It was the last event of the competition — atlas stones. The guy in first place was well clear and I was equal second; only an outright 2nd place would get me an invite to nationals. I knew what I had to do. Warm up felt good. 110kg went over the bar easily, so did 120, 130 and 140. As the guy running equal 2nd with me got the 140 over that bar, my mind was made up. The 150 was going over. It didn’t matter that I’d never lifted that weight before, it was happening. As the other competitors moved through their attempts I paced back and forth, staring at that stone like a tiger waiting to be let out of a cage.
I wasn’t jittery or nervous, I was hyper focused. When my daughter yelled out “go daddy!” from the crowd, it only faintly registered in my mind. I lifted the stone to my knees, then on my lap. I let out a yell as I went for that final lift over the bar — I wasn’t going to leave even an ounce of effort wasted.
The stone made it over, and the other guy didn’t get it. I’d booked my trip to nationals.
What won me the day in this situation was the fact that I was in the exact mental state I needed to be in for the event. When skills or abilities or equal, it’s who has the exact right state of mind at the time that’s going to produce the better outcome. I wasn’t always able to do it though. My teenage years playing tennis attested to this, where I lost on a weekly basis because I couldn’t get out of my own head. I had mixed success in judo as well, because I was still learning my way through it. It’s only in the last 5 years or so that I’ve truly worked it out and can talk others through how to do it.
Your psychological state is the key to performance, no matter what field you are in
Hard work is important and there is no way to move up the ladder of performance without it, but when it comes to hitting that game winning shot, to writing an article that’s so good publications want to pay for it, or making a presentation that’s so effective it results in a sale, we’re talking about something entirely different.
To better demonstrate what I’m talking about, let’s look at a few examples where you’re in the wrong psychological state:
- What is the quality of your writing going to look like if you’re getting interrupted constantly?
- How effective do you think you’ll be on a sales call if you’ve just had an argument with your spouse?
- Do you think you’re going to hit a game winning shot when your sister is in the hospital getting chemotherapy?
In every one of these examples, you can see that the right psychological state isn’t there. There is a lot of external distraction in these examples as well. But I’m not just talking about being free of distractions here, we’re talking about being able to put yourself in the ideal state to perform. That’s something that takes time, research and practice. What works for me won’t work for you, and what works for one activity won’t work for another.
To give you a better idea of what I’m talking about, here’s a bunch of examples from my pursuits over the years:
- When squatting in a powerlifting meet, I need to be in a hyper-focused state with a high level of psychological arousal. Maximum psychological arousal would have been counter productive, because I also needed to be concentrating on my technique to avoid descending too fast and collapsing as a result.
- When deadlifting, on the other hand, the shackles are off. I had my adrenaline levels as high as they would go because my only focus is to rip the bar off the floor with as much speed as possible. I’ll listen to something really loud and angry, and get people to slap me so hard I can feel it in my bones before I get up on the platform.
- When trying to climb a really difficult route, I want to be calm and relaxed. Being psyched up makes me overshoot holds. I need to be calm, with determination that my fingers will grasp the hold in the right place and that I won’t let go.
- When I’m writing, my best work comes when I have mental space. If I’m really busy at work or trying to juggle a dozen different things, writing is a chore and takes a long time to produce decent work. When I know that I can sit down without disruption and I don’t have things on my mind, the magic happens. I once sat down for a flight and started writing as the plane was on the tarmac, and literally didn’t stop writing for the next 90 minutes when we landed. It was one of my best pieces of work.
- If I’m in a judo fight, my best results came when I wasn’t worried about the result. Previous attempts at getting hyped up and angry before a match failed dismally — I made stupid decisions and acted rashly. When I was calm in my mind but my body was ready for the challenge, that was the sweet spot.
- If I’m giving a presentation, I’ll ensure I know the topic back to front so that I’m confident. I’ll meditate about 10 minutes prior, and in the last few moments I’ll stand backstage with my body stretched high and my arms fully extended to the side — a power pose.
Where to start
So now that I’ve shown you a few examples of performance enhancing states, you’re probably wondering how you can put them in place for yourself. It’s not as difficult as you think.
Get the building blocks in place first
You can’t get to the ideal psychological state if the baseline isn’t there. If you always forget a piece of equipment or arrive late to your competition, getting into the right state is going to be very difficult because you’re flustered and distracted. Likewise if you’re trying to reach your highest levels of concentration while your kids are running around like little monsters, you’re in an unwinnable battle.
