Friday, September 22, 2017

Strengthening Your Mental Core

The word "core" in the physical fitness and conditioning world has become a buzzword.  Like the physical core, there is also a mental core related to mental conditioning. Physical core training is about increasing power, strength and stabilization.  So, is the training of your mental core.

Many fitness buffs often think only of sit-ups and crunches as the secret to strengthening the core. True fitness experts know that there is much more to the core than an impressive six-pack.  Similarly, many athletes and coaches think that the mental core is simply just about developing mental toughness (the equivalent of a mental core six-pack).  The mental core is much more than mental toughness.

The mental core creates a solid, fundamental, and broad base for your overall mental fitness and, thus, your subsequent ability to perform successfully.

So, what does constitute the mental core? Here are some of my thoughts.   
  • Internal Dialogue/Self-Talk -  simply put, these are the things you say to yourself about yourself, your opponent, your teammates, your coach, the fans.  It also includes what you say to your during practice, during your performance in games, during time-outs, after games. Often the things you say to yourself about yourself are harsh, toxic and distract you from your performance.  The real problem with our cognitive mindset is that that it is often stuck in evaluation activities when it should be focused on other tasks (such as gathering information, skill acquisition, rehearsal, and execution, for example).   Increasing your awareness of your internal dialogue/self-talk and its effect on your performance will have a great influence on your performance skills.  Additionally, it is important to realize that silencing your inner critic and internal "chatter" is more useful that simply changing your self-talk from negative to positive. 
  • Pre- and Post-Performance Recovery Skills -  here, emphasis is placed on the importance of developing a set of skills and activities that provide you with an opportunity to fully recover mentally from performances and competition that is as crucial as physical recovery.   Evidence is mounting that both mental and physical recovery skills (including sleep) are more important than we ever considered in the past.  
  • Resilience - this refers to your skill and ability to quickly and fully bounce back from setbacks, to deal with adversity, learn from mistakes and effectively put your mistakes behind you.  Only recently has resilience been seriously considered as a component of mental toughness.   Resilience includes carefully obtaining, valuing, and incorporating constructive feedback.   
  • Systems Thinking - in the case of your mental core, this refers to your awareness and understanding of the matrixed complexity, interrelatedness and connection of multiple factors involved in your performance. It also refers to the idea that in order to affect real behavioral change, a system that provides structure and consistency must be put into place.  Systems thinking in this context implies that mental conditioning and strengthening of your mental core requires you to become a student of mental conditioning, sports and performance psychology (as well as a student of your sport).  
  • Anxiety Management - refers to the idea that 1)  anxiety is a part of performance and competition; 2)  mental fitness includes the acknowledgment and management rather than the eradication of anxiety; 2) that excitement and anxiety can be two words for the same thing; and, 3)  the goal of mental conditioning can't and shouldn't be to eliminate anxiety.  
  • Emotional Intelligence - emotional intelligence (and related skills) is an important and necessary component of performance enhancement in players, coaches, and teammates. Emotional intelligence involves the understanding of the critical role that emotional information and social interactions play in performance and success. Evidence suggests that emotional intelligence is an important characteristic of effective leadership and team development as well as coaching effectiveness.
  • Confidence - this component of your mental core is one of the characteristics that has been long considered critical to success in any endeavor, including sports and the performing arts. In this model of the mental core, confidence is defined as a general sense that one's skills and abilities are capable of achieving one's desired outcomes.  Many people include this component in their idea of mental toughness.  Confidence is particularly dependent upon a health cognitive mindset.  
  • Preparation Skills - this factor suggests that 1)  success is related to one's understanding and awareness that personal growth occurs through the methodical process of continuous learning and development of skills, rather than inherent, genetically-informed and pre-ordained talent; and, 2) is highly influenced by your desire and willingness to consistently spend long-hours of monotonous, focused, disciplined, repetitive activity to improve and perfect your skills and abilities.  
  • Mindfulness - this important factor of the mental core refers to a broad set of skills that include mental imagery and visualization, relaxation and meditation skills, focusing and centering skills (that are useful in practice, preparation, performance, recovery and evaluation activities of athletes and coaches). Mindfulness approaches can be very helpful to post-performance recovery and injury recovery.  
Note that there has been increasing evidence that body language is important in performance.  Be aware of your body language; however, I have seen increasing evidence that body language is more of a indicator of the strength of your mental core than a factor or component of the mental core.  

