and something you can do early on. Turner has students imagine writing their names on the exams. Hardly a guarantee of success, but completely predictable and under their control. When they find themselves writing their names, it will kick in their bodies’ memory of meeting the exam stress with a challenge response.
The key to a powerful visualization is to make those opening moments feel as real as possible. Each time you imagine yourself approaching the stressful situation with confidence, you teach your brain and body that this is a situation you can handle.
If you’re worried that something will go wrong on “game day” that deviates from your visualization, build a surprise into the visualization. For example, I might imagine my technology failing right before a big talk—and how I could handle it with humor and resourcefulness. Even if the details of a surprise differ, you’ll face it with a sense of recognition and confidence.
Unpublished excerpt from Chapter 4, “Engage,” of THE UPSIDE OF STRESS. For more information about Martin Turner’s work, check out http://thesmarterthinkingproject.com/ or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/drmjturner.
The Upside of Stress
The best-selling author of The Willpower Instinct delivers a controversial and groundbreaking new book that overturns long-held beliefs about stress.
While most of us do everything we can to reduce or avoid stress, Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD, delivers a startling message: Stress isn’t all bad. New research shows that stress can make us stronger, smarter, and happier—if we learn how to embrace it.
Through science and stories, McGonigal teaches us how life's challenges can be a catalyst for positive action, personal growth, and compassion. The Upside of Stress is an empowering guide, revealing practical strategies for transforming anxiety into courage, isolation into connection, and adversity into meaning.
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"The Upside of Stress is a perfect how-to guide for anyone who wants to tap into the biology of courage and the psychology of thriving under pressure.”—Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive and To Sell Is Human
"McGonigal's new book is a crucial pushback against the pervasive view that stress is a buzz and body-killer best eradicated from our lives."—ELLE magazine
"If you’ve ever complained of being stressed out, you need to read this perceptive, thought-provoking book. The Upside of Stress will change the way you think—and it will change your experience of your life."—Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project