There are six principles that work together to ensure we are on our mental game and ready to perform when it’s showtime.
1. Mindfulness is the great conductor of peak performances.
Mindfulness is the linchpin for regulating conditions of flow or, to use an alternate descriptor, to be “dialed in” to performing at our best. To be dialed in is a perceptive, intuitive, and seamless dance between capturing stimuli resident in the moment, and observational and reflective capacities that contain, translate, assign meaning to, and inform our decisions on the sensory data collected in real time.
Mindfulness by any other name, like, “The Witness” or “The Self,” is our self-organizing quarterback. One might say that if “being” a good cat is to express the feline instincts of a hunter of prey, then “being” a good human is to evolve to higher levels of complex organization and actualize one’s inner calling. Mindfulness is a marvel of art and science, one that marries form and function in harmony with the laws that govern growth, development, and mastery. In a state of flow, we process and respond to stimuli with speed and efficiency that shape the illusion that events are unfolding in slow motion. When major league baseball players tune to such optimal levels of mind-body coordination, they are able to perform the monumental feat of calculating the predicted arc of a baseball moving 100 mph and hit it, all within fractions of a second.
To sound for a moment like a relationship counselor, which I am, love is an action verb. To be mindful is to make “being in the moment” a labor of loving ourselves. To demonstrate confidently that we are our own loving and secure attachment figures to the many expressive parts of our nature frees us from fear that our performance goals may put us in conflict with the wishes, desires, ideals, and prohibitions of past and present attachment figures who we rely on in part to hold us together, validate our trust and appreciation of ourselves, regulate stress, and energize us with love. Mindfulness permits us to rise above concerns for survival and direct our attention on thriving.
When we rise to meet performance challenges, our mindful quarterbacks monitor quality control on the execution of instruction sets that operate most efficiently outside of conscious awareness. The great irony inherent in preserving or controlling a state of flow is that it disappears if we mindfully overplay our hands and destroy the synchrony of a dynamic interplay between conscious and unconscious processes. Being mindful is an intrinsically rewarding experience of personal mastery. Win, lose, or draw in our goal-directed pursuits, our mindful lenses are much wiser for the growth opportunity of being present. Optimal physical and mental stress rewires our brains to tackle more complex challenges.
2. Champions are like roaches in roach motels.
They check in and don’t check out. Keep in mind that untethered minds can behave like itinerant time travelers. They can be here, there, and everywhere without us having a clue as to their coordinates in time and space. Little did I imagine working as a bellman in the early 1980s that I’d be here in 2017 asking my readers exactly what I asked my hotel guests: Are you checking in or checking out? Are you checking in or checking out on developing a more integrated and coordinated mind-body system?
Anxiety is a genetically engineered signal to mobilize us to survive. When regulated, anxiety readies systems for mastery of the moment. Unfortunately, we can become flooded by anxiety and lose perspective on the magnitude of the moment. I wouldn’t have a job as a psychotherapist if this were not a universal condition. Our brains often confuse what is happening now with real and/or imagined past threats, then generate frightfully distorted expectations, which in turn activate, rigid, self-defeating survival mechanisms in the name of warding off phantom dangers. To not interfere with the biological imperative that “all hands be on deck” to defend against immediate and present felt threats, business as normal ceases as executive functions are shut down and taken offline by “factory built,” fail-safe survival mechanisms. Our overly sensitive and easily tripped internal security systems make it imperative for us to simulate performance stressors in training through mental and physical rehearsals. This way, we learn to keep perspective on and regulate anxiety to remain below a threshold at which point our inherited primitive security systems trigger false alarms that run us instead of us mindfully keeping them under wraps.
3. Conserve energy for takeoffs, landings, and course changes.
We have finite amounts of energy in our gas tanks before we need to rest and recover. Our physical and mental muscles can increase their workloads through training. What we train to do on automatic pilot helps us conserve energy needed for conscious activities—i.e., self-discipline, conscious reasoning, and improvisation. Our working memory has limited storage capacity. Under stress, the less we have to reinvent or reengineer the wheel, the better suited we are for mastery of the moment.
4. Train as if you are racing so you race as if you are training.
Continuing with the same theme, I borrow a lesson from my own life. Singing in the shower is different from signing in front of my wife, is different from singing in front of my vocal coach, is different from singing in front of a live audience. Have you ever met anyone who gets stage fright in the shower? There is no substitute for performing in front of a live audience to get comfortable with performing in front of a live audience.
We can use our imaginations to mentally rehearse and master the challenges of keeping our cool under pressure, the same way pilots accrue experience inside simulators that model real-life stressful contingencies that pilots must learn to master to fly safely and efficiently. Likewise, test takers learn to take tests by simulating test conditions where they rehearse, and runners rehearse race starts, race middles, and race ends on the track, on the roads, and through mental rehearsal.
With a mindful attitude, we become skillful arbitrators of internal conflicts that otherwise might pose threats to our equilibrium and, thus, reduce our mental efficiency, health, and sap our energy reserves.
5. Do not confuse mindfulness with self-analysis.
Unless you are working with a sports psychologist, therapist, or life coach, you may be best served to not plumb the depths of what is kept out of awareness to keep anxieties to a minimum. Defenses are named defenses because they serve protective functions, though they may not be as adaptive as we need them to be. With a mindful attitude, we become skillful arbitrators of internal conflicts that otherwise might pose threats to our equilibrium and, thus, reduce our mental efficiency, health, and sap our energy reserves. Athletes know when they are at the mercy of automatic defenses that co-opt their executive functioning. It’s as if their mindful selves are temporarily missing in action or, to use another metaphor, offline. Here are a few samples of automatic maladaptive defenses against performance anxieties:
- Obsessive worries about digestion and elimination before a race.
- Confusing wishful and magical goals with training-verified fitness levels.
- Doing too much, too little, or a combination of both either during training or while warming up for a race.
- Heart racing to exhaustion while waiting at the starting line.
- Amnesia for one’s race plan, cues for proper running form, or race pace.
- Breakdowns in coordination, timing, and rhythm in training or during races.
6. The battle cry of the mindful self is “carpe diem.”
Mindfulness is an embodied state. There are many ways to anchor yourself in the moment, to strengthen and preserve your mindful attitude.
Breathe slowly and deeply in and out to regulate and coordinate your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems to increase flexibility and fluidity as you ramp up and ramp down your engine as indicated to go the distance and minimize wear and tear.
Feel the ground underneath you to anchor yourself in the moment. Observe the sensation of your footfalls, the experience of swinging your arms, etc.
Be a compassionate, accepting, curious, and encouraging presence. This will reduce internal anxiety provoking divisions, help you coordinate and harness your resources, and inspire confidence in the leadership of your mindful self.
If you feel tension, imagine your eyes are the skillful hands of a massage therapist and massage the areas of tension with care, concern, and compassion.
If you are tense, breathe deeply and observe the size, shape, and intensity of the tension. Observe over time how these sensations change. Anything you can do to strengthen your mindful presence will strengthen the resistance of your mindful authority to being overthrown by renegade forces operating inside you.
Talk to yourself as you would talk to a loved one you wish to support to be successful, yet whose success your valued identity does not hinge on. We call this being invested in but not attached to outcomes.
If you want support in more mindfully optimizing your performance, contact a licensed therapist.
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