We’re always pushing to be fitter, faster, stronger… to be the best and most successful we can be, in whatever it is we choose to pursue.
Yes, we can train or study super hard and invest a lot of time into practicing the skill we want to improve. These are extremely important parts of the process. But one crucial aspect that many people miss is mindset. Mindset is EVERYTHING and we need to invest as much time into building this as we do the other aspects of our training.
We caught up with Olympian and Psychologist, Caroline Anderson, to learn more about what a ‘High Performance Mindset’ is and find out her expert tips on how we can begin to cultivate one…
As humans we have always been driven towards excellence, however never more so than today. So many of us are wanting to get the most out of ourselves, whether it’s running a marathon, getting that promotion or being an entrepreneur.
I feel like more and more we are pushing the boundaries in this complex modern society. We all know that hard work and determination is vital in mastering a new skill or achieving success but what other psychological strategies are there for achieving greatness? Research shows that our mindset can have a huge impact on performance.
As a psychologist I have been working for a number of years with people in elite environments such as athletes and business leaders. People attend for different reasons, for example those who despite enormous success are riddled with self doubt, some who experience significant anxiety (even vomiting) prior to an event, and others who are wanting to get that extra edge and improve their performance in work, sport or life.
There are many psychological strategies that I use with my clients to help cultivate a high performance mindset. The ones I am focusing on here are based on the work of Steven Hayes in the U.S who developed Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT.
ACT is an evidence based approach to working with people in order to help develop “psychological flexibility”. When we are more psychological flexible to manage thoughts, feelings, situations, challenges, and unexpected events it frees us up to focus on what truly matters and what brings meaning, vitality and richness to our lives.
Confused? Let me break down the components.
Mindfulness is currently one of the most evidence based skills in enhancing focus, improving memory and cognitive functioning, productivity and performance.
With regular practice, learning to strengthen our present moment awareness can also reduce stress and anxiety and improve general wellbeing.
Mindfulness interventions are effective because they help people direct their attention to the current task rather than getting caught up in past mistakes or fears of failure.
2. Unhooking from Negative Thoughts
There are times we have all experienced that voice inside our heads telling us that we are not good enough. Not good enough for that leadership position. Not good enough to make the National Team. These thoughts can create doubt and confusion, and erode our self-confidence.
Why do we listen to these thoughts so much? Why do we believe them to be true?
The difference is not that some people don’t have these thoughts, it’s that they are better at paying less attention them. There is so much emphasis in society on positive thinking and challenging negative thoughts that the idea that negative thoughts are not dangerous or harmful can be a major breakthrough for the clients I work with.
We don’t need to get into a battle with our thoughts, trying to force ourselves to only think positive. What we can do it is learn how to pay less attention to our unhelpful thoughts, not to get too hooked in by them and believe them so much.
3. Emotional Acceptance
Let’s face it – emotions can feel pretty awful at times. Feelings like anxiety, self doubt, fear and stress are uncomfortable and often our response to this discomfort is trying to get rid of it – by reaching for that glass of wine, distracting ourselves or avoiding the thing that brings up those emotions.
Acceptance means opening up and making room for painful feelings rather than trying to get rid of them. Instead of battling them, we open up to them and let them be. Another term for this that is gaining popularity is “getting comfortable with discomfort”, something that we intuitively understand when it comes to physical pain. Think of the last time you went to the gym – did you experience that lactic acid burn, the aching muscles? Yet because we know that it means we are working hard and getting results we are generally pretty happy to accept this discomfort.
When working with people wanting to develop a high performance mindset, clarifying their values and purpose is of upmost importance. Why? When we are clear about why we are doing something, it becomes easier to get through the difficult bits that inevitably come along.
Increasing focus and awareness of our values helps build motivation and enables us to take positive action, even when doing so is challenging, scary or uncomfortable.
According to the ACT approach, committed action means taking effective action and setting realistic goals guided by our values. It means “doing what it takes” to live by our values even if that brings up pain and discomfort.
Cultivating a high performance mindset requires us to be willing to make sacrifices, work hard, risk failure and even experience anxiety and doubt along the journey.
Back when I was an athlete, there was a lot of emphasis on forcing ourselves to only think positive. The research now show we don’t have to think or feel a particular way in order to perform — we can think and feel a whole variety of things but still perform at our best by focusing on what truely matters to us and acting in accordance with our values, even when doubts, fear or challenges come our way.
Is your mindset holding you back?
Caroline Anderson is a Psychologist, Olympian and Director of Performance Edge Psychology.
She sees a range of clients wanting to improve their performance, wellbeing and mental health in her private practice. She also delivers presentations to the corporate sector on enhancing performance and wellbeing through evidence based, psychological approaches. Learn more about Caroline here and here!