Hello and welcome back to Brain in the Game. Brain In The Game is a podcast that's been specifically designed for athletes, coaches and parents who are looking to do their sport just that little bit smarter. And I'm your host, Dave Diggle.
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So in this episode, episode 78, we're going to look at how to use mental performance the correct way. Now, high performance athletes can be a strange bunch at the best of times, especially when things aren't going their way. Trust me, I know. I used to be one. And the reality is I used to be quite difficult where I'd get frustrated when things weren't working for me. When things weren't how I wanted them to be, I could be a little bit difficult and very impatient. I'm sure I'm not the only one out there and I'm sure some of you listening to this are saying, 'Hey, that's me too.'
Now, on the other side of the performance fence, I've worked with elite athletes now for decades, both initially as a high performance technical coach in the gym, as a gym coach, and more recently, in the last 20 years as an elite mental performance coach. Of course, these two roles have very similar processes and a lot of similarities in how we do what we do. And of course, there's some differences too. But what is true – almost all athletes, irrespective of the way that you choose to work with them – is they can be very reactive when things aren't going their way. They'll be highly emotive and they'll make very unusual and uncharacteristic decisions when put into those positions. Now, I'm not talking about chucking tantrums, because I know a lot of them do that as well. And I've been on the receiving end of some of those, probably even had a few of those myself. I'm referring more to the strange and bizarre things they're willing to do just to try and get back on track, take back their performance and their control. When you feel that your performance is slipping away from you, it's a really scary place. And often athletes will say, I don't care what it is, I'll do whatever I can to get it back. And there are few things more scary than putting yourself out there to perform in front of everybody. Even more so when you don't feel prepared, when you don't feel like it's going to go the right way. It could be hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands or even millions of people watching you put yourself out there, knowing that it's such a public way to fail. We know some of the simple strategies athletes have used over the decades, which is from habitual behaviours, like wearing the same socks and jocks just in the way that they think it's going to control their outcome. Or putting a certain boot on before they use the other boot.
There's also those potentially damaging overworking strategies where athletes try and do more to get more. And they'll put themselves in a very challenging place because they're trying to think and control the outcome by doing more training. And of course, there's those unconventional and very dangerous use of drugs to try and take back control. Fear will drive athletes to extraordinary lengths to take back control. They'll do whatever they can because a lot of their identity is wrapped up in being an athlete. By the time I became a coach, I had realised almost everything in life takes some time to get it right. A lesson I was a little slow to learn as an athlete, I must be honest. Yes, every athlete is impatient. They want their skills now, they want to be able to perform as of yesterday. And that's what drives most athletes to be good at what they do. But it's a fine balance. And I used to think about, I'll just do more, so I'll get more. And I worked so hard in the gym so often. And the reality is, it did give me more, it gave me more injuries and ultimately it cost me my career. So that narrow thought process was really detrimental to me.
Athletes will often stop at nothing to alleviate that pain, that physical and emotional pain, to get back in control. Well, that's what most athletes come to me for, when they get to that point where they're in such a performance pain point that they're willing to do anything, including have someone like me inside their head. And they're highly reactive and they're scrambling to try and get back control of their performance and their training. Everything they've had planned for the future all of a sudden is looking very shaky. Well, traditionally, what we do in the mental performance place in the platform is we'll work on that specific issue for them over a few weeks, sometimes a few months, and atypically we'll solve that challenge for them, we'll get them back into their performance flow and often the urgency dissipates and they're back in control. They're doing what they need to do and what we've put in place just fades into the distance. Now, at this point, what most athletes should do is be really smart about preventative strategies and put in place a mental process to help them control, get more consistency in their performance, to maintain the dominance of how they perform, to create mental toughness and mental resilience and emotional resilience to pressure, to performance anxiety and to that imposter syndrome.
These are things that have plagued them to get to the point where they were frustrated in the first place. They're putting strategies in place to not get there again. It's just smart. Some do. But the vast majority of them don't.
Life as a professional athlete is challenging at the best of times and probably way more challenging than most non-athlete people realise. And that's because your whole world is on show all the time. You're always on, you're always asked at being the best version of you 24/7 seven days a week. And there's a lot of people out there willing to judge you on that just based off your competition. So I get it, I understand. I understand why a lot of athletes do get that emotional panic when something's not going right. But because you're an emotional processor and you're out there putting yourself out there, there's always going to be another pain point.
