When Benjamin Franklin said that “failing to prepare is preparing to fail” he intuitively understood something that neuroscience is only now discovering. Namely, that the mindset we carry is more critical to our success (and survival) than any amount of expertise or any kind of tools we might have at hand.
This begs the question: how do you prepare mentally for what you need to do? The answer supplied by sports psychologists who work with world-class athletes, and military instructors charged with getting Navy SEALs through Hell Week, during which one of the tests is simulating drowning to test a recruit’s mental fortitude, takes us through some very basic points.
Talking to former and serving snipers and former Navy SEALs whom I interviewed for The Sniper Mind I distilled the fundamentals into “four pillars of mental fortitude” that are fairly self-explanatory:
- Setting Goals
- Positive self-talk
- Arousal control.
In The Sniper Mind I go into some length, breaking each of these down and using neuroscientific breakthroughs to explain how each of these steps helps your mind prepare for success. It is worth, however, to break things down even further and actually understand just how these four pillars of mental fortitude which are common to elite athletes and elite soldiers, work to deliver positive outcomes.
The formula for success has a very granular process which we shall now deconstruct into eight distinct steps:
- Set yourself, small, achievable tasks that lead you to the goal you need to and do them.
- Create a ritual that is part of your preparation routine.
- Provide small rewards for yourself that help you stay focused and motivated.
- Clarify your thinking and your reasons for doing what you’re doing.
- Do not stay isolated. Create a support network you can draw strength from.
- Simulate the situation you are facing as closely as you can and just go over it again and again.
- Believe in yourself. You can really do what you’ve set out to achieve.
- Do not overthink things.
Each of these steps has a practical, theoretical and neurological basis.
Practice and actions performed in small, manageable tasks create action representations in the brain that rely on a dedicated brain network, called the action/observation network, which includes the temporal cortex, frontoparietal cortex, and motor cortex.
This network allows us to learn better, understand the context of what we observe and, additionally, it helps us be more analytical. This latter aspect is crucial as it then allows us to understand the basic building blocks of what we observe, deconstruct it and decide how to best approach a problem, apply a solution or take critical action.
The development of the neural network that manages action representation in the brain allows us to learn from others. It plays a pivotal role in activating the state of flow where decisions are made and actions are performed seemingly without conscious thought.
Flow is a state of mind where focus comes easy. Attention is maximized, self-regulation becomes easier and stress-inducing feelings are downgraded. Mental alertness and a relaxed attitude allow both an enhanced performance to take place and quick-thinking to occur, creating innovative thinkers out of even the most seemingly stolid of people.
Studies show that the physical processes we practice end up delivering physiological changes in the brain, so while there will certainly always be physical changes taking place, it’s really the brain that gets better and better with practice and then, so do we.
None of this is really new. Aristotle said that "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit." Make it yours.
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