The 5 Step Game Plan to Dealing with Market Turmoil and Uncertainty Like An NFL Quarterback

By Dr. Jack Singer

Here we go once again. The economy, Ebola, Isis, an overdue market correction…you name it, but investors and many top advisors are again going through gloom & doom predictions and fears. If the market falls precipitously does this mean that advisor stress levels must simultaneously skyrocket, as if the market and advisors are sitting on the opposite ends of a metaphoric seesaw? The answer is a definitive “NO!”

Those of you who have been following my Advising the Advisors series know that I am a Professional Sport Psychologist and now I teach financial professionals the exact same skills that I have been teaching to professional, Olympic and world champion athletes for more than 30 years. During crunch time (market crashes for advisors or losing in an important game for quarterbacks) there are many parallels at play:

  • Advisors may worry about how to handle disgruntled clients who panic and complain about their “losses” during market crashes
  • NFL quarterbacks may worry about coaches, sports reporters and fan reactions when they and their teammates underperform
  • Advisors may feel guilty about client “losses” and worry about their responsibility to serve as stewards of clients’ and their families’ wealth and therefore question whether they are able to continue
  • When a game goes south, NFL quarterbacks may question whether they really have the talent and skill that coaches, teammates and family have credited them with for so many years
  • Advisors may confidently follow a “game plan” when the market is on fire, but be tempted to make changes when the market tanks
  • NFL quarterbacks my perform like Super Bowl winners when their team is doing well, but panic and lose confidence when faced with adversity during a game

Consistently successful NFL quarterbacks and financial advisors are able to endure the rigors of uncertainly and unpredictability. They are “mentally tough” and view obstacles as challenges to grind through. What is the difference between advisors and quarterbacks who manage/master the stress inherent in such obstacles and those who fall victim to it, get overwhelmed by stress and fail?

 The Real Culprit is Your “Internal Critic

 It’s important to understand that neither the turmoil inherent in the stock market nor that in a football game actually causes stress for advisors or quarterbacks, respectively. Read that line again. It’s true…upsetting events that take place in our lives are NOT the cause of our stress. Instead, stress is caused by negatively interpreting the events that are taking place in our lives. It’s the self-talk habits we have developed using that little voice in our heads.

Because that voice is so often negative (such as starting sentences with “what if…” “I hope I don’t,” etc.), I refer to it as our “Internal Critic.” The good news is that you always have a choice regarding how to interpret challenging events and what to say to yourself. The little voice does not have to be a “critic.” You can actually make it into your best friend!

This is not a new concept. The wisdom about how our inner thoughts and beliefs about events are the critical determinants of our well being has been proposed by scholars for centuries. The Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “Men are disturbed not my things, but by the views which they take of them.” In Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote, “There’s nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Famous psychoanalyst, Alfred Adler put it simply: “We are influenced not by the facts, but by our interpretation of the facts.”

 For the football player, controlling his internal dialogue is the key ingredient to remaining “mentally tough.” Let’s examine an NFL quarterback in an important game, finding his team down by two touchdowns late in the game. That is the “event.” Whether or not he will fold under the stress that could come from dealing with this adversity depends strictly on how he interprets this event inside his head.

For example, let’s say he thinks to himself, “I can’t believe how many dropped balls my receivers had today. They are playing as if they don’t care if we lose. Maybe I have lost my edge as the leader of the team and I’m not as good as the coaches think I am. I don’t believe that I can win this game now.”

This kind of negative, self-defeating internal dialogue will set off alarm systems within his brain (i.e., switch on the fight/flight nervous system), sending stress hormones flowing, tightening arm and leg muscles, making it impossible for the quarterback to move fluidly, thus increasing the probability of errors, and “fulfilling” the negative self-fulfilling prophesy that he just invented in his head. This can also lead enough self-doubt that makes a quarterback wonder if he really has the ability to be successful in the NFL (“Impostor Fear”) and this kind of fear will dramatically ramp up the stress.

On the other hand, let’s examine the internal dialogue to the exact same event by a quarterback who understands how to interpret potentially stressful events. Let’s say he says to himself, “Ok, we’ve made some drops, but these are fabulous receivers. It’s not their habit. I will calm them down and tell them that I have complete confidence in them and will continue to throw to them. We can win this. It’s only the drops that have kept us behind. I will demonstrate my confidence in them.”

