Filed under: Mental performance
Olympians can teach the rest of us how to perform our best during career-defining moments. While we all can’t compete in the Olympic Games, we can relate to those instances when the pressure’s on and it’s time to perform.
What helps Olympic athletes meet or exceed expectations? Successful team members train together, receive helpful support from friends and family, develop sharp mental skills, stay focused, and honor their commitment to the task and each other. Teams that fail to meet expectations lack experience and have problems bonding. And they tend to face planning or travel issues, problems with coaching, distractions, and commitment issues. Often the best you can do is set routines that guide your attention to actions—within your control—whether you’re an Olympian or someone who values achievement.
Just like your career-defining event only happens once or a few times during your career, athletes know the Olympic Games are unique, rare, and unlike other events. They understand what they’re doing is important. And they’re in the public eye, facing new distractions everywhere.
They’ve spent an extraordinary amount of time preparing and planning for these big events too. It’s natural for an athlete to think, “This is the first time I ever...” Being a “favorite” can come with even more pressure and thoughts such as, “Don’t screw up!”
Nearly all Olympic athletes experience nerves. However, they can experience “butterflies” as excitement to some degree, rather than nervousness. Facing nervousness can be more effective than fighting it or pretending it’s not there. When Olympians or you—during career-defining moments—shift focus to little action plans within your control, gold medals and big successes can be wonderful by-products.
You probably know how good it feels to tap your foot to the beat of a familiar song. But did you know that moving your body in sync with a beat could help improve thinking and learning abilities? It might possibly repair brain injuries too.
Recent hi-tech breakthroughs show that lining up precise, repeated movements (such as hand clapping) with a certain beat could boost brainpower. Similar to how biofeedback helps you use your mind to ease stress and manage pain, this synchronized metronome training (SMT) approach helps to master the timing of these movements.
SMT is linked to improved concentration, academic performance, behavior, and muscular coordination in children diagnosed with Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It’s also a promising treatment for those diagnosed with brain-based movement disorders such as cerebral palsy, Huntington’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and stroke-related injuries. SMT offers mind-body benefits for active-duty soldiers coping with blast-related traumatic brain injuries (e.g., inattention and short-term memory loss). It’s even helped healthy golfers step up their game.
SMT helps improve fluid movements for those experiencing excess muscle tension. It also enables better concentration for those feeling distracted or anxious. People can learn to complete a task without trying too hard. Through SMT, you can train your brain by “letting” movements happen—key to its success.
Whatever your goals are, keep in mind that they’re easier to accomplish when they’re SMART goals:
It’s a well-established method for fitness-oriented goals—to lift a certain weight, cycle a century, or run a marathon in a certain amount of time—and it works equally well in other areas of life. Maybe you want to reach a specific rank at your job or finish college by a certain date. Goals aren’t just for dreaming big; they’re for achieving.
- think through exactly what you’re aiming for;
- determine if this goal is a good fit for you;
- measure and track your progress;
- use success-oriented language to think and talk about your goal; and
- break down the end goal into manageable steps.
“Sport psychology” uses the principles of psychology to help optimize performance in athletics. These concepts can be applied to just about anybody (including Warfighters) in any setting where performance matters, so sport psychology often gets dubbed “performance psychology.” Regardless of the name, this focus on the mental aspect of performance fits into a holistic approach to Human Performance Optimization (HPO).
A major focus of sport or performance psychology is mental skills training, building a “toolbox” of mental skills based on sport science and clinical/counseling psychology techniques. These scientifically based methods can be applied to Warfighter performance too. Some basic tenets of performance enhancement within military and sport settings include maintaining high awareness, motivation, and self-control, either by reducing how “amped up” you get or by learning to interpret these feelings as either meaningless or helpful to performance. A well-trained Warfighter can either calm down and think, “I’ve got butterflies, but no big deal,” or “I am psyched up and ready!”
Mental skills are important, but they’re only part of a performance psychology package. Performance psychology looks to fix or improve performance by: 1) training skills to proactively address problems, 2) improving resilience to avoid problems in the first place, 3) enhancing performance, and 4) reducing stigma around getting help with problems after they’ve appeared. In applying performance psychology to Warfighters, training is customized to meet the needs of specific groups, focused on real-life applications, and taught in a way such that skills are learned for optimal functioning both at work and at home. HPRC endorses holistic training programs that include performance psychology, such as One Shot One Kill (OSOK), a platform that helps Warfighters to customize their own systematic training.
