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Is it possible to steer my mind to improve my performance?

Question

I’ve noticed that I often perform my best at most anything (PFT, marksmanship, first-aid) when my mind is quiet. But sometimes my brain is full of both relevant and less relevant chatter. Does this kind of “self-talk” help or hurt? What should I do with these thoughts?

BLUF

Some peak performers try to take charge of their thoughts while others work on accepting them. Both approaches seem to make sense even though they are different. Learn about these two approaches and start developing your own mixture of strategies, capitalizing on positive thoughts to perform your best, either shifting away from or simply experiencing (without fighting) the less productive thoughts.

Overview

Warrior athletes often tune into how self-talk (internal chatter) affects performance. You can try to take charge of your thoughts because positive thoughts are helpful. Or you can accept thoughts because experiencing a thought (without acting on it) won’t hurt you.

Take charge: Redirect your thoughts by challenging useless thoughts and supporting helpful ones. For instance, if you are doing a first-aid drill as “shtuff” is hitting the fan, notice thoughts such as “I can’t do this” and then practice the following take-charge techniques:

  • Switch gears to try out the thought “Do what you can…you got it” while you continue to do your best.
  • Adopt a performance mindset by:
  1. Tuning into right NOW.
  2. Coaching yourself through the steps (for example, “We’re safe right now; Is he conscious? Got this…Time for AVPU-Alert? Responding to my voice? Feeling pain? Unresponsive?”)
  3. Shifting to steps away from how it’s all going to turn out (such as shifting from “he’s not gonna make it” to “open his airway”).
  • Use mind-body strategies such as:
    • Mental imagery: Use images in your brain and feelings in your body to tune in to what’s most important right now.
    • Goal setting: In non-emergencies, think through the specific steps that need to happen.
    • Energy-management techniques: Get just enough “amped” or just enough calm to do what’s needed.
    • Routines to influence attention: Let your trained routines help guide your attention to where it’s most needed.

Accept: Rather than engaging in mental combat with yourself (such as “I can’t do this. I can too. No, I can’t…”), notice your self-talk without taking it so seriously. Remember, just because you think something doesn’t make it true. For instance, using the same example of a first-aid drill, you might notice that unhelpful dialogue and...

  • Simply be mindful of it without attaching significance to it. Notice perhaps, that the thought makes you anxious (some anxiety is not catastrophic). Don’t bother judging it. Criticizing yourself for thoughts such as “I can’t” can actually make the thought linger.
  • Experience it. Allow yourself to notice it without having to do anything about it; rather, let it come and go.
  • Do what’s right. Freaking out isn’t going to help the situation. Simply do what you know is right, even if you know it’s hard.

Both take-charge and acceptance approaches are aimed at helping you to perform without thinking too much, hopefully setting the stage for flow. Figure out what combination of approaches works for you by experimenting with them, and then consistently use what seems to work.