Welcome to the HPRC Blog. We've got lots of information here, from quick tips to in-depth posts about detailed human performance optimization topics.
HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics
There are exercises you can do to improve your mindset and your optimism, the belief that things will go well for you in a given situation. This is important because optimism is associated with health benefits such as:
- less risk of death from heart attack;
- lower risk of depression following events such as the death or illness of someone close; and
- better personal relationships.
Military training for contingency planning can help you identify what can or did go wrong as part of your important risk-assessment skills. However, when you transfer these strategies to noncombat life you may find focusing on potential problems hurts more than it helps. Balancing optimism and contingency planning can be difficult, but the good news is that you can learn optimism too. Here are some strategies to get you started.
Don’t make things harder for yourself by making excuses or creating excuses in advance. When you set a goal and the stakes feel high, it can be easy to make excuses when you fail in order to avoid negative feelings such as regret, shame, or guilt. Without thinking about why you do it, you may sometimes make tasks harder than they need to be so that ready-made excuses “protect” you from feeling bad. The downside is that you miss opportunities to learn from your experiences and test your “true” skills. This is called “self-handicapping.” Learn how to set yourself up for success instead. Read more here.
The ultimate performance mind state is often referred to as “the Zone,” which scientists refer to as “flow.” It isn’t something you can decide to suddenly experience, but you can remove obstacles and learn mental skills that help pave the way. This experience of being completely immersed in an activity involves:
- Clear goals and immediate understanding of whether actions are helping or hurting your progress towards goals.
- Being intense and focused on the present moment.
- A merging together—in the moment—of what you do and what you are aware of.
- Not feeling self-consciousness or anxious.
- Time slowing down or speeding up.
- Your attention focused on exactly where you need it to be.
- Feeling challenged yet taking opportunities even when they’re a slight stretch.
- Feeling in control and prepared to face whatever happens next.
You can experience the Zone in many ways, whether you’re engaged in combat, playing competitive sports, or raising children. It can’t be forced, but you can set the stage for it by doing many hours of deliberate practice and by honing good mental skills.
When stress threatens to overload you, be careful it doesn’t spill over into your relationships. Stress can make you less patient with your loved ones, less able to solve problems well, and more disagreeable.
When you’re under a lot of stress, you’re also more likely to feel negative about your relationships. This generally leads to more fighting, which can be especially tough for military families if one of you deploys or leaves for training before you’re able to rebalance your relationship and de-stress. While you’re apart, negative feelings can fester and further damage your relationship.
But just knowing about how stress can impact your relationships is the first step. Next time you feel stressed out, don’t let it fester. Instead, do something about it. To ease your stress, you can try:
- Deep breathing or another mind-body skill that can switch you from your body’s stress response to its relaxation response.
- Exercise, which can make you feel better and lower your stress.
- Something just for fun, which can take your mind off your stress.
- Connecting with a loved one. Feeling loved and supported can also reduce stress.
Finally, if you’re apart from your loved one, set aside time regularly to connect to him or her, regardless of the last fight you had. Try to give each other benefit of the doubt and move past the argument. You can always finish discussing it when he or she returns.
Sitting in front of a computer for hours can make your eyes tired, and your visual performance can suffer. To help with potential negative effects, create an environment that has equal brightness everywhere around your computer screen. Try these tips to help:
- Reduce intense fluorescent lights.
- Turn on some lights if you usually look at computer screens in the dark.
- Dim excess light coming through windows with blinds, tinting, or window covers.
- Avoid glare on your computer screen.
- Take microbreaks to look at distant objects.
If you’re in an office environment, if possible, turn off overhead lights and have a table lamp for softer light. If you can’t control the lighting in your environment, there are screens you can place on top of your computer screen to reduce glare. In a previous article, we highlighted how 30-second microbreaks every 20 minutes can ease physical discomfort and improve mental performance when working in front of a computer. Similar breaks also help reduce eye strain. Experts suggest looking at a distant object at least twice every hour to help prevent visual fatigue. So if you take a break every 20 minutes for brief stretching, make sure it also includes looking at a distant object to help both your eyes and body.