Now, I'll be honest with you, I'm not a cat fan. I'm more of a dog kind of person. I don't really like cats. They're a little bit needy for me and can be a one way street when it comes to commitment.
So picture this. You're sitting in your home late one night, just about to go to bed. You've been contemplating your day and you can hear this cat meowing. And you think, I don't have a cat. Why can I hear a cat? Constantly meowing. You can't see a cat, but the consistent meowing goes on and on and it's starting to get inside your head. You can hear the cat going on and on and on. You can easily distract yourself by doing other things, thinking about other things, planning the next day. But every time there's a bit of a silence, you can hear the cat. So you open the back door and lo and behold, there's a cat sitting there looking at you with wanting eyes, big needy eyes. Meowing, obviously hungry. So you do the right thing. You emotionally, responsively, you get down there and you feed that cat, you give them whatever food you've got and you think, right, I've done the right thing, I fed the cat. Not my cat, I don't have a cat. But whoever's cat that is, it was obviously hungry and I've done the right thing and I've fed that cat. You can go to bed now, feeling good about who you are, feeling good about the things that you've done. You've stopped one hungry cat in the world.
The next night, just as you fall asleep, you can hear that cat meowing again. And you bolt out of bed and go, it's back. The cat's back. So you go back downstairs and you open the back door. Lo and behold, there's that cat looking at you, wantingly, thinking, it must be hungry again. So you get down there, you get the food you've got. You might have even gone out that day and bought extra food for a cat that you don't have. So you feed that cat. It doesn't do anything else other than just want from you. So then you close the door, you go back to bed, and you think, right, I've done the right thing again. I've fed that cat. I've gone back to bed. By the third week of sleepless nights, you're beginning to not feel so sorry and so lovingly towards that bloody cat. Every night when you get in bed, you hear that cat. It wakes you up even when you start to fall asleep, and bang! You can hear meow meow, the cat's back again. It's clearly not actually hungry anymore because every night you're feeding it. You're running down here and giving it food, but it keeps coming back, keeps scratching at the back door. And every night you're getting up and you're feeding that cat. You try to sleep, but even when it's quiet, you can still hear the cat. Even if the cat's not there. Sometimes you hear that cat during the day. Sometimes you could be out doing the shopping, you look around, and think there's a cat, but it's not. You'd be sitting, having dinner, and you can hear the cat. And even if you can't hear that cat, you're listening for that cat. You can't manage the silence because the silence filled through your thoughts of where's that cat? What if it's lost? What if it's still hungry? What if no one else is out there looking after it? What if that cat dies? What would people say about me if that cat dies? It's not even my cat. But what would they say if that cat's found dead in the road, and I could have prevented that?
You have become a cat owner, and that cat is not leaving anytime soon. It's a one way relationship that you have now just bought into. And of course, we're not really talking about cats anyway. We're talking about your emotions and those emotional reactions to things that are going on around you. That cat is your emotional codependent partner. When you get in bed at night, what's meowing inside your head is those thoughts of what could go wrong. What if other people think of this? What if I can't do this? That's your emotional cat. You're feeding it. Feeding your emotional silence then creates an emotional enabler in you. And a dependent is not looking to leave anytime soon. It's your emotional resilience that is the injured party here.
I have a saying to my clients and that is I'm not your paracetamol. Now that sounds really strange, but what I mean by that is you can't tuck your emotional and your mental welfare way and not deal with it, not put any process around it until something goes wrong and then pop an emotional paracetamol – me – in to fix it. You have to create an environment around you that is happy, healthy, and you have control over. It takes effort because it saves you pain and makes you mentally resilient to things around you. Those emotions.
Of course, I'm biassed to the importance of mental preparation and the imperative nature that it needs to be part of your every single day process, as an athlete, as a person. I want you to think of it like this. Think of it like an F1 racing car. Now, there's around 1000 people that work on Lewis Hamilton's car to get it on the track. That Mercedes F1 vehicle costs around $30 million just to get it on the track. Now, having worked in the racing industry myself, I can tell you there is an army of people who pour over every piece of data that comes out of that car. Every time that car pulls in, there's a multitude of computers that get plugged in. All the data comes out and people pour all over it, making micro adjustments to improve the aerodynamics of the car, the wings, making sure that everything they're doing is optimised to gain that 0.001% of a lap time. To manage better fuel consumption. They even change the paint construction to get that better aerodynamics in different weather conditions. And don't even get me started on the tire technology. It's like a NASA focus trying to get the tires and the temperatures right.