Assess these core components of your mental core.  Start by identifying your mental core strengths and limitations in each of these areas.  Focus on and leverage your strengths while also learning more about how to shore up your limitations.  Learn to use these basic skills to build a foundation for mental core training.

Future blog posts will go into more detail about your mental core.  Please let me know if you have any comments or questions about your mental core below.

For more information about mental conditioning and your mental core, download my mobile app.
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Also,check out my sports and performance psychology book, Razor Thin:  The Difference Between Winning and Losing.  You can purchase it at

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Super Bowl LI Match-up: The Tale of Two Mindsets

Let's take a look at some factors that may influence the outcome of Super Bowl LI between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons.

The Franchise Systems
  • Arthur Blank, co-founder of Home Depot and current owner of the Atlanta Falcons has a long history of success as a businessman, and has a set of leadership principles that he follows closely.   
Advantage:  New England Patriots

Super Bowl Experience
  • This is Bill Belichick's seventh Super Bowl appearance with Tom Brady as his starting quarterback. They have won four of the six Super Bowls they have participated in.  Brady was voted MVP for Super Bowls XXXVI, XXXVIII and XLIX.
  • This is the second appearance in the Super Bowl for the Atlanta Falcons since their were founded in 1966.  It is their first Super Bowl since the 1998 season.  Dan Quinn has been an assistant coach for Seattle Seahawks during their Super Bowl appearances.  He knows what it is like, but he has not been head coach there.  
Advantage:  New England Patriots

Mental Conditioning, Team Training and Team Building
  • In the off-season, Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff and director of sports medicine and performance Marty Lauzon had a four day team-building session with seven veteran Navy SEALs of Acumen Performance Group.  
  • Falcon head coach Dan Quinn spent several years with the Seattle Seahawks and their head coach Pete Carroll.  The Seahawks embrace the use of mental conditioning and employ various high-profile mental conditioning coaches, including Michael Gervais and George Mumford (Michael Jordan's meditation ) guru.
  • Bill Belichick is a master of getting his teams prepared for playoff and Super Bowl games.  He understands the mental aspect of the game as well as anyone.   
Advantage:  Atlanta Falcons

  • For the past 3 years. Tom Brady uses the BrainHQ training program developed by Dr. Henry Mahncke, CEO of Posit Science.  A cognitive enhancement tool and brain training program, Brady had it installed at his TB12 Sports Center.  BrainHQ has 29 brain exercises that are done on a computer screen. One example of an exercise that Brady uses is called “Double Decision.”

  • Matt Ryan, the Atlanta Falcons quarterback uses a device called NeuroTracker that he says has helped him sharpen his cognitive skills, providing an edge when he targets receivers or chooses plays. The focus has helped fuel an MVP-caliber season.  Ryan uses the 3D glasses at least three times a week to improve peripheral vision.
Advantage:  None

  • The New England Patriots won the last Super Bowl in which they participated two years ago.
  • The Atlanta Falcons have never won the Super Bowl.  This year they have embraced "The Brotherhood" as their rallying cry.  
Advantage:  Atlanta Falcons

  • New England has been distracted by the focus the media and the public has placed on Tom Brady's alleged support of Donald Trump; the injury to star tight-end Rob Gronkowski, and the long-standing Deflategate controversy.
  • The Atlanta Falcons are slight underdogs in Las Vegas.  This may take any pressure off of them.  
Advantage:  Atlanta Falcons

Overall Advantage:  Atlanta Falcons

What is your prediction?  

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Donald Trump & the USFL: Past Behavior is the Best Predictor of Future Behavior (VIDEO)

I ran into some guy last night at a restaurant.  Admittedly a Trump voter, the stranger reluctantly expressed concern and growing regret about his vote.  His sentiments may be evidence of a growing feeling of fear in Trump voters around the country.  This is after only one week of Trump's controversial presidency.    

But if you still have any illusions (or delusions) about Donald Trump's huge talents as a successful businessman, all you have to do is look carefully at his prominent role as an owner of the New Jersey Generals of the USFL.  Founded in the early 1980s, the USFL, a professional football league, was new and it was experiencing growing pains.    

At that time, a young Trump was certainly a brash, confident promoter and salesman.  Here he is in an interview during a New Jersey Generals game.  Also, forebodingly, listen to the owner of the Birmingham Stallions throw the media under the bus for their coverage of the league.

