The Game of Inches — Simple Ways to Improve Your Mental Strength

“So the ‘magical’ golden shield, led to him winning the Heavyweight Championship of the World?” I asked him incredulously. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard.

Paddy Fitzpatrick, trainer of two-time boxing World Title challenger and current European champion George Groves, was telling me the story of how he helped former Heavyweight boxer Lamon Brewster to defeat Wladimir Klitschko and become the WBO Heavyweight Champion of the World (and the last man to ever defeat Klitschko).

The secret to success was two notable ‘mind hacks’. One he set up to empower Brewster, and one he set up to ruffle the feathers of Klitschko. The overall outcome was a fascinating display of ‘David’ overcoming the odds to defeat ‘Goliath’.

Brewster stands over the defeated Klitschko

This is something that is constantly fascinating to me. Often it is the small changes we make in our body or environment that cause a dramatic shift in our overall mental and physical abilities. Very few things can exemplify that better than beating a future Hall of Fame Heavyweight Champion.

You may remember Al Pacino’s famous speech in the film Any Given Sunday, where he explains that life is a ‘game of inches’:

“You find out life’s this game of inches. And so is football. Because in either game, life or football, the margin for error is so small. I mean… one half a step too late or too early and you don’t quite make it. One half second too slow or too fast; you don’t quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They are in every break of the game, every minute, every second.
On this team, we fight for that inch. On this team, we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch. Because we know when we add up all those inches, that’s going to make the fucking difference between winning and losing!”

So how can we grab those extra inches? And furthermore, how can we use those inches to gain a mile?

As my good friend Ross Garshong from Blackstar Fitness explains, when it comes to work life, sports and even attracting an intimate partner “This is the key to keeping an edge on the competition — on an even playing-field where all the players have the same tools; efficient utilisation becomes the key to progress.”

So let me explain to you some easy and simple changes you can make, starting today, that will have an immediate impact on your mental performance and overall progress.

1. Straighten Up!

I think we all know that dull, achy feeling in our back from sitting at a desk all day. But that still doesn't seem to be enough of a deterrent for us to take the issue more seriously and change our posture.

However, did you know that bad posture can actually have a negative effect on your brain power?

Sitting up straight expands your rib cage and reduces restriction on your diaphragm. You breathe more deeply and easily allowing your brain to be better nourished.

The added benefit of reducing the stress on your spine by sitting, standing and walking with an improved posture, is also reduced stress and fatigue in your mind.

By increasing the volume of air that you can take in with each breath, you increase the amount of oxygen you extract from the air. This allows your body to work more efficiently.

2. Stay consistently hydrated

Looks like my coffee-drinking days are over. But look how happy I was with my daily ‘fix’!!

You may have heard of the book by Dr. Batmanghelidj that claims “you’re not sick; you’re thirsty”. But did you also know just how important proper hydration is on your mind power?

Not drinking enough water throughout the day can reduce your overall alertness and ability to concentrate. Light-headedness, headaches and tiredness could all be caused by not drinking enough water.

It has been found that being dehydrated by even as little as 1% can lead to a 5% reduction in cognitive power!

If you want to be sharp throughout the day and able to react quickly, aim to drink at least 2 litres of water every day. Keep a bottle of water near you at all times and swap your caffeine kick for a sip of the clear stuff.

3. Nutrition, nutrition, nutrition…

Improving your diet can benefit your brain and body. There are a number of ways you can do this while you’re busy getting on with your life, without much hassle.

Ensure you keep a steady supply of energy throughout the day, by consuming some of the following options:

  • Wholegrain (Low-GI, releases glucose slowly into the bloodstream) — Eat: brown rice or pasta, wheat/bran cereals
  • Oily fish (Omega-3 occurs naturally in oily fish) — Eat: salmon, pilchards, sardines, herring and trout
  • Easy snacks (for when you need to keep energy but can’t leave your screen) — Eat: blueberries, cherry tomatoes, blackcurrants, pumpkin seeds and nuts. These provide the added benefits of improved memory and increased mental agility; improving your thinking skills. They also contain antioxidants to help prevent dementia and vitamin E to prevent mental decline.

Why not also start a new habit by taking a multi-vitamin suited to your lifestyle? Take the time to speak to your local pharmacist or health shop for help finding the most suitable choice for you.

4. Meditation — The greatest free tool of all time!

It’s not just for weekend retreats! Simple meditation can be done quickly and even at your desk or while you’re out and about.

