Doctors aren’t big fans of stress management and lifestyle balance seminars. Overworked, and under pressure, they view such exercises with a mix of cynicism and annoyance. But here I was, performance psychologist, brought in by the human resources department of a major hospital to coach a group of prominent physicians on how to improve mindset. As a mental performance coach who works mostly with athletes, entertainers, first responders and other high-performers on how to optimize performance, I practiced what I preached and thus felt relaxed, energized, and confident in my ability to deliver a stimulating presentation. Standing on the stage talking about imagery, goal setting, self-talk, behavioral routines, and mindfulness, I felt like an elite athlete in flow — the space where your ability matches the challenge before you.
The group was into it. They seemed starved for something stimulating and re-energizing. I left the presentation feeling excited. In the lobby of the hospital I asked my co-trainer, a veteran performance coach, how she thought the group responded. After all, my very discipline is about optimizing performance with the precept that, however skilled you are, you can always improve. Feedback and practice outside of the performance environment is essential in this quest for improvement.
“They are all so lonely and stressed.” She said.
Surprised, I asked her to repeat herself. I was expecting her to tell me I used too many filler words such as “like” or “um” or that I favored one section of the lecture hall. I was surprised by her observation. She was picking up on a part of the experience that I hadn’t paid much attention to. Then I thought back to the expressions of the people in the room before our presentation began. The tired looks. The furtive, anxious glances at cell phones. The frantic rush. The massive caffeinating. She was right. The group of healers was maxed out.
Of course, it’s not just doctors. It’s all of us. We are all burned out and looking for ways to alleviate the stress and pressure of modern life. Talk to just about anyone and find out they’re stressed, anxious, and simply unfulfilled.
For the past decade I have worked with professional athletes, performing artists, law enforcement agents, firefighters, and others with high-pressure jobs that demand physical conditioning and relentless practice. Now many of these high performers are training with people like me to help develop their mindset, not only to enhance their performance but to relieve the stress and pressure that can cause them to choke, falter, or not perform at their peak. The medical community is beginning to benefit from mental conditioning.
When introducing the concept of mental conditioning I often use an analogy that helps these individuals to understand what it is. Think of your mind as a fish tank. If you don’t keep it clean, it becomes toxic and the fish will get sick and potentially die. A well-maintained fish tank is cleaned regularly. Our mental state is the same way. Why should we wait until we are stressed, overwhelmed, angry or hitting adversity to improve our mindset? Why wait until we feel like we’re going to collapse from mental exhaustion or explode in anger to find an easy way to quiet our minds (like breathing training)? Why wait until we’re confronted with a big event or an overwhelming situation to learn to relax and focus?
Because of the old ways we view mental health — as an area that needs to be paid attention only when things are falling apart by seeking therapy, we have missed the opportunity to proactively work on building mental strength. It is only in the past couple of decades that most sport teams have developed mental conditioning staff that are an active part of the training programs for their athletes. We travel with teams, meet with players to proactively develop patterns of thoughts and behaviors that optimize their performance. We don’t just talk to people who have “problems”. We talk to everyone. Wherever we are, whatever we do, whether it’s on the football field, the operating room, the trading floor, the kindergarten classroom or our dining room, we can be doing better and learning to enjoy it more. At SportStrata we are passionate about applying performance psychology to the medical setting. We enjoy working with physicians and other health care professionals to help them improve performance, build more unified teams and enjoy their meaningful work more. With the tools and techniques of modern performance psychology there’s no need to wait until we’re falling apart to live more satisfying successful lives.