 This kind of positive interpretation of a potentially stressful game situation puts the quarterback and his team in the best position to overcome the obstacles and bounce back into the game. So, the consistently successful quarterback does not doubt himself nor his teammates and sticks with a winning plan, despite the obstacles that present themselves along the way.

Now let’s examine financial advisors, facing the major challenge of market volatility, including major drops. They also have choices in the way they interpret those events and can learn to become “mentally tough.”

The overly stressed advisor might say something like this to him/herself: “I get so irritated when the market gets volatile like this. My clients blame me as if I can predict these market events. They challenge my investment strategy and I have to hold their hands and assure them that their wealth is secure. I don’t like they way they engage me when they are angry and frightened. Maybe this wasn’t the best career choice for me. I don’t know how much longer I can take this.”

Much like the quarterback in the first scenario, this kind of negative, self-defeating internal dialogue will produce the stress response, including feelings of anxiety, irritation, perhaps depression, impatience, headache and many other symptoms of stress. Such self-talk habits during challenging times may also lead to doubts about whether the advisor really has what it takes to be successful in this career field (“Impostor Fear”).

Here is an example of the internal dialogue of a consistently successful, low stressed financial advisor, when facing adversity. It begins by having a personal “identity statement.” An “identity statement,” is a description about the real value you bring to your clients, to your own family, to colleagues whom you mentor, etc. The goal of having such a statement in mind is to boost your confidence whenever you doubt yourself. Repeat this statement until you genuinely and consistently believe in yourself and in your skills.

Here is an example: “I am a very successful advisor because I understand how to leverage my clients’ assets for market volatility like this. In my career, I have overcome many obstacles and turned them into accomplishments. I have helped many clients to successfully navigate economic roller coasters. I am proud that I have helped so many families to preserve and enhance their wealth into their retirement years. Neither my success, nor my own expectations are dependent on having to be perfect.”

This kind of self-talk is akin to “linguistic nutrition,” mitigating the stress that could be aroused from adverse circumstances facing advisors. Always remind yourself that your basic strategy works, regardless of the inevitable slings and arrows that go with the territory of being a trusted advisor. Stay with the plan, proactively prepare your clients for inevitable market challenges, so they will not be surprised nor frightened into making hasty, panic-driven decisions.

Incidentally, I’m sure you have experienced certain client personality types who cause you a lot of grief during challenging market conditions. You will find a list of these “types” and what to do about them in my book, The Financial Advisor’s Ultimate Stress Mastery Guide.

Your 5 Step Game Plan for Becoming and Remaining Mentally Tough

 Game Plan Step #1: Once you recognize the specific thoughts that have triggered your stress, you can stop those thoughts dead in their tracks. Put a loosely fitting, fat rubber band (Style#64) on your wrist. Write “CALM” on the rubber band with a Sharpie. Every time you catch yourself beginning a negative, self-defeating thought (such as, What if I don’t know how to answer my client’s question?”), snap that rubber band, while telling yourself (with gusto) to “stop this silly thinking!”

Game Plan Step #2: Take a deep, calming breath, in through your nose slowly and deeply, holding it to the count of four, then exhale completely from your mouth, to the count of seven, pushing out every last bit of air. Visualize a balloon in your stomach filling as you inhale and deflating as you exhale. Repeat this a few times and you will quickly dissolve away anxiety and experience calming sensations.

Game Plan Step #3: Challenge every negative thought with questions, such as “Do I really have any evidence that what I’m afraid will happen, will actually happen or am I simply anticipating the worst?” Just because I have a scary thought doesn’t mean it has to play out that way. Why not visualize myself calmly handling this situation and see how relieved I will be when I accomplish that?”

 Once you challenge your negative, pessimistic thoughts and change your thinking to more realistic ideas, you will recognize that most of your fears are just fabrications of the worst case scenario and you really do have more control over your situation then you ever gave yourself credit for.

Game Plan Step #4: Repeat your personal identity statement, as in the example above.

 Game Plan Step #5: You anchor this mental toughness routine by repeating the deep, calming breath, as in step #2.