The following is a transcript from Process2Perform episode 42: Being Present
My first taste of the addiction that is sports was around 5 or 6 years old – we had just moved to SoCal – my dad’s new company had Dodgers season tickets that we could always grab, and the Lakers were in the middle of their Showtime dynasty. Good time to be a kid in SoCal if you were into sports. SC was a national contender and we had both LA football franchises as well. Then the following year the Olympics summer games came to LA in ’84. This was the Mary Lou Retton and Carl Lewis Olympics – where they became national heroes after winning their respective golds. They got the Wheaties box I think – that was the standard back then. That was one of those moments where those two were on every show, every highlight – their clips were everywhere. That’s probably one of those moments where kids like me decide they want to be athletes.
Then there was the 1988 Seoul Olympics – these were a different theme. Ben Johnson from Canada blew the doors off the men’s 100m before testing positive for steroids. I was 10 or 11 at the time – and it was an international crisis – especially because he had defeated Carl Lewis – who I believe ended up taking home the gold again after the DQ.
If anyone has not heard of Goldman’s Dilemma – it is something I remember – about the only thing I remember – from the 1988 Olympics. The problem was that most of the general public couldn’t understand why anyone would risk their health to win a medal. Dr. Robert Goldman began asking this simple question to top level athletes; would you accept a deal with the devil that guaranteed you victory in any competition you entered, but also guaranteed your death in five years? I always thought it was fifteen years – but just checked the Google machine and five years in apparently the question.
The answer was consistently that the athletes would gladly make the trade! This might seem odd to most – I’ll admit the idea of it seemed like an odd trade off. But at the same time, I kinda got it. Not to that extreme – but as a young athlete who wants to achieve something in that world – who is desperate for it – the conversation often becomes what are you willing to give up in order to achieve your goals. I wanted to be the best at something and was willing to sacrifice for it Removing the live/die extreme, that mindset can propel you to reach new heights, and can also put you in difficult situations.
In interviews with medal winning Olympic athletes – researchers found that all of them regarded mindset and willingness to prepare as their key indicators of success. Another way to frame that question is to say – what are you willing to sacrifice in your life in order to be the best?
And that kind of ambition and regard for what you are trying to accomplish can have a tidal wave of emotions headed your way when it comes time for actual competition.
The side of the coin I want to discuss today is the realization of that sacrifice. Once you have put in the time, achieved your process goals in training – once you are on the cusp of performance excellence – what is the mindset that unlocks the potential you have created for yourself?
We talk about process and embracing the monotony of preparation – living the life required for you to be the best version of you.
What we receive from that preparation, in part, is the mindset of someone who can take strength from their work. That can relish the opportunity to perform, and to live in the present – be in the moment – so that they can maximize the opportunity in front of them. And most importantly – can they do it with some high level of consistency.
This is one of the hardest things to learn, and one of the struggles I see from athletes at all levels. Mindset training – creating a performance mindset – is a very difficult part of the puzzle. And for me it is a skill that has to be addressed and developed. Having a performance mindset is not a natural phenomenon for every successful athlete. There are questions that have to be answered: not only to have a process to prepare, but for each specific competitive event. Three come to mind immediately
Why am I here – what is my real motivation? What outcome do I want from the day today? Am I trying to improve on something specific? Am I trying to put out a complete performance? What is the outcome that would make me feel like I have improved?
Where do I get my strength from? If it is from my process – can I tick the boxes so to speak? Can I walk in knowing I have put the time in to be successful? We can lie to ourselves once or twice – but eventually we will get found out.
Am I trying to be my best or the best? Different take on the above – what is the competitive standard that I have set for myself?
Many others – we have talked about working a game, focusing on the details of your position – positive self-talk. All of these are great strategies – but to do what? Ultimately you are trying to be present – live in the moment. Leave any baggage you have from earlier in the day, or training session, and be in a mindset that provokes you to compete at the highest level.
In theory it sounds easy – when you’re old and retired it sounds really easy because you’d love the chance to get that feeling back again – that feeling of mastery in competition. Flow scientists like Stephen Kotler are calling this exersis. That is the feeling you get when you put yourself in an environment where you are vulnerable, alert, testing your limits, and importantly – present. Why are athletes and hyper-competitive men and women starting to seek out other ways to alter their conscious state? Because we crave that feeling of presence.
As an athlete – entering into a competitive environment with the right mindset is a proven way to guarantee consistency in your output. Even then it might not be enough for any given day – but having entered into competition with achieving your goals as a singular focus will benefit your performance on many levels.
So what are some things that can detract from this mindset? What are those voices in your head that want to remember the last time you failed, an argument you had over breakfast, or a nagging but minor injury that is giving you reason to back down?
These are tests – they are tests given to us by one of the dozens of voices in our heads fighting for real estate. We always think in terms of our conscious being one voice – but truth be told there are too many to remember – and they are often competing with one another. Some voices are telling you positive, some negative, some are aspirational and some are guarded. Buddha describe our minds as being filled with drunken monkeys – the idea being that the monkey mind cannot live in the present but has to constantly jump from idea to idea like a bunch of monkeys jump from tree to tree.
The ability to stay present – of course – is absolutely crucial to high performance. Present minds can upload and process information faster – they react faster – they instinctively follow the path of least resistance when solving complex problems. Chemically our present brain is flushed with varying amounts of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine that heighten our senses and reward us for striving for success. This feeling is the state we crave as athletes – so why is it so difficult to get there?
We can easily categorize into internal and external factors – but for me the better use of time is to try and give you ideas on how to use routines to be present. In my experience, routine is the number one way to enter into a contest feeling prepared. And the sensation of preparedness has a dramatic effect on one’s ability to stay present. Some players will call these superstitions – great – whatever works to get someone feeling like it’s their day…the important thing is that you make these habits easy to access – a quiet moment in the car, lacing up your shoes…I used to get with my teammate right before we went on – three pass sets, two hard shoulder hits, jump up three times – switch flipped I’m on now until final whistle.
Everyone is different – some people want to manufacture emotion, some want to experience a moment of zen. Here are three rules that seem to make the most sense in starting with the right mindset.
1) Be you – don’t fall into the trap of going with someone else’s routine – don’t be a different version of yourself because you feel like you need to manufacture intensity.
2) Don’t waste energy. This is a hard one because most people need to get the blood moving for that mind-body connection. Let’s revamp to – don’t waste emotional energy. If you tend to run hot – keep it at a simmer before the game. Energy expenditure takes away from your game – physically, mentally, and emotionally. And most of us need all the help we can get.
3) Find what makes you proud and hold on to it. This could be what you want to look like after the competition. This could be what you did to get to this point. This could be the relationships you hold dear. When you understand why you are there – what you had to go through to get there, and you are able to focus on those factors – you will find yourself more present and able to continue working yourself into focus and flow throughout the game.
I have found these to work best for people in my world – but there are no wrong answers here. Remember that preparation is a focus factor that is easy to consider and take pride in. Competitive excellence is not only about preparation – it is about realizing your opportunities when they arise and taking advantage of the moment.
Next time around we will look at how to work a game – how to spend effort working your goals for the competition throughout the match in order to stay in the moment and focused on the keys to success.
1) The realization of sacrifice breeds confidence
2) Mindset can improve consistency in performance