Why Mindfulness is the Next Frontier in Sports Performance | GQ

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Why Mindfulness is the Next Frontier in Sports Performance | GQ

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Michael Gervais is a sports psychologist who works with athletes in “high stakes, consequential environments.” Sometimes those stakes are as low as winning and losing (he’s worked with the Seattle Seahawks for eight years) and sometimes they are as high as living and dying (like in his work with Felix Baumgartner, the Austrian who free dove from 130,000 feet as part of Red Bull’s 2012 Stratos project). No matter the consequences, his end goal remains the same: to help his clients respond constructively to high stress environments.

“I’m fortunate to work with people that are some of the most extraordinary thinkers and doers in the world, and in some cases they’re working in operating environments where mistakes are costly,” Dr. Gervais says. “To operate well in those environments requires a mastery of craft, a mastery of your body and mastery of mind… [those people are] teaching and informing the rest of us, in many ways, what it means to have a full command of one’s inner life and to be able to apply it on command in rugged hostile and stressful environments.”

This is, of course, a very fancy way of saying that Dr. Gervais helps his clients be more mindful. If that word just made you cringe, we hear you. Mindfulness is—and has been for some time—the panacea du jour in the wellness world, so overused it’s effectively devoid of substance. But Dr. Gervais’s work goes deeper than your usual run-of-the-mill “take five deep breaths and let serenity cascade over you.” (Though, to be clear: he is a fan of deep breathing.)

He is tasked with helping patients be hyper-aware in situations that threaten to transport them to anywhere except wherever they currently are (the deafening noise of an opposing stadium, 130,000 feet above earth, at the mercy of gravity’s will). The success some of his clients have had in that regard—Russell Wilson, a contender for this year’s NFL MVP, chief among them—proves a compelling case not just for why, in his hands, awareness is not some bullshit hack, but why it might actually be a future pillar of elite sports performance (alongside nutrition, recovery, and strength and conditioning, which, Gervais, points out, were once viewed with cynicism, too).

And why does any of this matter for you? Maybe your environment doesn’t contain “about to leap from the stratosphere” levels of stress. But the modern world is still leaving many of us feeling overworked, under-recovered, anxious, and alone. Here, Gervais walks you through some of the techniques that have proven most effective in his years on the job—the tools that have allowed his patients to build mental resilience, feel more confident and capable, and fortify their inner world against external adversity.

First off: how would you define confidence?
Confidence is, essentially, “I think I can do that thing over there.” Confidence is not “I can.” Confidence is “That looks hard—I think I have the skills to match it.” Confidence comes from one place and one place only: what you say to yourself. It’s not built on past success. Past success certainly has a great influence on it, but confidence essentially has to pass through the gate of what you say to yourself. The good news about that is, ultimately, we are responsible for what we say to ourselves. It’s a trainable skill. So, by default, confidence is trainable, and it’s 100% under our control.

It’s interesting that you say it’s not built on past success. Because I feel like when you think of confidence, it’s: “Look at all the cool shit I’ve done.”
Past success alone is not enough. It’s knowing how to use and pull past success into an appropriate appraisal of the demands that you’re about to meet. And if you believe you can meet those demands based on your skills and your state of being, you got it.

How many of the people that you work with struggle with confidence?
Well, I think that that’s a human thing. I think most of us want to do something extraordinary in life and we want to live and be the best versions of ourselves. That means we’re going to go into spaces and places where we’re a bit over our skis. But being a little out of control of things—it sounds so trite—that’s where learning takes place. And that’s also where capacity is built.

Think of it like a balloon: when we breathe into a balloon it expands at the edges, and becomes a bit thinner. In the center of the balloon, the center of our comfort zone, we’re super skilled. We know we can sit at the couch and be fine. When we get to the edges, we are not skilled. That’s where we start to go, “Do I have what it takes because I’m not proficient in this space?”

We aren’t teaching kids and young people the mechanics of confidence, which is self-talk. And there’s two basic camps of self-talk: positive productive self-talk, and that more critical biting destructive, negative self-talk.

What are some of the exercises you have clients you’ve worked with used to sort of quiet the destructive side and enhance the productive side?
It begins with awareness. The first order of business with anything that has to do with the psychology of excellence or the psychology of growth is becoming aware of your inner experience. And then having the tools and skills to navigate it, to make it better. One of the great practices to increase awareness is mindfulness. And mindfulness training has been around 2600 years. Modern science is saying, “We should pay attention. It’s really doing some good stuff here.” [laughs] Brain chemistry, brain structure, behavioral, psychological changes that are happening for people that are meditating and doing mindfulness—it’s extraordinary.

Mindfulness has two basic core tenets. One is awareness and the second is wisdom. And the linking between the two is the present moment and insight. So let me deconstruct that for just a minute. Awareness of what? Awareness of our thoughts, emotions, our body sensations and the unfolding environment around us. If we had an increase in awareness of those four things and we stopped there, we would butcher the ancient beauty, the tradition that’s presented—but we would be a better performer and a better doer. We would become more aware and we could adjust more eloquently to when our thoughts are off, when our emotions are not conducive to the task at hand. You can see that from a sports lens for sure.

But we’d fall far short from the deeper part of mindfulness which is wisdom. And so how does that take place? Well, you can’t be in a conversation with somebody that’s a wise man or woman and become wise. You can’t read a book of wisdom and become wise. You have to earn it. And the way that you earn it is through spending increased frequency of time in the present moment. Now, the cool thing about the present moment is when you stitch moment one, with moment two, with moment three, that’s where high performance is expressed. And it’s also where wisdom is revealed through insight.

One of the things that pulls us out of the present moment is critique, is judgment: This isn’t right, this isn’t good enough. I’m not right. I’m not good enough. I can’t. All of that negative constricting, destructive type of thinking pulls us from being into this moment, whatever this moment is. And so that’s the game inside the game: becoming aware of that inner experience and then having the tools to navigate.

We’ve got to earn the right to be optimistic by finding the things that can be good, and building a framework around that, as opposed to this naïve, “Hey, just be positive, everything’s good.” You can get there by saying something that builds you up: “You know what, I put in the work. Let’s go. I love being tried. Try me.” That type of chip or confidence-building mechanism works.

Meta curator team

Meta curator team

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