Mental mastery, whether it’s for a business meeting, a physical workout, academic success or mindful meditation, requires that you fully engage your mind. We’ve learned through years of research that our brains are capable of continued growth throughout our lives, especially when we are engaged in frequent intellectual stimulation. With the right nourishment, engagement, social connections and physical activity, we do quite well in maintaining brain health. These are anchored in lifestyle choices we make daily.
I believe that just like a rigorous physical exercise plan, upper body one day, lower body the next, push exercises, pull exercises, cardio routines, the brain similarly requires a workout. I call this the M.I.N.D. workout and this includes Motivational goal setting, Imagery, Natural relaxation and Directed concentration.
I’ll break down these four ingredients as follows:
Yogi Berra once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.” So it is with goal setting, the first set in the mental workout. Rule #1 is to be sure you set process or performance, “how I will perform along the way” goals, not outcome or “win or lose” goals. Set goals that are SMARTER than the next guy and you’ll likely come with the gold. These goals are specific, measureable, attainable, realistic, time-focused, and finish with goals that enthusiastically set and revisable when necessary (since nobody is perfect). These process goals are the ones you control. You can’t control outcome goals, only the process and your performance along the way. Process is primary. Outcome goals will keep you focused on the wrong things. Ask yourself, “What are you doing really well?” “What can you get better at?” “What changes should you make to become your best?” Additionally, ask yourself, “What fires you up?” “What do you truly value in your life?” and “What’s the one thing your are here to do?”
Imagery is more than visualization in the way I coach my athlete clients. It involves all of the senses, not just “seeing” a specific performance. Walt Disney called it “Imagineering.” It involves sensory rich seeing ourselves doing the things we want to do. Take a few minutes before going to the gym, hitting the trails, diving into the mud or talking to your boss, and sit quietly with your eyes closed, doing “imbalanced breathing” in to a count of, let’s say 5 and out to a count of 10. If you breath in to the count of 4, breath out to the count of 8. That’s imbalanced. Begin imagining your performances very specifically as you’d like to it to be, only see it not as a future event but rather as an event that has already happened. See yourself already in the position you’d like to be in, controlling your emotions, running along a path, lifting a certain amount of weight, slogging through mud with your team—but in the past tense, not in the future. “I’ve already accomplished a 3 second decrease in my freestyle event.” Imagine having been distracted in an event and that you handled it easily by refocusing. When it happens in reality, you’ve already been there and handled it. Heidi Grant Halvorson tells us: “Don’t visualize success. Instead, visualize the steps you will take in order to succeed. Just picturing yourself crossing the finish line doesn’t actually help you get there— but visualizing how you run the race (the strategies you will use, the choices you will make, the obstacles you will face) not only will give you greater confidence, but also leave you better prepared for the task ahead. And that is definitely realistic optimism.”
Anxiety management is the key to performing well under pressure. Self-control of emotion, not labeling (thinking) outside events in a way that adds invented pressures that only exist in the way in which you think (“I MUST win this tournament or it’ll be awful!!!”), are critical to dealing with pressure, successful performance and doing your best. Best way many coaches suggest is to make practices as close to the event as possible. But there’s more. Techniques such as meditation, breathing techniques (“imbalanced breathing” where you inhale to one count and exhale to double that), and relaxation training are all excellent additions to the mental workout. “Box breathing” is another super breathing concentration technique that involves inhaling to the count of 4, holding it for 4, exhaling to 4, holding it for 4 and repeating it. Relaxation training involves a simple method of tensing a group of muscles and then relaxing them, breathing in calming thoughts and letting go of worrisome, anxious thoughts, while tensing and relaxing. Can you focus your attention on one thing, and only one thing? The hallmark of winners is the ability to have unbroken concentration, deep, long and inspired focus.
Those of us who do mental performance coaching in the locker room and in the boardroom, teach concentration that is based on width and direction. Both broad and narrow concentration, and external and internal concentration play a role in your performance. Of course, which you use depends on the sport and the event you are preparing for. Football quarterbacks use broad views to focus on the location of opposing team players. Weight lifters are quite narrow in what they concentrate on in terms of a muscle group. External concentration may help a runner at various times in a marathon race, for example turning away from internal exhaustion or fatigue late in a race. Mapping out which concentration form to use before an event will enable you to draw on it when necessary as planned. Think of it as “rehearsal.” Direct your thinking to concentrating only on what you want to happen, not on what you don’t want to happen. Concentrate on being the kind of person who makes happen what you want to happen. Use your imagineering to help fuel your focused concentration and vice versa. See yourself performing at a higher level and tell yourself, “That’s like me.”