So, let's fast forward to the story about the demise of the USFL.  Here is a video clip highlighting Mr. Trump abilities as a leader of a league that backed his strategy and, then quickly, failed miserably. No success to be found here.

Now, let's look at a interview with Mr. Trump as he shows his impatience, arrogance, and short attention span, paranoia, lack of a sense of humor and inability to learn from his mistakes as he sits for a moment with the media to reflect on his USFL experience.  Pay careful attention to his attitude toward the media.

The behavioral and social sciences, including psychology, and criminology, and law enforcement all consider past behavior as the best predictor of future behavior.   Ironically, the hotel, casino and gaming industries all believe strongly in this theory.  

So, if we look at his past behavior through the lens of these videos, what is your best guess about about the ultimate outcome of his presidency?  

No, I don't want him to fail either, but we all have to prepare for it.  


Saturday, September 10, 2016

Stan Wawrinka's Mental Toughness Powers Him to the U. S. Open Final (Video)

"Really tough for the body, a big fight physically and mentally. You need to accept to suffer and almost enjoy it, because you have no choice. I saw after the first set he would start to be tired if I pushed him physically. I know I can last for three, four, five hours. Same as against Del Potro. I need to stay with him, not go down, show him you will push him, push him again. Sometimes my brain gets lost on the tennis court. When I stay tough I can beat anybody. I know I can bring my best in a Grand Slam. Maybe because i didn't play so well in last few months." 
--Stan Wawrinka, tennis pro, speaking on ESPN following his win in the semifinals of the U.S. Open on 9/9/2016.
Stan Wawrinka sounds highly motivated as he heads into a showdown in the finals against Novak Djokovic on Sunday in New York. Can he will himself to victory? It seems that his head's on straight right now. Will it be enough for the upset?

How do you call up your mental toughness? Are you willing to suffer mentally and physically to achieve greatness?

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

NCAA Mens' Basketball Classic: A Lesson in Leadership and Courage

This is my first blog post in a while.  I had not been inspired to write recently--until this week.  The 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Final was what did it.

I have only one conclusion from watching and analyzing that wonderful game between the champion Villanova Wildcats and the runner-up North Carolina Tar Heels.

Yes, Kris Jenkins of Villanova won the game with a once-in-a lifetime, buzzer-beating, long-distance jumper.  He is the obvious hero.  However, my more important take away from that game is that, at least in basketball, you don't give the ball to your best shooter or scorer when the game is on the line. You give the ball to your leader and let him (or her) put your team in the best position to win.  On Monday night, both experienced and highly respected coaches let their leader lead.  Tar Heel head coach Roy Williams put their leader, Marcus Paige in the driver's seat at the end of the game.   Late in the game, the courageous Paige, a senior, found ways to keep the Tar Heels in the game.

Similarly, Wildcat head coach, Jay Wright, put the ball in the hands of point guard Ryan Arcidiacono. Arcidiacono, also a senior.  Arciciacono, who had show much poise and scoring ability throughout the game, ran the final play that led to the winning Jenkins jump shot.  Though he considered shooting, he made the right pass at the right time to get Jenkins the ball in a position to shoot.

Watch the video and you will see.  Leadership and courage by Paige, and then Arcidiacono, led to a classic finish and a timelessly valuable basketball lesson.

Thank you, Tar Heels.  Thank you, Wildcats.  Congratulations to both teams.  Enjoy the video!  

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Examining Peak Performance: So, What Should My Self-Talk Be?

Many mental conditioning coaches and sports psychologists have begun to emphasize positive self-talk.  It is considered an important tool in the attainment of peak performance and a key component in the mindset necessary for peak performance.  However, most experts are pretty simplistic in their use of positive self-talk:  just say positive things to yourself and don't say negative things. Unfortunately, most coaches have few specifics about exactly what to say to yourself and when.  

In my Peak Performance blogpost on June 12, 2015, I discussed the peak performance mindset. In that post, I mentioned 5 modes:

1. Experimental Mode (previously called practice mode)
2. Deliberate Rehearsal Mode
2. Preparation Mode
3. Performance Mode
4. Evaluation Mode

I also alluded to the importance of self-talk in each of the modes. I now want to introduce the idea that each mode requires a different set of specific self-talk statements.  The statements themselves are related what needs to be accomplished in each mode.

