I’ve always been fascinated by the mental part of “the game.”
- Wrestling in High School, there was one guy I just couldn’t beat, because he knew he could beat me, and I wasn’t sure I could beat him. I know now, and my coach knew then, that I could’ve beaten him. But I didn’t. I let him get into my head.
- I am regularly amazed at how well I play the fiddle when I’m playing at home alone and relaxed. But when I’m kicking off a set, with my musician friends all listening, invariably I seem to tighten up and screw up.
- At the end of a golf match, to win the nine holes, and the 18, how could I have missed that straight, uphill four foot putt, which on the practice green, I can make 9 times out of 10?
And yet in the realm of mental “perseverance,” I have done pretty well – getting myself thru a number of periods of adversity and very tough programs in my life, while part of me was screaming “Throw in the towel! This is more than I can or want to handle!” But perseverance is one aspect of mental performance – hanging in there, struggling, doing one’s best under really adverse conditions. But that is different from peak performance – performing at one’s best under any circumstances, but especially under pressure. That’s what I’m exploring and what this post is about. Perseverance is related, but different.
I have learned that we perform at our best under pressure when we are confident, relaxed, have prepared ourselves well physically and mentally, and completely believe in ourselves. Traditionally, people have prepared for peak performance by training hard and repeatedly at the event they are preparing for, with a coach giving feedback on technique. But the art of “mental performance” has come a long way in the last couple of decades, and sports psychologists have developed effective programs and techniques to augment good physical technique training with mental performance training. Top performers are routinely training separately and specifically to build their confidence, focus, equanimity and relaxation under pressure.
The right mental preparation to optimize performance is arguably the most important preparation we can do. And often, it gets the least attention.
I am now engaged in an effort to explore new and different, ways to develop, exercise, and train the mind to perform at its best in the Naval Special Warfare community (SEALs and Special Boats.) Obviously, this group’s efforts are primarily focused on improving effectiveness in high stress environments such as combat, but there’s much more to mental performance than that. It has been exciting for me to find a other individuals inside and outside the military who on their own, or within their organizations are similarly engaged. This blog post is an effort to organize and summarize some of what I’ve learned (so far) about mental performance.
Where the Power is. My experience tells me that our mind is where our real power lies. Whether we win or lose, succeed or fail, are happy or sad, fulfilled or dissatisfied -ultimately can be traced to our MIND – how it responds to the environment we are in, and how it guides our actions, our behavior, and our attitude.
The mind and mental performance are the tools that ordinary people use to become extra-ordinary – and they are the tools that extra-ordinary people use to become truly exceptional.
I think there are three key factors critical to deciding how to train ourselves mentally to perform optimally.
- CONTEXT: What is the context that our mind must be well prepared to deal with, to positively impact our performance? And what are our goals within that context?
- TRAINING: What are the specific mental performance insights, techniques, and exercises that can improve how we perform in our priority environment or context? What works specifically for each of us, as an individual? What is worth the time and effort?
Factor 1 – CONTEXT:
THE TARGET METAPHOR. With those considerations in mind, I see three primary environments that are useful in developing a mental performance training plan. Within each of these, there may be different goals, or practical steps one may take to perform optimally. We came up with the target metaphor which works well in military organizations, since it also reflects the priorities of a military mental performance program. I think this metaphor could work for others, though the priorities may be different – in many cases, reversed. In other words, for some, performance at home with friends, family and the community may be the 10 ring.
- ENVIRONMENT 1: The TEN RING – Performance in high stress environments. For frontline military personnel, this will be combat. For athletes (amateur, elite or professional), it is “in the arena” of intense competition, when success for self and team are most on the line. First responders – police, firemen, ambulance EMTs will have their own highest stress situations that they must prepare for. For others, it may be interviewing for the next position, taking exams, public speaking.