Take plenty of 30-second microbreaks to ease computer-related physical discomfort. Do you spend hours in front of your computer? Then you’ve probably noticed that your neck, low back, shoulders, and wrists can feel tired and sore afterwards. A great strategy that can help these discomforts is to take “microbreaks”—30-second breaks from your computer. They can help even if you’re just working for 3 hours at a computer—much less a full workday! Some tips to consider:
- Take a microbreak every 20 minutes when working in front of a computer.
- Don’t wait until you feel the need for a break. It’s more helpful to create a specific break schedule than to wait until it feels like time to take one.
- Don’t worry about taking micro breaks and getting less done. For most tasks, microbreaks actually don’t negatively impact productivity.
You can learn to use the same mental imagery skills that elite athletes use to achieve peak performance. Mental imagery is the practice of seeing (and feeling) in your mind’s eye how you want to perform a skill, as if you were actually doing it. It’s a popular sport psychology technique that service members can take advantage of. You can enhance your usual training to help maintain—or even surpass—your current skill level, even when you’re sidelined.
Some of the benefits of mental imagery include:
- Better decision-making
- Fewer errors
- Improved attention
- Increased confidence
- Reduced stress and anxiety
You can create imagery in your mind for just about any task, such as improving your running time or marksmanship. Good mental imagery uses all of the senses, but it often helps to listen to a scripted audio recording. Use HPRC’s Building an Imagery Script worksheet to guide you through the steps of creating your own imagery script.
Watching others can also help. In fact, being a spectator can boost learning even more than mental imagery by itself because you’re viewing what you’d like to accomplish rather than conjuring up images with your own mind. Both methods of learning are effective. Observing can be in person or by video, but you can also combine video/imagery approaches and potentially get even more bang for your buck.
With any of these approaches, it’s important to “feel” yourself executing the skill, even though you might be sitting or lying down. Of course, you don’t have to be sitting still to use mental imagery. Try using it in the setting where you’ll actually perform the skill. You can even incorporate it into existing training protocols.
Mindfulness can help you feel better equipped to handle difficult emotions. It’s a process geared to help you tune in to emotional experiences rather than try to escape from them. It’s easy to be overcome by depression, anxiety, PTSD, addiction, or other mental health problems. And you can make it worse by trying to forget the cause. For example, a service member afflicted with PTSD desperately wants to avoid experiencing certain traumatic events. Ironically, the actual effort to forget can cause him to relive difficult events through dreams, flashbacks, or memories. To illustrate this idea, right now, try NOT to think of weapons. You probably thought about them that much more. Read more here.
Mental toughness is a psychological edge that some are born with and others develop. It’s a mixture of traits that are important for all who want to overcome adversity and be successful. These traits include a strong belief in yourself and an unshakable faith that you control your own destiny. It allows you to consistently cope with training and lifestyle demands better than those who don’t have it.
If you have these 4 Cs, you’re mentally tough:
- Control: You feel in control of your emotions and are influential with the people in your life.
- Commitment: You embrace difficulty rather than running from it.
- Challenge: You believe that life is full of opportunities, not threats.
- Confidence: You know you have what it takes to be successful.
How to get it? You can gain mental toughness through a long-term process of developing mental skills. Leaders can specifically promote mental toughness by creating a learning environment centered on the mastery of the 4 Cs. They also can help by generally supporting and encouraging service members to maintain positive relationships. Over the long haul, to maintain and improve your mental toughness, you need to constantly hone your mental skills. And finally, you need a self-driven, insatiable desire to succeed.
Routines often can help your performance, but you need to be flexible too. Some of the world’s best athletes have scripted routines that begin with what time they wake up. Top performers find that routines can help shift them from stressful anticipation of how things are going to turn out to focus instead on what’s most important in that moment. In other words, routines can help you reduce anxiety.
But while rigid routines can be useful when the events are predictable, overly rigid routines can morph a helpful tool into a superstitious or obsessive ritual. The best athletes regard flexibility and adaptation as crucial to their own, often finely honed, routines. With service members for whom crises are part of the job, the best teams are able to go “off-script” when needed in order to work together most effectively.
For more information on mental aspects of performance, visit HPRC’s Mind Tactics domain.