Every day, life throws a whole range of challenges our way. Whether it’s racing in a marathon, competing in your first triathlon, public speaking or a stressful situation at work.
I want share with you my secret to overcoming mental barriers and optimising your performance. It’s one of my secret weapons: I pull this one out of the weapon armoury every single day.
The great news is you can apply this to any aspect of your business or your life. It applies to everything you do. If you read this it will help you optimise your life: the mental, the physical and the emotional.
Before I get stuck into how you can add this secret weapon to your own arsenal, let’s quickly take a look at some neuroscience. Then we will get straight into my techniques for setting goals.
The neuroscience of performance
The idea that our minds can interfere and limit our performance is central to sports psychology. Finding the best mental zone when under pressure – whether that be training or racing – requires removing mental distractions.
The neuroscience behind this principle is that each neuron has a limited capacity for electronic signals, just like a processor in a computer. This means the brain can be flooded by internally generated, unhelpful signals, making it much harder to process external information.
When we study the world’s most successful athletes and people they all have three things in common. They focus on:
- Goal setting;
- Visualisation; and
- Achieving “the zone” – the optimal state of mind for peak performance. This will be in a future blog. Subscribe here link if you want it to come directly to your email.
Let’s start on the core of optimising your performance with goal setting.
Does goal setting work?
There is significant research that shows why and how goal setting works. To put it simply, setting goals directs our attention. Goals motivate you. Properly structured long-term goal setting allows you to monitor and evaluate your performance over a longer period, which helps you acknowledge the wins you have along the way. Someone without goals will likely lack direction, purpose, and adequate assessment criteria, which hinders their chances of optimising their life.
Let’s look at some research from Lars-Eric Unestahl, who sets out steps for us to consider when goal setting.
It’s important to consider your former goals, the ones you have achieved, as well as the goals you haven’t been able to achieve. Being aware of your goals, your successes and challenges helps to build better goal-setting skills, and establishes a historical framework for developing more realistic goals.
For an athlete it’s important to establish a list of possible goals in consultation with coaches. This list should include all types of goals, including those with a low-probability of attainment. This step is important to define the range of possible goals.
The goal inventory should be evaluated with each goal being assessed for its appropriateness and possibility. A hierarchy of possible goals should be established for each classification.
Next it’s important to evaluate the hierarchies of your possible goals and select your goals. When selecting our goals, consider the following criteria:
- Make it as difficult as possible but still reachable (erring on the side of being too difficult rather than too easy);
- Goals should be agreed upon by you and your coach;
- Establish priorities when more than one goal exists;
- Aim at improving performance, not merely maintaining it or causing it to regress;
- Goal must be related to performance, not vague entities such as pride or aggressiveness; and importantly,
- All goals must be measurable.
Once your goals are selected, they should be formulated and analysed according to the following characteristics:
- Contain only individual self-control items;
- Be expressed positively (no negative or avoidance wordings);
- Be appropriate for you, the athlete (not restricted to what the coach wants);
- Have optimal probability (you should be able to justify why each goal can be achieved);
- Have maximum believability (no doubts, all factors are controllable); and
- Be measurable and observable.
For many years I have used the S.M.A.R.T as way of setting goals. Another method I have borrowed from Dr Jeff Brown is the following:
G: Can I feel my goal in my gut?
O: is my goal objective and measurable?
A: Is my goal challenging yet achievable?
L: Will me goal help me learn about my performance capabilities?
So what’s the next piece of the puzzle?
Research in sport psychology and other fields has verified that imaging and experiencing detail can dramatically affect performance. This principle is used to prepare Olympic athletes, racing car drivers, pilots and many other athletes.
The science behind visualisation shows the pathways in the brain we use to undertake an activity (such as driving or swimming) are the same pathways used when we merely picture this activity. In both instances, we use our visual cortex. The part of the brain that sees is activated when we do the task – and when we visualise it.
Because the use of any circuitry in our brain strengthens that circuit, rehearsing a performance in our imagination can prepare mental circuits in ways similar to enhancing a real performance. However, there are three things we need to think about when we practice visualisation:
- It must be correct.