- ENVIRONMENT 2: The NINE RING – Routine but important work. For military personnel this might be in-garrison or staff work. For others, it might be daily work at the office or in a familiar environment, performing tasks that may seem routine, but where there is potential for bad consequences or even disaster if performed poorly or without full attention. Think accountants crunching numbers, airline pilots on routine flights, nurses or doctors taking care of patients. In fact much of what most of us do every day becomes routine, but if we don’t give these routine but important tasks our full attention, we can make mistakes that could be tragic.
- ENVIRONMENT 3: The EIGHT RING – At home, in the community: How well we perform under stress when the stakes are high, and how well we perform our routine daily tasks is often determined by how well we deal with the stresses of home and citizenship, as husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, neighbors and members of a community. For some, these stresses may outweigh stress at work. A mental performance program should support helping people better cope with stresses outside of work, which can become debilitating and negatively impact performance in other contexts.
From the 10 Ring to the 8 Ring – Many people’s professions and lives primarily demand performance in the 9 and 8 rings. At this point in my life, I would include myself in that group. I believe however, that techniques to enhance mental performance in any environment, though the techniques may be different, should support and improve performance in all three environments. Techniques and exercises designed to enhance mental performance in the 10 ring should also support, or at least not undermine, better performance in the 9 and 8 rings. Sometimes I think the SEAL community and other military organizations struggle with that, focusing so intensely on optimizing operator performance in 10 ring environments, that operators struggle in-garrison, or at home with their families.
Finding best practices. My colleagues and I have looked at a variety of contexts for insights and lessons learned, and have found excellent literature from experts with great experience and credibility in enhancing mental performance. Though Navy SEALs, on average, may perform better than most in 10 ring environments, we have a lot to learn from top performers outside the military to improve our performance in all three of our priority environments.
- For performance in 10 ring environments, we have found many useful insights in the literature supporting high performance in elite and professional athletics and in the world of extreme sports.
- For 9 ring environments, Much of the 10 ring guidance is also helpful in the 9 ring environment, and we are finding great insights in the literature for how executive coaches support business leaders, and help them create successful business cultures.
- For 8 ring environments, much of what supports top performance in the 10 and 9 ring is helpful, but we are learning much from life coaches and chaplains counselors and family therapists. .
Factor 2 – TRAINING
The Mind and the Body are intimately connected. We also have to take care of the body. The brain is the primary tool of the mind and it is very much a part of the physical body, and the brain, like the rest of the physical body, needs proper nutrition, rest, and exercise. A healthy physical body is important to optimizing mental performance, but fitness and performance are reflected differently in the mind and the body. There are many strong, fit, healthy people who perform poorly in 10, 9, and/or 8 ring environments. But the two domains (body and mind) are clearly connected – and each is stronger if supported by the other.
Optimal mental performance demands attention to optimal physical health. No matter how well we may train our minds, it will not perform optimally if we are out of shape, sleep deprived, eating an inadequate or unhealthy diet. Proper nutrition, adequate and quality sleep, and a well balanced exercise program are key to optimal mental performance. Of those three, I’d rank sleep as most important.
Mental Performance Enhancement Techniques. Without going into detail, below is a generic menu of some of the standard training and techniques which can enhance mental performance (assuming proper nutrition, sleep, and balanced exercise.) Each of these is a discrete practice, but each overlaps with and supports the others. Each of these is EASY and DIFFICULT, and for maximum impact, requires coaching and regular practice to become effective and to constantly improve:
- Positive self-image, and positive attitude. Positive self-image and self-confidence may take some work to develop, but they are essential. “No one can outperform his or her self-image.”* We have to believe in ourselves, and our ability to perform, and not allow negative possibilities or thoughts to infect our attitude about ourselves or our performance. We have to believe in ourselves;
- Visualization and mental rehearsals: The best performers mentally rehearse for stressful environments, especially 10 ring environments, many times before stepping into the arena. That includes visualizing success, and believing in success;
- Arousal control – calming the mind and body, and managing strong emotions primarily through breathing techniques, supported by self-talk methods;
- Goal setting – setting SMART goals, writing them down, then creating and committing to specific plans to accomplish them;
- Self-talk – simple aphorisms, acronyms or heuristics to stay positive, stay focused and to trigger desired mental responses.
