Ryan Harris with his friend at the analyst table.

How March Madness Can Help You Handle Nerves, Make Tough Decisions and Trust Your Instincts

With the Selection Show and the NCAA Tournament, March Madness has officially arrived.

On the surface, March Madness resonates with people across America because of the brackets. I mean, anybody can fill out a bracket and, as you have probably seen in your office pool, anybody can win.

However, there is much more to take away from watching the NCAA Tournament than filling out a Bracket to win the big bucks. March Madness gives an example of some of the best coaching I got in my NFL career that I have taken with me off the field.


Nobody in the sports world ever talks about being nervous. It is often perceived as a weakness.

Yet, in my career, I did not start to produce and reach the best of my abilities until I recognized what my nerves meant:

That I was at a place of opportunity.

This acceptance is what great athletes, perennial champions, legendary coaches all understand. They accept nerves as an identification that they are exactly where they want to be.

Are nerves normal in sports or in business? Absolutely.

Every play in an NCAA Tournament game matters. Every word in your fundraising presentation matters. Those moments can generate nerves from even seasoned pros.

So you must find a way to place your nerves within the narrative of your success. If you can do that, you can use your nerves as fuel, as a bit of a confidence-booster. If you do not, you will succumb to your nerves. You will be off. You will not execute to your fullest abilities.

You better believe that these 19- and 20-year-olds are nervous playing in do-or-die tournament games.

Hell, I had never been more nervous than I was before I stepped on the field in the Super Bowl. I thought, “What can I do? How can my nerves help me become a champion?”

“Well,” I thought, “I can recognize them. I can recognize that just because I’m having a million thoughts, 99% of those may not matter. What can I focus on?”

Related: Three Simple Phrases to Eliminate Self-doubt and Get You Going Again

Those nerves became a part of my narrative. My nerves have taught me to recognize that I’m at a place where I can perform. Not where I must perform, but where I can perform. Nerves mean that I have an opportunity that I’ve always wanted.

I had one teammate who would stay up late and party the night before big games because he said he had to “live on the edge.” So he recognized what his nerves were, channeled them and made them work for him. Make your nerves work for you.

Instead of nerves telling me I should not be here or that I do not belong, I changed that. I changed the power of my nerves so that it proved the exact opposite – that I was where I wanted to be, that I had arrived at an opportunity, that I was a part of something great. That change in mindset totally transformed and pushed me into production.

Whether you are preparing for the Super Bowl or playing in March Madness, you are going to succeed with your nerves, or your nerves are going to make you fail. It all comes down to a choice you make.


When I think of the greatest coach I ever had, his favorite phrase was: “If you think it, do it.”

He wanted me to visualize myself being successful on the field. He encouraged me to trust my preparation, my training, and my coaching. He did not want me to think too much – just make a quick decision, believe in myself and execute to the best of my ability.

Winston Churchill even says, “A good idea today is better than a great idea tomorrow.”

In March Madness, players always get the ball with the clock winding down. They do not have time to think. They just get the ball and shoot it. That’s where Cinderella stories come from, these teams that have no business playing against some of the “top talent”. Yet they believe in themselves. They trust their training.

I have learned that trusting your preparation, your environment and yourself can bring out the best in your performance. Believe in yourself.

We see it in the NCAA Tournament every year. And we see it around the office too. Whether it is yesterday’s meeting or today’s sales pitch or tomorrow’s presentation – if you think it, do it.


By the time a team reaches the NCAA Tournament, the opponents do not care whether the front of their jersey says “Denver” or “Duke.”

They certainly do not care what teams you beat in November and December, or how you fared during league play, or whether you are expected to be an NBA draft pick.

When your moment comes, none of your past accomplishments matter.

Learning I had to prove myself in the NFL every practice, every game, every year, was tough to get used to. Then I started loving the chance to prove my training. The sacrifice and focus were worth it.

We often fall in love with our past accomplishments. And I get it – they made you who you are and they helped you get where you are today. But to reach a new level of performance, to reach a new height, we have to leave everything we have done in the past.

Look at it this way: In the corporate environment, virtually everyone has racked up some impressive accomplishments in their career. The people who will continue to move forward are those who stay humble, stay hungry and leave their past accomplishments behind.


How do you plan for a meeting? How do you plan for a pitch? What questions do you plan for?

The truth: You have to be ready for anything.

As a general rule of thumb, people are prepared. Some more than others, of course, but generally people arrive at practices and games (or at meetings and presentations) knowing what they want to accomplish.

They understand their strengths, they know their goals and they realize how to utilize their strengths to achieve those goals.

However, what many people lack is an ability to adapt – an ability to handle variables, to adjust to unexpected situations.

Related: When Sh!# Happens: How to Stay Strong During Disaster and Bad News

In the practices leading up to the NCAA Tournament, there is a game plan, just like it was leading up the Super Bowl. We knew exactly what the coaches wanted. If anything, that game came down to how we handled situations. Were we poised or panicked?

In the business world, you too can be ready for anything.




If the projector breaks, can you still give the presentation? Do you always stick to the script, or can you read the room and adapt? And of course, there will be questions. Be prepared for any possible question, comment or critique.

Be ready to handle anything.