During this time of year you begin to read more and more on social medial about people looking back on the year and reflecting on what has transpired that they are grateful for. Taking time each day to cultivate a sense of gratitude has been proven to help people reduce stress, be happier, and gain more of a sense of fulfillment in their lives. But does it have the power to increase performance?
I’m often asked, “What can I do to develop my mental skills?” Like a lot of things we are looking for some complex sort of drills. Some step by step manual about how to develop the skills that lead to peak performance. While there certainly are a number of great exercises out there that can be used to develop the mind my personal favorite is relatively simple. I like to use the events that transpire in everyday life to help me develop the skills necessary to perform at a higher level.
Like most of you my life can get fairly unpredictable. I try to set aside time each day to engage in some type of mental work. Usually this involves a meditation practice along with some visualization. I look forward to opportunities to engage in these practices. But let’s be honest… Life doesn’t always go according to plan. Sometimes life just doesn’t allow me the time to engage in these activities. I’ve often said that every moment offers us the opportunity to work on our mental game. Why? Because in order to practice the skills necessary to perform to our highest capacity all we need to do is practice being completely present with whatever we might be engaged in.
When we’re in the zone, when we’re in the state of flow we are completely absorbed in the present moment. Portions of our frontal cortex shut down and our inner critic becomes silent allowing us to tap into our highest potential. It’s in this state that we experience heightened levels of performance, creativity, productivity, and experience emotions such as happiness, peace, and joy. While this state can happen by accident we can develop this ability and prime our minds to more readily enter this state. The catalyst for this state is focused attention. Our ability to not be thinking about future or past and to give our full attention to what’s in front of us in this moment.
So how do you use everyday experiences as opportunities for mental development? By giving your full attention to whatever you may be engaged in. You can turn any activity into a mental practice session by recognizing when you’re thoughts have drifted to past or future and then returning your focus back to what’s in front of you. The more you guide your attention back to the present moment the more you strengthen your ability to remain focused on the task at hand which enhances the likelihood that you slip into the flow state, the zone, the state of peak performance.
Here are a few tips on how you can use everyday activities as mental practice sessions:
- Set a Timer– Almost all of us are carrying a timer in our pocket now-a-days so why not use it to help you train your mind? Take your phone out and set your timer for 30 or 60 minutes. Every time the timer goes off use it as a cue to check in with where you’re currently focused. Are you thinking about some task you need to accomplish in the future? Are you regretting something that happened in the past? Whatever the case maybe be just redirect your attention back to what you’re currently engaged in.
- Connect to Physical Sensations– Regardless of what we might be doing we always have the opportunity to connect to our physical body. Doing so quiets our mind and instantly brings us back to the present. You can listen to or feel the sensation of your breathing, hear the sounds that might be around you, feel the ground beneath your feet or your fingers on the keyboard, taste the food you might be consuming, whatever you decide take a second and use your physical senses to help you refocus. Really try to experience whatever is going on right now through the physical sense of your choice.
- Choose Activities That Connect You To The Present Moment– While we can and many times do enter the state of flow by directing our attention there are also activities that we engage in that by their very nature instantly reconnect us to the here and now. From a standpoint of mental development or performance enhancement it doesn’t really matter how we get into that state it only matters that we do. The more time we spend in the present moment, the more time we spend quieting our inner critic, the more we train our mind to more readily enter that state. So try to spend some time each day engaging in an activity that allows you to focus your attention. For example: I use a variety of activities to achieve this goal; surfing, wrestling with my kids, watching a sunset, walking on the beach, hitting baseballs, all of these connected me to the present moment. By their very nature they focus my attention and allow me to enjoy the very same benefits as my daily meditation practice. So what might do this for you? Yoga? Scrapbooking? Playing and instrument? Any of these are great ways to use everyday activities as mental development opportunities.
Your mental development program shouldn’t become another thing for you to stress about. It shouldn’t be just another thing you have to check off of a list. It should be something you look forward to or something you can use anywhere at anytime. If you have time to spend in meditation each day then great! However, if life doesn’t allow you the opportunity then use any of the number of activities you engage in as an opportunity to strengthen your mind.