- It must be precise.
- It must be repeated.
Let’s look at this in more detail.
What you visualise is must be 100% correct. Otherwise, the visualisation will only reinforce the incorrect technical behaviour.
The more vivid and detailed visualisation, the more connections are created in the brain. Precise visualisation has become a standard tool in training Olympic athletes.
Visualisation is more effective when it is done in short segments over time. It is more effective to practice visualisation – whether related to a great game or delivering a great speech – for three minutes several times every day rather than 20 minutes in one day.
I challenge you: If Over 30 days, you practise visualisation and you imagine yourself experiencing something new, or affirming an additional, recent belief like “I am an athlete or I am a great public speaker”, slowly but surely you are creating a new mindset. In the end, it is about where you put your thoughts and energy that allows you to change and perform.
During this visualisation process the brain is being trained for actual performance. It’s been found that mental practices can enhance motivation, increase confidence and improve motor performance, prime your brain for success, and increase states of flow. More about flow in the next article!
But visualizing is more than just thinking about an upcoming event. When athletes use visualization, they truly feel the event that is taking place. In their mind’s eye they experience all of the elements of their race in explicit detail before executing their performance.
Controlling our thoughts
Our brains are central to everything we do, and the more we understand how our brain works, and its impact on our ability to perform complex activities, the more likely it is that we will make choices to focus on controlling where our thoughts wander.
Rituals or mantras help establish optimal mindset and help us engage in flow. For me, a key ritual is laying my gear out the evening before an event, next to my bed on a chair, looking at it before I go to bed, and starting to visualise my short term and longer term goals.
Likewise, having my legs waxed a week before a race is also a habit and ritual – some may think it is a bit strange, but for me this ritual is about taking on the mindset of an athlete. Rituals – no matter what they are – help to quiet the mind and help us focus on the task at hand.
Practical example of sports performance
Through repetition of a transition from Swim to Bike in a Triathlon, practicing removing your wetsuit in a structured, planned and disciplined process, you don’t even have to think about it – it just happens. We can make these actions happen by accessing our subconscious mind where we are not using the limited resources of our conscious mind or our cerebral cortex (our decision making/executive part of our brain). The ability to keep unwanted thoughts away and remain focused on the task at hand is critical.
As an example: when you are standing at the start of a 1.9km swim, you need to be focussing on the best way to start, remembering the way you want to get into the water and break away from the crowd. These thoughts are resourceful. Letting your mind wander to the stage of the race where you are getting off the bike after 90km and worrying about the transition to running the 21.2km is not helpful. You need to simply focus on what you are doing then and there in that moment and quiet your brain. The ability to prevent the un-resourceful distractions is a key pillar in peak performance.
A Real Life Example
Laura Wilkinson was an Olympic diver. Several months prior to the 2000 Summer Olympics, Wilkinson suffered a serious foot injury that kept her out of action for a couple of months. During this time, she used mental images to visualize her dives. I understand she would sit on the 10m diving tower for hours mentally preparing for her Olympic event, she would visualise her routines for hours every day. Her foot was not fully recovered by the time she started diving again, but she was able to qualify for the Olympics.
At the 2000 Summer Olympics, Wilkinson, who was still in pain from her foot injury, was in eighth place after the first of five dives in the platform diving finals. Remarkably, she earned the first gold medal for a female American platform diver since 1964. This is the power of the brain.
So what’s the moral of this goal setting and visualisation story?
- Learning about how the brain works and having respect for the brain and its complex structure and process can support us in reaching optimised performance.
- Operating in the optimal state of mind requires us to quieten our brain so we can focus on the moment.
- Goal setting and visualization are two of the key elements of optimising your performance.
Even though I have been practicing this for several years it is always something I continue to work on and love coaching my clients on. If you would like to know more you can request more information about my introduction sessions for goal setting coaching with dynamic powerful visualisation of the future.
If you are interested in learning more, make sure you subscribe to my newsletter. In my next post I’ll be teaching you how you can achieve your “zone”, where you are performing in your optimal capacity.