I’m sure you’ve heard the phrases “move fast, breathe slow” or “keep your eyes on the prize” in your journey through fitness and athletics over the years. If you haven’t, I’m glad to share these exhortations with you, and also to break down the science behind them.
A more recent movement in the applied sciences has been the emergence of what is referred to as “mental performance.” But what exactly is mental performance?
In reality, it is nothing new. It is simply a modality of sports psychology which has, in recent years, taken more of a front seat in the world of fitness and athletics, creating a more holistic approach to optimizing human performance through mindset training and preparation. Mental performance refers to the internal conscious and subconscious activities that enable external results or the tools and practices that we incorporate on a daily basis in order to ensure real life success.
The question remains, how does this correlate to my fitness and why should I care?
I’ll start by debunking three common misconceptions about training our mindset, then share four tools to ensure our success.
The three most common misconceptions of mental performance are:
- Mental performance can’t be trained or improved.
- Mental performance is about external results.
- You only need to work on mental performance if you have a problem.
What these three misconceptions imply is that we have neither the need nor capacity to improve our mental performance, cultivate resilience or develop a stronger mind. My argument would be that, one, there are plenty of tools and practices available to us in order to enhance mental resilience. Two, our external results will speak for themselves when we have mastered our inner world. And three, there is always room for growth, regardless of how stable we believe our mindset to be.
Today, I want to camp out on misconception #1: “You can’t train or improve mental performance”—again, understanding mental performance as the internal conscious or subconscious activities that enable external results, or the tools and practices that we incorporate on a daily basis in order to ensure real life success. These are the activities that increase our discipline, strong-mindedness and mental resilience, which directly correlate to an increase in outward performance measures.
What I have found, and what human psychology suggests as the best methods for improving performance, is what is known as “The Big Four.”
The Big Four consists of four modalities for training the brain to operate in its highest form of executive functioning, mental acuity, cognitive awareness and mental resilience.
- Breath Work
Self-talk helps to manage internal dialogue that is critical to maintaining peak mental performance. Training helps to identify and correct unproductive self-talk and facilitate helpful self-talk.
Goal-setting and management enables peak performance. Mental performance training helps athletes to set healthy goals and manage the process of pursuing them in a productive way.
Visualization refers to mental preparedness in pressurized situations. It’s less about picturing results and more about envisioning the process: becoming a person who performs x, y, or z habits, or developing bulletproof routines and rhythms that become second nature and drive success.
Breath work is a physiological mechanism that impacts mental performance: it helps to regulate the autonomic nervous system and the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for fight-or-flight responses, which activates under pressure). Typically, in high-stress contexts, the amygdala takes over, minimizing the role of the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that enables conscious decision-making). Breathing techniques can enable athletes to use both functions during high-pressure moments— essentially granting them the best of both worlds, and ultimately creating harmony or a healthy interaction and tension between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the nervous system.
To tie it all together and return to our initial question—circling back to the above mantras, “move fast, breathe slow” and “keep your eyes on the prize”—we see each of our mental performance practices played out in real-life application. “Move fast, breathe slow” illustrates our self-talk and breath work disciplines. This might look like an affirmation that athletes speak to themselves or a mantra that they recite in their minds as they are in the midst of their sport, training session, etc. Both activities have shown evidence of increasing an athlete's performance.
In the same way, the mantra “keep your eyes on the prize” demonstrates the other two modalities for mental performance. One could argue that this phrase might even incorporate the self-talk practice as well. Nevertheless, identifying the end goal and maintaining focus on the process embodies the methods of visualization and goal- setting, allowing for an individual to measure and track their progress, internalize the bigger picture and mentally encompass a process, in order to achieve or ensure success.
In conclusion, these practices combine to make one a master of their internal world, in order to ensure outward success and performance. The more we grow in these disciplines, exercise self-awareness, and incorporate activities and inputs that challenge us to become better versions of ourselves, we increase our ability to navigate obstacles and overcome adversity. Whether in life or fitness, when our hard work in the gym, dialed-in nutrition, stress management, environmental inputs and more meet mindset training and mental performance, science suggests that we will optimize and increase our physical preparedness, mental acuity, cognitive functioning and ensure tangible, physical results and achievements.