Hanin notes that studies show about 40 percent of elite athletes need a high level of precompetition anxiety to perform well. They are more efficient when they’re tense or nervous. That’s helpful to them.
These uncomfortable, nervous feelings are often products of the mind-body defense system. It’s a type of defense, a response to a threat, says Hanin. The whole person reacts, not just the mind or the body. It’s a holistic response. The successful [athletes] are those able to establish a clear link between the uncomfortable feelings and what has triggered them, and then act on it. According to Hanin, this fear energy defense system can be genetic from a human’s primal programming, but it can also be learned from childhood or through the world of competitive sports.
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The secret of great athletes is converting the pressure and their own insecurities into a powerful force and harnessing the electricity, the stress of the moment, says Brooks Johnson, former college and U.S. Olympic track coach. It seems as though athletes’ self-defense systems can also be productive for long-term success, motivating them to strengthen their games through practice, conditioning, and strategy, like Roger Clemens on his 1997 mission to prove the Red Sox wrong for letting him go. He went on a mission, Joe Carter said. It’s almost like you pin somebody up against the wall, and what Boston did to him was sort of like that. He came out firing on all 12 cylinders to prove those people wrong.
When Michael Jordan returned from his hiatus in baseball in 1995, critics said his basketball game was not up to par. Jordan was miffed and worked hard all summer on his skills and conditioning. My challenge has always been to never give [the public] room for any conversation about my abilities, he said. Everyone’s looking for just one little slip-up so they can create a big hole in my game. And whenever I see that, I work to close that as quickly as possible. When I came back (from baseball), I created a big hole, and I worked all summer to close that hole. I have to make sure no holes evolve in my game. [People will] say, ‘Oh, Pippen’s the best player on this team,’ or ‘Penny Hardaway’s the best player in the East,’ or ‘Hakeem Olajuwon or Shaq are the best players in the game.’ Well, I stopped all that conversation. The bottom line is, while I’m still on the court, don’t try to move anyone into my spot. I’m the only one who will decide that. Only me.
For a player with such abundant offensive skills, Jordan, like other competitors, spends much of his time defending what he has earned. But it’s not always selfdefense. Athletes have produced remarkable efforts when defending their national pride in international competition, defending their race such as Jesse Owens in the Berlin Olympics or defending their age group, such as Carl Lewis winning his ninth Olympic gold medal at age 35 after critics said he was too old.