How to Emulate Elite Athletes and Navy SEALs to Reach Peak Performance
Earlier this month, I attended Stream, WPP’s unconference hosted by their CEO Sir Martin Sorrell and Israeli technology pioneer Yossi Vardi where they handpick a group of 300 brand execs, media and technology leaders and entrepreneurs to share on any topics they want by the beach in Greece. So, when pushed for a discussion topic, it seemed obvious to me to share and explore tips to reach peak performance from Navy SEAL and elite athletes with this group of individuals who want to be the best version of themselves on a daily basis. To understand why, let’s go back in time.
In April 2014, I experienced a major burnout that landed me 8 days in the hospital and 3 weeks without working. I was running my own company at the time and the mix of not sleeping and eating well, intense pressure and the highs and lows of entrepreneurship got the better of me.
Since as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be the best at what I do and push myself to the limit, never considering what the consequences would be if I ever went past that limit. So after that burn-out, I got my act together, started sleeping and eating properly and asked myself the question “How can I push myself to reach peak performance in the long run without going over the edge?” I started researching and reading more and more and I realized that there is something that all top performers, especially elite athletes and warriors, have in common: they spend an enormous amount of time developing mental toughness to maintain their ideal state of peak performance. So, for the past few years, I’ve strived to emulate athletes and warriors to perform in the workplace. And there are a few concepts that are common to both of these groups, that we discussed during WPP Stream, and that I think anyone can and should start to implement in their life today.
Developing Mental Toughness
Mental toughness is the ability to thrive despite adversity, it’s an ability to control panic and fear in order not to let them affect your performance. To improve the success rate of their selection program, The Navy SEALs, turned to neuroscience research to develop a mental toughness training program that enabled them to go from a quarter to a third of successful candidates. The four pillars of the program are Goal-Setting, Visualization, Self-Talk and Arousal Control.
What the Navy SEALs learned from neuroscience is that concentrating on specific goals allows the brain to bring structure to chaos and uncertainty, which are both major sources of stress. Goals are formed in the prefrontal cortex of our brain and focusing on goals helps lower the effect of anxiety which is formed in the amygdala. Dr Jason Selk, Director of Mental Training for the St Louis Cardinals says that it is important to distinguish Product Goals (what you want to achieve) and Process Goals (how you are going to achieve it).
A product goal is what you can achieve in a 6 to 12 months’ period. For instance, let’s say you want to achieve $100K in sales this year for your business. In order to get there, you’ll need some process goals, which are actions you’re going to do on a daily basis towards the product goal. There must be at least two or three process goals per product goal. In this example your process goal #1 might be calling 50 prospects/day while process goal #2 could be calling 10 leads/day. If you consistently hit your process goals, your product goal will eventually be achieved. It’s important to remember that with both types of goals, they need to be specific, measurable, positive and displayed.
Visualization is the practice of seeing in your mind vivid images of something that you want to achieve. Commander Mark Divine, former Navy SEAL and author of the book “Unbeatable Mind”, says that there are two types of visualizations:
- “Rehearsal visualization”: picturing yourself perform a skill to perfection.
- “Ideal state visualization”: envisioning an ideal state for yourself at some point in the future.
Sport psychologist Jim Afremow in his book “The Champion’s Mind”, covers a prominent 1983 research study that demonstrated that visualization is “one of the most powerful weapons we have in our mental arsenal”…because “the brain does not always differentiate between real and vividly imagined experiences because the same systems in the brain are deployed for both types of experiences”
Jim Afremow, covers as well Dr. Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis’s analysis of 32 previously published sport psychology studies which says that “The mind guides action. If we succeed in regulating our thoughts, then this will help our behavior”. Average adults talk to themselves at a rate of 300 to 1000 words per minute. In many cases, these thoughts are negative and uncontrolled, thereby leading to a decrease in performance. What we need is creating a positive loop using self-talk. Jim Afremow suggests to replace self-critical thoughts like “I’m not cut out for this” by power sentences like “bring it on now”. Other examples used by athletes are “Next play will be my best play”, “Let’s do this”, “I start strong and finish stronger”.