“You can make any human activity into meditation simply by being completely with it and doing it just to do it.” -Alan Watts
If you’re as old as I am then you remember the cartoons from the ’80’s and ’90’s. The ones where one of the characters would be visited by two alter-egos that sat on each shoulder. One would always represent what was good, kind, and right and was portrayed wearing angel wings and sporting a halo. While the other represented something negative, usually anger, hate, or revenge. This character was depicted as the devil, probably colored red with a pointy tail and horns. Ultimately, it was the decision of the character in question as to which voice he listened to.
If we really want to maximize every opportunity as an athlete it’s important to keep things simple. We need to have a process that’s going to allow us to be present, repeat our mechanics, and learn from the results we produce. Regardless if we’re practicing on our own, in team practice, or competing in a game there are 4 simple steps that you can perform to get the most out of each practice session or maximize your performance in a game.
Set your Intention (or “Process Oriented Goal”)
The first thing I like to do is set an intention. An intention is just a fancy name for a goal. But unlike a goal it’s flexible in that it’s open to the possibility of something even better happening. So before we set our intention we must ask ourselves a few questions… What is the situation? What result am I trying to produce?
Once you have the answers to these questions you can ask yourself the most important question… How can I put myself in the best position to produce that result? Your intention can’t be producing a particular result but rather must be focused on the step or steps you must take to produce that result. It can be something physical like a physical key that places you in the best position to succeed or it can be mental in terms of something you need to focus on that will help you produce the result you desire to produce.
After we set our intention it’s important that we then focus on our breathing and bring our awareness back to the present moment. You see, by staying rigidly focused on that intention and trying to “make it happen” you cause yourself to become tense which decreases the likelihood that you produce the result you desire. By becoming present you are essentially releasing your attachment to the desired outcome allowing yourself be to more relaxed and as a result more precise in the execution of your mechanics. The best way to do this is by becoming aware of your breathing. Simply control and listen to yourself breathe, slowly in and out through your nose.
Focus on Execution
When the time comes it’s important to focus on executing proper mechanics. Focus on executing the steps necessary that will potentially allow you to be successful. Focusing on anything else leads to mental and muscular tension created by fear. Fear of NOT creating your desired outcome. That tension leads to mechanical breakdown decreasing the likelihood of you performing to your full capacity.
Evaluate and Adjust
Now it’s time to evaluate how you did and form you’re new intention for the next pitch. Ask yourself… How’d I do? What adjustments do I need to make? Remember to keep your answers process oriented. Were you able to execute? What adjustment needs to made mentally or physically so you can execute better the next time? Whatever the answers are use that information to then become your intention for the following pitch, play, possession, whatever.
So there you have it. 4 steps to athletic success. If you take this approach and consciously use these steps during each practice session or game I know you’ll see tremendous growth in yourself as an athlete. Remember… Play hard, Be Present, and Have Fun!!!
One of the most difficult things as an athlete is to accept when things aren’t going our way. One of the most powerful things we can train ourselves to do is to completely accept the situation we’re in with out resisting it in any way. What does that mean??? Let me give you an example from my sport of baseball… Let’s say you’re up to bat and the count is 1-1. The pitcher delivers the pitch and the umpire makes a terrible call. Now you’re down 1-2. Most hitters get upset, they feel robbed of an opportunity where they would be in a more advantageous count. Their mind begins spiraling out of control, they become frustrated, maybe even angry over the blown call by the umpire.
But Ryan, the guy made a terrible call. Don’t I have reason to be upset? Maybe. But that’s not the point. The point is that your job is not to be upset or frustrated but have the ability to mentally put yourself in the best position possible to succeed on the next pitch. Let me ask you a question… In your entire career has getting upset over a blown call, bad weather, mistake by a teammate, playing time, ever changed the situation? Have you ever gotten upset with an umpire or an official and then after voicing your displeasure had him look at you and say, “You raise a good point. Ok I’ll change my call.” I’m going to go out on a limb and that’s probably never happened. Yet time and time again we allow the situation to dictate our mental state.
