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Mental skills for optimal performance

Warfighters and other kinds of athletes share stories of when they were able to rise to the occasion, performing optimally in the face of major challenges. The media calls this “the zone,” while researchers call this optimal mental state “flow.” You can’t force flow to happen, but you can set the stage to help you fall into it. Learning mental skills can help.

There are concrete actions you can take to help your performance.

Rule #1

Rule: Be strategic with how you set goals. Goal setting helps your performance by guiding your attention, mobilizing your effort, increasing your persistence, and helping you form specific strategies. Some driven people do it without thinking about it, but goal setting is a skill that can be developed, and using a standard approach can help you more systematic.

Strategy: Set SMART Goals—goals that are Specific, Measurable, Action-Oriented/Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Phased. Using these criteria to set your goals can make them more achievable. HPRC has a few resources (a card and a worksheet) to help you make this happen.

Rule #2

Rule: Steer your thoughts in positive directions and build better habits. We all have times when we are self-critical. This doesn’t make you feel good or help you to perform better. Trying to block out negative thoughts (such as, “I stink”) can sometimes lead to more of them. Instead, become aware of your thoughts in the first place and have more influence over what happens next…avoiding paralysis by analysis.

Strategy 2a: Take charge of your thoughts. If your thoughts make you feel crummy or seem to impair your performance, you can practice taking charge of them with instructional or motivational self-talk. Instructional self-talk means mentally talking yourself through the steps of a task in order to complete it successfully. Motivational self-talk uses positive phrases to encourage yourself to stay on track and work through challenges. Check out HPRC’s Answer on steering self-talk.

Strategy 2b: Accept mental “chatter” as meaningless noise. It’s okay to notice that these thoughts are there without accepting them as facts. Imagine if basketball players took their opponents’ fans seriously during foul shots. The self-doubt they would absorb would lead to misses every time. Treating your inner critic as background noise by ignoring it is another way to maintain focus when it counts.

Rule #3

Rule: Rehearse what you want to do. You have many training opportunities, but obstacles such as injuries, limits on resource availability, or down times during deployment can prevent you from keeping your skills such as marksmanship sharp. However, even if you don’t have technology to simulate physical practice, you can still practice in your mind’s eye.

Strategy: Engage mental imagery. Using your imagination to practice skills in your mind’s eye, it is important to:

  • Consider great athletes such as Michael Phelps and the Blue Angels, and think about how you too can use mental imagery.
  • Incorporate all your senses, not just your vision.
  • Experience vivid movement sensations within your imagination, even if you’re mostly still.
  • Imagine yourself in control of the action, whether you picture it as if it’s through your own eyes, or as if you are watching as a bystander.
  • Learn from your mistakes, but focus more on how you want to perform, not just on what went wrong.
  • Create and use an imagery script to help guide your development of a skill.
  • Consider recording an audio script so you are able to engage fully, with your eyes closed.

Rule #4

Rule: Learn habits to help you focus. Sometimes it’s hard to pay attention to the task at hand. Other times you may actually be paying attention but simply using the wrong kind of attention. Attention can be focused inward or outward. At the same time, it can be narrow—focused on a single thing—or broad—spread across many things. When you run on autopilot, unconscious of where your attention is fixed, you can’t ensure that you use the right kind of attention. Awareness and routines can help.

Strategy: Develop routines. Be aware of when you can improve your actions (such as aiming your weapon) by developing a routine. Become intentional about your focus rather than running on autopilot. Be aware of when you are in your own head or tuned to the outside world, and notice how narrow or broad your focus is. Figure out what routines work for you in various activities, and integrate effective strategies to perform your best. And remember that routines should be well rehearsed but flexible.

Rule #5

Rule: Maximize energy to perform. Ideally, your energy comes from a healthy lifestyle. In the real world, for every good lifestyle “Plan A,” there is also a decent “Plan B.”

Strategy: Get good sleep, exercise, and nutrition. Warfighters often get limited sleep, especially during deployment. To the extent that it’s possible, try going to bed at the same time every night to get into a good rhythm. Work on getting seven to eight hours of sleep per night. If that’s not possible, consider squeezing in naps to reach a total of eight hours and avoid sleep debt. Always get at least some exercise during the day; this will improve your sleep quality at night. Avoid energy drinks, as they may be nutritionally sketchy and make sleep more difficult. Avoid looking at computer, TV, and other electronic screens just before you go to sleep, as this disrupts hormones associated with good sleep. And during waking hours, be sure to fuel your performance with good nutrition.

Rule #6

Rule: Take time to manage stress. Excitement, anxiety, and stress (especially “good stress”) can be energizing when it is time for action. For optimal performance, though, you need a balance between being “amped up” and being relaxed. Breathing well can help you maintain this kind of energy.

Strategy 6a: Breathe to be mentally calm and physically “amped up.” There are times when you simply won’t be able to get enough downtime, but you can use stress-management techniques to help maintain your energy. Breathing at a slower pace—around four seconds inhale and six seconds exhale—will enhance your "heart rate variability.” Physiologically, this allows you to feel calm, alert, and able to focus.

Strategy 6b: Find the stress-management techniques that work for you. Techniques enhance the connection between your mind and body, triggering your body’s “relaxation response.” These techniques include deep breathing, guided imagery, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, and others. To learn more, check out HPRC’s “Influence your stress and relaxation responses.”

Rule #7

Rule: Be proactive. Seek help when you need it. Ultimately, bigger issues than stress can impede performance. Substances such as tobacco, alcohol, and drugs can mask bigger problems, and addiction is certainly an obstacle to performance. TBI-related issues, PTSD, anxiety, and depression also have a big impact on performance and overall well-being. Don’t try to manage them on your own.

Strategy: Seek help early. Warning signs include problems with mood, energy, sleep, eating, relationships, and/or risk-taking behaviors. Being proactive can help you stay in the game, perform your best, and be able to look out for yourself and others. While Rule #7 can help to mitigate and possibly even prevent bigger problems, don’t wait to reach out to others (friends, relatives, and mental health professionals). In the event of a crisis, here are some resources to help keep you and others safe.