- Learning Mindset – Willingness to seek out and take on challenges, willingness to risk failure while seeking opportunities to learn and improve. This is the Japanese concept of Kaizin – the desire to constantly improve. Have a Growth Mindset:
- Meditation – set aside daily quiet time to increase self-awareness and mental discipline, calm the mind, manage stress, and to learn to separate one’s self from one’s thoughts and emotions;
- Mental resilience/mental toughness – Train oneself to accept and be indifferent to unpleasant things one can’t control. Focus on responding positively, vice reacting viscerally. “It doesn’t matter what happens to you, what matters is what you do with what happens to you.” Meditation and self talk help a lot.
- Mindfulness – staying mentally focused on performing in the moment, not letting what happened in the past – good or bad – or what may happen in the future – good or bad – infect what one is doing at any given moment. Right Now.
- Rituals and Routines that relax and comfort the mind, put it at ease, block negative thoughts or over-thinking, and enhance focus and confidence.
This list is not new. These techniques have been used for millennia by top performers in many contexts, as well as by coaches, teachers, and gurus. Yes, they overlap and support each other, yet each also demands discrete attention, coaching and focus to be effective in training the mind to optimize performance. Each takes self-awareness, regular practice and training, often in combination with the others. These are what mental performance coaches and sports psychologists use to coach top performers, in sports, the military, and the business sectors to develop their minds to optimize their performance in their desired context.
Factor 3 – YOU
So what do YOU do? Each person has different strengths weaknesses, and different needs in further developing their individualized mental performance enhancement program. Ask yourself what context are you preparing yourself for, toward what end, where have you been strong and weak in the past, and what are you willing to commit to (time/effort). Then do a bit of research (books, on-line articles, podcasts.) Find a mentor or coach who knows something about the specifics of mental performance to discuss your plan. An accountability partner is also very helpful – someone else who is following the same or similar regimen – and you hold each other accountable to your commitments.
Though the above generic list will serve anyone well, each individual will need to emphasize different skills and exercises to optimize their mental and overall performance to meet the challenges they will face in the context for which they are preparing. That’s where coaching comes in. Then, start small, easy and simple, and reevaluate and adjust after 3 or 4 weeks. Like getting in shape – it’s a long term commitment and results take time. Action leads to inspiration. I think you’ll be inspired. I am.
A FEW POTENTIAL SOURCES of inspiration: There are many books and other sources where one can learn about improving mental performance. Knowing a lot however, doesn’t help without action – all that really matters is what you DO. Knowing a lot about basketball doesn’t make you a better basketball player.
With that in mind, here are a few places to start, if you want to learn more about mental performance.
Books: There are many. Type mental performance into Amazon books, select one, and a number of others will appear below it as options. Read the reviews, and take your pick. Here are a few I recommend you look at and consider:
- Mind Gym, by Gary Mack
- Mindful Athlete, by George Mumford
- Rise of Superman, by Steven Kotler
- Perform under Pressure, by Dr Ceri Evans
- Zen Athlete by Matthew Belair
- Staring down the Wolf, by Mark Divine
- Specifically for 9 Ring performance:
- Energy Leadership by Bruce Schneider
- Effective Modern Coaching by Miles Downey
Podcasts: Again, there are many, but here are a few I listen to and like. You might scroll through the titles of the podcasts on these sites, and find the ones that interest you most:
- Brian Johnson Optimize (https://www.optimize.mefor subscription service, or type “Brian Johnson Optimize” into Youtube’s search bar and see an amazing list of his free video book reviews and interviews – all on performance.)
- Mark Divine Unbeatable Mind https://www.unbeatablemind.com/podcast/
- Jonathan Levi Superhumanacademy https://superhumanacademy.com/podcasts/
- Peter Attia; The Drive https://peterattiamd.com/podcast/
*From Mind Gym by Gary Mack.