So why is this so important? Let’s look at what happens when we’re in a state of resistance and how that impacts your ability to perform. First of all when I say “resistance” what I mean is the mental resistance you have toward the situation. It’s the negative self-talk and subsequent feelings that go along with your frustration over things not going the way you want them to. When we’re in this resistant state our mind taps into our body’s primal fight or flight response.
What? Yes, when you don’t fully accept the present situation you are in a state of fear. Fear of failure, fear of letting your team down, fear of not being as good as think you are, whatever. Anytime we experience those negative, performance inhibiting thoughts and emotions you activate the fight or flight response. This response can cloud our thinking, shallow our breathing, increase our heart rate, increase muscular tension, and decrease fine motor movements. It’s these fine motor movements that allow us to execute our mechanics correctly. It’s these fine motor movements that make the difference between success and failure. So essentially your job as an athlete is to effectively manage your fight or flight response placing yourself in the best position to succeed.
So how do we do this?
Daily mindfulness/meditation practice
You can’t play in the moment or have your mind completely focused on the here and now without practicing being in the moment. Setting aside time each day to sit in quiet meditation is crucial to your mental development both as an athlete and in life. It develops within you the ability to stay focused on the present moment regardless of what your external situation might be.
Make acceptance a conscious decision
Before each practice or game it’s important to consciously remind yourself to completely accept whatever situation you may find yourself in. If the count is 1-2 then your job in that moment is to execute a quality swing on that 1-2 pitch if it’s in the hitting zone. Being frustrated or upset over the fact that the count is 1-2 is counter productive. Whatever the moment brings you then in that moment that is your job. You don’t have to like it but you do have to accept it.
Nothing brings us back to the present like our breath. If you find your mind focusing on past or future simply slow your breathing and listen to yourself breathe. By listening to our breathing we break the habit of allowing the situation to dictate our reality. Over time your mind will develop the ability to stay present and accept whatever situation may arise. But until then use your breath as a tool to return you to the here and now.
I’m not going to lie. Acceptance is much easier said than done. In any competitive environment it’s easy to let our ego get involved. It’s easy to become fixated on who’s to blame for our failures instead of accepting what’s happening and staying focused on what we can control. However, developing this ability to not resist whatever the present moment brings will not only help you perform to your highest capacity on the athletic field but also in any other aspect of life you choose to apply it to.
Everyone wants more confidence right? It’s probably the most common thing I hear as a Peak Performance Coach. The problem is that while being confident is a much better mental state then being unconfident it still falls short of peak performance. Why? Glad you asked…
Probably one of the most powerful tools I discovered didn’t occur to me until the very end of my playing career. Not really having mentors, so to speak, my career was very trial and error. It was me spending time alone trying to figure out how I was going to maximize my abilities as an athlete. As such many of the Aha moments that I had didn’t come until the very end of my career or in many cases came years after my career ended. What I didn’t realize was how the work I was putting in was going to have such a profound influence on my daily life.
My last season as a baseball player came in the Texas town of Laredo. I was there, playing in a brand new league, for a brand new team, at probably the lowest level of professional baseball. For me however, it didn’t matter. I was as excited as I would have been if I had been playing in Yankee Stadium.
Every coach I’ve ever talked to wants athletes who are mentally tough. I hear it all the time, “My players just aren’t mentally tough!” “How do I develop mental toughness in my athletes?” The problem is that “mental toughness” is somewhat of an abstract idea. Most coaches and athletes have an idea of the qualities of mental toughness but they fall short on what mental toughness really is. Even more troubling is how to develop that toughness in their athletes.
Before we can go about developing any skill we must first have a definition of what it is we’re trying to achieve. Otherwise we have no clue what we’re striving for. I mean, if we don’t know the destination then how can we possibly know when we’ve arrived? As author Stephen Covey says, “Start with the end in mind.” So with that my definition of what people call “mental toughness” is fairly simply and I believe fully encapsulates all of the qualities that coaches, athletes, or employers have in mind when they’re looking for mentally tough individuals to add to their team.