But if you think about it, the numbers might be very different. There might not be 1000 people or $30 million, but the focus is exactly the same. Most athletes spend copious amounts of time, effort and money on building their body. Like that F1 vehicle, like that car that goes out on the track. They focus on their physicality, the hours in the gym, the time they spend at the track, the pool side, or whatever they're doing to see what they can see as an improvement. Then just as many hours focusing on their technical advancements, their skill acquisition, the skill retention to make sure that they've got the best technique just in case. They want to make sure that everything is perfect. Now if you think about that $30 million F1 vehicle, the crazy amounts of money they put into that, the crazy amount of people and time that goes into that. What if Mercedes walked out in the street and just grabbed anybody off the street and go, 'Hey Average Joe, I want you to get in that vehicle and just drive. I want you to get in there and I want you to be the racing car driver.'
What do you think would happen? In my observations, one of five things are most likely to happen.
Number one and most obvious thing is nothing. Most people, if you put them in that and they wanted to go out and race, the second you put them in that rocket with four wheels, they'd go, not doing it. No way, I'm out. So the reality is most people just wouldn't do it. They wouldn't want to put themselves in that situation. What an absolute waste of an opportunity. $30 million vehicle, every aerodynamic opportunity. Most people wouldn't do it.
The second is underperformance. If you do manage to get somebody, put them in that vehicle and they can get it in gear, they can get it out on the track, the reality is they'd probably underperform. They'd go particularly slow, they wouldn't know what they needed to do and they'd be driven by fear. They'd probably limp around that track really slowly. And that again is frustrating and a great disappointment because everybody involved has put so much time, effort and money into building that vehicle.
You know the old saying, it's better to have loved and lost than never loved at all? I'd wager most athletes, you could not say it's better to have competed and lost than to have never competed at all. Because every athlete, I think, is highly competitive. And we'd call BS on that. Oh, yeah, it's just about being part of it – BS. They want to be out, they want to be competitive. They want to be that competitive winner. That's why they're there in the first place.
The third option is if that random driver does get out on that track and they are slightly competitive, then the likelihood is they're probably not going to manage the vehicle particularly well. They'll be consumed with the end step. How do they get there? What do I need to do? I've got to finish this. This could be as simple as running out of fuel, not putting in what they expect to get out.
The fourth, something is going to break. The reality is, you get that person out there, they put the pedal to the metal, they are brave enough to drive as hard as they possibly can. They're not going to manage the vehicle, something's going to break.
And the fifth option, and probably the most scariest option, is they're going to crash. They can't maintain that.
Now we're talking about an F1 vehicle. But these analogies are relevant to any athlete. Be that driven by fear, disappointment, running on empty, breaking down or crashing. Emotionally, all of these are relevant for every athlete in every sport. You don't need 1000 people and $30 million to realise that we've all got the opportunity and potential to be there. And just like that F1 metaphor, you and your mental resilience is the driver in that vehicle. You can spend all that time building the body, but if the driver isn't optimised, then it's a waste. So is your driver fit for purpose? Are you getting the most out of the way that you can prepare by managing your mental, your emotional, and your cognitive development? Are you trained to control the vehicle?
Mental preparation is not a paracetamol, it's a priority. It needs to be part of your every single day preparation so that the driver can optimise that vehicle.
And who's feeding your bloody cat? Make sure that you manage your emotions. Make sure that you get the most out of everything you possibly can, based off process and results, not fear and anxiety.
Now, I hope this has shone a light on the importance of mental and emotional resilience and how it can be best used for you as an athlete to create consistency, to create replicability and to create a positive outcome. Making sure that you can optimise.
And remember this and all future episodes of Brain in the Game are now available on YouTube. Search Dave Diggle you can watch them and listen to them on Smartmind.com and again also through your favourite podcast platforms. And so, until the next episode of Brain in the Game, train smart and enjoy the ride. My name is Dave Diggle. I look forward to seeing you then.