No single mental technique can do the job for you, just as no single tool is the only one in a construction project. You can’t hammer a nail with a wrench! HPRC offers nine rules and strategies for your mind’s toolbox to help you perform your best. Check out HPRC’s Performance Strategies on “Mental skills for optimal performance” to learn more.
When you have to focus continuously for long periods of time, your brain does, in fact, become tired. Take a break: The symptoms of being mentally burned out can include irritability, lashing out at others, inability to plan, problems with decision-making, lack of drive, and performance errors. Mental fatigue can set in before you’re even aware you need a break, leading to the types of attention problems that ultimately lead to poor performance.
Mental fatigue can also include:
- Lack of clarity in your own head
- Conflict between what you’re thinking and what you are actually doing
- Feeling like you are in over your head
Mental fatigue can also make you feel tired physically, which is why it can be a greater risk for those who must sustain both focus and physical alertness. A brain busy with non-relevant matters also can be tied to feeling “spent.” You not only lose your mental edge and feel more exhausted, but you probably won’t push yourself physically as hard as you need to.
Fortunately, there are ways to combat mental fatigue. The best way is take a break and escape to a place you find relaxing or inspiring. However, if you’re in an office or on a mission, there are various mind-body strategies you can try. Mindfulness techniques are “mental push-ups” that strengthen as well as refresh your brain, so give them a try and give your brain a break.
Making it into a Special Operations Force (SOF) is challenging, to say the least; it requires intense physical and mental stamina. A keynote presentation at the 2013 Association for Applied Sport Psychology Conference highlighted what it takes to be an SOF “Tactical Athlete.” It focused on the ability to “embrace the ‘suck’” (grueling experiences) and remain alert during periods of extreme discomfort—hot, cold, wet, or dry—along with heavy gear, noise, and fatigue.
Unlike most athletes, there is no “season,” so SOFs are required to always be on. This means intense training is part of the SOF experience—a selection process where “survival of the fittest” is the rule. Some of the physical characteristics that can help a person withstand the training are endurance, strength, coordination, and flexibility. Those selected to be SOF personnel also tend to possess the following mental characteristics:
- Above-average IQ: Most are brighter than most other people, and those of average intelligence optimize what they have.
- Complex reasoning: They can grasp and reason through abstract concepts.
- Tolerance of ambiguity: SOFs accept when they are not in control and do their best under those circumstances.
- Situational awareness: They can usually remain aware of their surroundings while tuning into what is most relevant.
- Good decision-making: They have good judgment, even in uncomfortable conditions.
- Mental flexibility: SOFs are able to adapt rather than get stuck on certain beliefs.
And in terms of personality, SOFs generally are:
- Emotionally stable: They do not usually experience extreme highs or lows.
- Stress-tolerant: SOFs accept and cope with stress rather than try to escape it.
- In control of their behavior: They act in accordance with their values, keeping their creed in mind.
- Self-confident: They are not consumed with self-doubt or rigidly confined by other people’s rules but possess their own strong moral compass.
- In control of aggression: SOFs are able to use their aggression in a targeted manner.
- Self-reliant: While they can work well with a team, they are also highly independent.
- Motivated: SOFs tend to have a very strong work ethic.
Finally, success with SOF training begins in part with an attitude. Anyone who yearns to be an SOF must above all cultivate an ability to turn attention outwards amidst “the suck.” Grueling conditions become a cue to remember that your comrades are also hurting and that each of you depends on the others to work hard. Taken together, SOFs embrace their membership in this elite group as an identity.
For more information on mental resilience —or what it takes to overcome adversity and grow stronger—check out HPRC’s Mental Resilience section.
You know the positive effects of exercise on your health: how it can benefit every part of the body and dramatically extend your lifespan. But did you know that—in addition to reducing risk factors for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and hypertension—exercise also can play a role in helping some mental health issues? Physical fitness and regular exercise appear to buffer against depression and anxiety, promote calmness, enhance mood, and help protect against the negative effects of stress.
Exercise also can benefit your brain in other ways. Exercise benefits learning and memory, protects the brain from degeneration, and increases the brain’s ability to adapt after new experiences. Physical fitness and regular exercise promote both physical and mental resilience—something that is important for all to think about.