You have to ensure that your “activity hygiene” is in place so you’re at least at baseline. Don’t even look at the rest until you’ve got this in place, because it will be about as effective as using a cup of coffee to stay awake when you haven’t slept for 2 days.
So here’s where the rubber meets the road. You have to work out the ideal state for the activity you’re doing, and that’s going to take time. It’s time well spent because barely anyone else is doing it. When it came to judo, it took me about 3 years before I found my ideal state of mind for competition and it was a case of trial and error at every competition. You have to be patient and look ahead to the results you’re going to get when you’ve got it perfected, rather than counting the cost of the first few less than stellar performances you’re going to have.
Don’t be afraid to solicit the advice of others if it’s feasible. When I was in my psyched up, win at all costs mindset in judo, I didn’t perform well. I didn’t enjoy myself. I actually needed time off after nationals. When a senior said to me that I didn’t seem myself during that 6 month lead up, it was clear to me that while the approach I was taking worked for others in my team, it didn’t work for me.
How to put yourself in the state
It’s one thing to perform when the right state of mind is there just out of luck, but you definitely don’t want to rely on that. If you want to take full advantage of the ideal psychological state you need to be able to turn it on and off at will. To do that, you need a trigger.
Your trigger for the state can be any number of things:
- A music track — it could be classical music to help you write, or loud heavy metal to amp your adrenaline
- A food — like a warhead, a mint or gum
- A drink — it could be coffee, tea or an energy drink
- A ritual — saying words before meditation, preparing your space before you work, or doing a physical routine
- A smell (like ammonia salts for powerlifters, or maybe a candle for a writer, or even a BoomBoom for a sales rep)
The way you make it your trigger is to use the exact same thing repeatedly, every time you want to get in that state. It’s a way of telling your brain “we’re doing this now, time to switch gears.” It’s actually a technique from NLP, but something I discovered entirely on my own. Recently I also found out that Josh Waitzkin used this process in his competitive endeavours. For me that’s more than enough proof that it’s a solid method.
I discovered how powerful it was on one of my accessory training days when I was powerlifting. On my main lift days, I’d always down a 500ml can of energy drink about 30 minutes before I got to the gym while blasting heavy metal music because on those days I trained like I was going to war. Accessory day was usually much more chilled out with no caffeine. On this particular day I was feeling really flat and lethargic, so I figured I’d have a can to try and pep me up a bit.
Within 5 minutes, I felt lit up like a Christmas tree, like a switch had been turned on. Caffeine takes 45 minutes to enter the bloodstream, so it wasn’t the caffeine. It was the fact that I’d only drink those cans when I was amping up for a big session. It was part of my ritual for getting into that aggressive state of mind. So drinking it on an off day was a trigger that made my brain go to that place automatically.
Putting it into practice
Let’s use the example of your Monday morning sales call. You want to be absolutely on point, so start by doing everything right. Don’t try and do it in your sweat pants when you’ve just rolled out of bed. Get a good night’s sleep, have a solid breakfast. Shower and fully prepare yourself, put on your sharpest outfit that always makes you feel a million dollars. When you get that feeling that you’re ready for battle, set your trigger, and go to work.
Do that whole routine each time as often as you can. After a while, you literally will be able to do it in sweat pants after you’ve rolled out of bed with just your trigger alone. That should be a minority of the time though. Wherever possible, do your entire ritual and save the trigger alone for when you need it in an emergency or an off day.
Bonus example — how to calm down immediately
Here’s a useful one if you have a stressful or busy job that I tested myself 6 months ago.
- Pick a song that you find really relaxing and have it ready to go with your headphones in.
- Meditate for 10 minutes.
- When the 10 minutes is up, keep your eyes closed and play the song.
- Repeat daily.
Now, anytime you feel stressed out at work, get up from your desk, find a quiet place and play that song. It will put you back in that calm state without needing to meditate.
If you’re at all up on this kind of thing, you’re probably wondering when I’m going to talk about flow. Sorry, way outside the scope of this article. Flow is something that’s still on the bleeding edge of research right now and there is so much we don’t know about it. That said, everything above is the building blocks you need to put in place if you want a chance at getting into a flow state — don’t run before you can walk.