Lanny Bassham, Olympic medalist in rifle shooting in 1976 and mental training coach gives a great example of a combination of visualization and self-talk in his book “With Winning in Mind”.
In the 1970s he wanted to beat the national record of 396/400 in the kneeling position and set it to a perfect 400/400. Although he had never reached that mark in practice, he would, twice a day, visualize himself shooting perfectly. He would also visualize feeling the pressure rising when getting close to the end, so he rehearsed saying to himself, “That’s OK. I do this all the time”. Then, when the first day of competition came, he was ready. “I started with a 100 kneeling. My next two targets were also 100s. I began my last series with ten, ten, ten, ten. Only five more to go. Ten. Ten. Ten. Then reality set in. I was above the record. I heard an internal voice say, “That’s OK, I do this all the time.” I shot two additional tens, setting the national record at a perfect 400.”
Arousal control, also called breath control, is the ability to control the physiological reaction to stress through control of breathing. “To say that learning breath control is the most important component to forging mental toughness would not be an overstatement” says Mark Divine in Unbeatable Mind.
In the face of intense stress, anxiety or fear, your adrenaline spikes, your heart rate increases, your muscle tenses and your body starts shaking. These natural reactions, meant to help us survive life-threatening situations, get many of us to perform poorly in situations where we need to think straight. By breathing deeply, you can slow your heart rate and bring your nervous system back to normal. A simple breathing technique that Mark Divine suggests is called “Box-breathing”:
- Inhale through your nose expanding your belly for 5 seconds
- Hold your breath for 5 seconds
- Exhale through your mouth for 5 seconds
- Hold your breath for 5 seconds
I have been using this breathing pattern in my meditation practice everyday for the past year and a half and I do that for 1 minute (3 repetitions) several times a day at work when I want to calm down, refocus or when I am switching tasks. This is game-changing.
Bringing it all together — Try this at home
The concepts listed above are simple to understand but not easy to implement. They require a lot of regular practice and dedication. Here is a simple practice that will enable you to start integrating all four of these elements into your life.
Set up — 30 minutes a day for one or two weeks
- Write down one important goal that you currently have — This is your product goal
- Write 2 or 3 process goals for this product goal
- Outline a visualization session of yourself performing your process goals (write on paper what you are going to imagine in your head)
- For each process goals:
- Chose a power sentence to kick-off your process goal
- Chose a power sentence to to get back on track when you lose focus during your process goal
Practice — Every day
- First thing in the morning or at the beginning of your workday do:
- 1 minute of box breathing (3 repetitions)
- A 10–15min visualization session of yourself performing your process goals. Make sure to visualize yourself using your self-talk power sentences during this session
- Perform your process goals. And for each of them:
- Start with 1 minute of box-breathing (3 repetitions)
- Kick off your session with your self-talk power sentence
- If you lose focus, use your self-talk power sentence to get back on track
Focus on only one product goals to get started. Once you’ll get used to this process, you can expand to other product goals and other areas of your life. Just like working out, after a while, you will start to see that your mental is getting stronger. You’ll be able to focus more, to handle pressure better, to be more and more in control and constantly able to perform at your desired state.
Some great resources to get started are the books mentioned in this article and the website www.brianjohnson.me which sums up all those books and give you tons of wisdom to optimize your life.
Here’s to being mentally tough and reaching our ideal state of peak performance.
By: Pierre Ntiruhungwa
A lifelong learner and entrepreneur at heart, Pierre wants to empower people to be the best version of themselves via his passion for education and entrepreneurship. He started his first company, Silicon Students, at age 22 with the ambition to create a school of entrepreneurship. This summer bootcamp for young aspiring entrepreneurs from all around the world in Silicon Valley ran for 3 years. He now runs Founders of the Future, a non-profit community to uncover, nurture and guide the next generation of tech founders from across Europe. Follow him on Twitter @pierresn and find out more on about.me/pierresn.