An easy way to get started is by closing your eyes and simply tensing up and then relaxing your muscles while paying attention to your breathing.

Keep your attention on your breathing and the sensations in your body. After a little while (10 minutes is even good enough) this will begin to refresh your mind for the task ahead.

Create a new habit where you incorporate meditation into your daily routine and before long you’ll be able to include it in your daily commute or at your desk at work — you’ll even be able to block out the whispers from confused fellow passengers, or the sniggers from your work colleagues from behind their coffee cups.

Picture from the Headspace app (headspace.com)

To get started you can use some free courses to learn the ropes — I recommend downloading Calm or Headspace on your smart phone. Alternatively, there are many guided meditations on YouTube if you don’t have a smart phone.

The benefits of meditation for your mind and health are endless.

5. Detox your Mind by Having Structure

If meditation doesn’t work for you, you can still enjoy the benefits of a meditative frame of mind simply by making changes to the way you structure your time.

In a recent interview with Tim Ferriss, Arnold Schwarzenegger discussed how he used Transcendental Meditation for a year to organise his mind when he was feeling overwhelmed with the amount of tasks he had to do and the pressure of them.

When Tim asked why he no longer meditates, he replied that he found having a routine where each task had its own allocated time gave him the same benefits.

Since he knew other tasks would be dealt with in their own time slot and to the best of his ability, he could focus 100% on the task at hand and not worry about what else was on his plate.

A good way to enjoy the benefits of having a structured time schedule is to use a productivity technique called Pomodoro.

Typically, to use the Pomodoro technique you would allocate 25 minutes of solid work with no distractions, followed by a 5–10 minute break. After a few of these 25 minute periods, you will then have a longer break (perhaps to have lunch). However, I found 25 minutes to be a bit too short, so extended my periods to 50 minutes followed by a 10 minute break. You just have to find what works best for you.

This technique allows you to be 100% focused and not get distracted with other niggling tasks. It also makes the strain of focused work seem a lot more bearable, as there is always light at the end of the tunnel.

6. Are you still sitting up straight? Good, now straighten up your work area

Concentration and clarity are easier without distractions… In the mind and in your surroundings.

Clear your work area, your home office space and even your car! De-cluttering for a few minutes every day can add up; find a home for every object and keep important things that you might need urgently closer to hand. In the same way that high-performance cars put the gears closer to the driver’s hands; a high-performance individual will want the same benefits from their important tools.

The process of clearing your mess can be particularly therapeutic after a particularly difficult or bad day. Rather than lashing out on your cat, just have a little tidy-up session instead. Out with the old, in with the new.

7. Learn a New Language or Musical Instrument

Teach your mind new ways of thinking and be creative about it. Join a class that introduces you to new people and new things — this comes with the added benefit of social interaction. Getting out will help dust off the cobwebs and keep you fresh.

However, that’s not all. Learning a language can also improve your cognitive function significantly, as pointed out by Cody Delistraty for The Atlantic website:

“Multi-linguals tend to score better on standardized tests, especially in math, reading, and vocabulary; they are better at remembering lists or sequences, likely from learning grammatical rules and vocabulary; they are more perceptive to their surroundings and therefore better at focusing in on important information while weeding out misleading information (it’s no surprise Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot are skilled polyglots).”

Similar benefits have also been found in individuals who learn to play a musical instrument. As noted in the Telegraph:

“Experts said there is growing evidence that musicians have structurally and functionally different brains compared with non-musicians — in particular, the areas of the brain used in processing and playing music.
These parts of the brain that control motor skills, hearing, storing audio information and memory become larger and more active when a person learns how to play an instrument and can apparently improve day to day actions such as being alert, planning and emotional perception.
Lutz Jäncke, a psychologist at the University of Zurich, said: “Learning to play a musical instrument has definite benefits and can increase IQ by seven points, in both children and adults.””

So there you have it — I told you they were simple, didn't I?

The beauty of this list is that there are enough changes here to make a real, noticeable impact on your life, but there aren't too many that it will become overwhelming to make the changes.

Of course, the scientific evidence of these tips making a difference in our lives will count for nothing if you just read the list and don’t take action. The only way to see enhanced mental performance is to actually make the changes a reality.

So go ahead and see what ones work for you and ditch the ones that don’t. I look forward to hearing about a crop of new Heavyweight World Champions playing the game of inches.

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