In experimental mode, the focus in on experimentation and trying new skills.  Here, you are gathering data on what works best and what is most effective.  What else can you do?  This mode is typically used in individual, solitary, informal workouts or warm-up drills. This is the mode where it is most important to challenge yourself and get out of your comfort zone.  This mode is for creativity, experimentation, but is not the point at which you commit to making a change in technique or mechanics.  You are being open to the change process, but have not committed to make a specific change.  You are trying new things. For some athletes, this is the mode that is most fun.  By definition, in this mode your self-talk requires the use of such internal self-statements as:

OK, I am in experimental mode.  I am experimenting.  I am being creative.  

Time to throw things at the wall and see what sticks.  

Let's see what happens when I try to do this.

Let me see if I can do this.

How about if I try this?

What if I adjust this skill just a little?

I am going to alter this for now and see how it feels.

I don't care how this looks.

I am just trying this on for size.

Mistakes and failures are to be expected right now. 

I enjoy the challenge of learning.

It is important for me to get out of my comfort zone.  

That's basically it for self-talk in experimental mode.

In deliberate rehearsal mode, the focus is learning.  It is about the application of successful experimentation. In this mode you are trying to apply new skills and incorporate what you have learned into your skill set. In this mode, as a result of experiments, you have committed yourself to making a specific change or changes in your skill or routine activity.  You want to change or improve your technique or mechanics and get comfortable with it.  Most importantly, you also want to commit the new or changed skill to muscle memory. The goal is mastery.  In rehearsal mode, your self-talk should sound like this:

It's time to rehearse.  It's time to sharpen my sword.

I like this new technique.

This new technique will improve my overall game.

I am committed to mastering this new skill.

As I practice, this new skill will get comfortable over time.

I will practice this new skill until I master it.

I enjoy implementing a new technique into my arsenal.

I am getting comfortable right now.

It is time to practice until I can't get it wrong.

Apply, lather, rinse, repeat (In other words).

Ok, now, in preparation mode, the focus is increasingly mental.  You are instilling and maintaining confidence, getting mentally ready. You have exited experimental and rehearsal modes and you are transitioning mentally.  You are reminding yourself of all the hard work you have done.  You get yourself ready to perform at the highest level possible. This mode includes time to mental visualize your success through the process of imagery. You should spend considerable time visualizing the successful execution of what you have rehearsed. In preparation mode (otherwise called pre-performance mode), your self-talk should include such statements as:

It is time to get mentally ready.  

I have physically prepared to the best of my ability.

I am committed to what I have rehearsed.

It is time to execute what I have practiced/learned.

I am ready.

I can see myself successfully executing my plan.

I have done this over and over again.

I know what to do.

My body is prepared to perform.

My mind is calm and relaxed.

It is time to slow my breathing down with full, deep breaths.

Time to make the donuts.

In performance mode, the focus is on execution. Your opportunity to perform is at hand.  In this mode, the mind should be at its most quiet. Muscle memory has taken over and the brain "chatter" is minimal. In performance mode, your self-statements should be very basic.

When you make a good play, you should be saying;

Good play.   Good job.  

I like that.

Just like I practiced it.

Yes, I can do this. 

That is why I worked so hard.  

Practice sure paid off.

More of the same to follow. 

I can do this again and again.
If you make a mistake, you should be saying things like:

OK, back to normal.




Move on.



OK, so what about evaluation mode?  This is the mode that most people stay in the most and have the most difficulty exiting.  Most of our self-talk tends to be evaluative in nature.     

You may have noticed that in each of the previous modes, there is little to zero criticism or evaluative statements. That is because there should be little time for evaluation in all the other previously listed modes.   Evaluation mode comes after a practice session, rehearsal or after a game, performance or event.  You needn't clutter the other modes with evaluation.

Evaluation mode is the time to say:

How did I impact the game today?  How did I influence what happened today?  

What did I do well?

What do I need to keep doing?

What do I need to do more often?

What do I need to improve? What can I do to get better?

What do I need to do less often?

What things do I need to stop doing all together?

What did I learn from my performance today? 

Did I have fun?  What was enjoyable about my game today? 

What is the next thing to master?  

Evaluation mode is a good thing, but only at the right time.  The evaluative process in any other mode is distracting and only provides unfocused chatter that is not useful nor conducive to peak performance.  

You may also notice that evaluation mode is not harsh, is not blaming, is not name-calling.  It is not a time to beat yourself up.  It is time to look objectively at your game and take a productive learning approach.  This is how you get better. This is how your learn and this is how to achieve sustainable performance increases.  This is how you succeed.  This is how you build confidence.    

There is more to come in future posts.