Are your thoughts getting in the way of being the best version of yourself? Toronto-based sports psychologist Peter Jensen has some tips on how you can perform at your max, both at work and at home.
Most people are so impressed by the physicality of the world’s speediest sprinters, nimblest skiers or most explosive gymnasts, that they forget the real secret to their success: their minds. Becoming the best in the world goes way beyond perfecting a particular sport. It’s a mental game, requiring impeccable focus and the ability to block out all kinds of negative thoughts. That’s actually great news for regular folk, because whether you’re making a big sales pitch at work or dealing with a stressful parenting moment at home, having the mental fitness of an elite athlete (without having to train for hours every day) definitely comes in handy.
Peter Jensen is a Toronto-based sports psychologist who has trained athletes at nine Olympic games (he’s helped over 70 of them win Olympic medals). He also lectures at Queen’s University and Cornell University, advises major corporate clients and has written three books. His latest, called Thriving in a 24/7 World, talks about how regular people can use energy management techniques adopted by many athletes to perform better under pressure.
According to basic psychology principles, every time someone masters a new skill, new synapses are formed in the brain. There’s no question, then, that the brains of someone who can effortlessly execute a triple axel, or release an archery arrow in between heartbeats, are going to look far different than the average contractor or marketing manager. But Jensen suggests that the mental acuity it takes to perform athletic feats—especially in competition in front of thousands of fans—is something that can be taught to anyone.
A major part of Jensen’s job is teaching athletes how to control their perspective. He draws on popular meditation and mindfulness practices, and tells athletes to notice the difference between their self (a.k.a. their consciousness) and their thoughts, and to make choices accordingly. “The voice in your head is not God,” he says. “It’s stories you’re making up about how difficult this is going to be.” For example, if a figure skater complains that her legs feel heavy pre-competition, Jensen will follow up with other questions to put that particular feeling into perspective. He’ll ask what kind of shape she’s in, how she feels about her program, and if she’s ever skated well when her legs feel heavy. The answers to such questions are usually positive. “Negative feelings don’t predict anything,” he says.
Non-athletes have similar habits, tending to hone in on the one thing that’s wrong in their lives—like getting yelled at by their boss, for instance. Jensen suggests that putting the scenario into perspective, perhaps listing all the things you’re grateful for (like actually having a job) or asking yourself, “Will this matter in two months?”, can eliminate any negative feelings. “We have to remember all of who we are, and all of our capabilities,” says Jensen. “We always over-emphasize the one thing that isn’t.”
Resilience is another key skill that successful athletes are forced to adopt. Jensen calls it a “meta-skill”, meaning it’s useful anywhere and everywhere. No athlete wins every game, competition or race they participate in, and productively dealing with setbacks, losses and challenges is usually what separates the true champions from everyone else. According to Jensen, any emotion—whether it’s disappointment, nervousness or euphoria—is basically just energy that you are free to channel wherever you see fit. Champions channel it somewhere productive: as basically every Ted Talk will tell you, the most successful people in all areas of life are those who have tons of failures under their belt. Instead of feeling defeated, they’ve learned to harness their disappointment and throw that energy into new projects.
When it comes to managing your energy, Jensen tells both athletes and regular folk to behave like a thermostat, rather than a thermometer. When you can set your own energy level, you’re less likely to be influenced by outside sources, whether that’s cheering fans or a whiny child. To do this, he recommends practicing special breathing techniques. When you’re hyper, you tend to breathe in more than you breathe out, with leads to over-oxygenation and a jumpy, rattled feeling. Breathing from the diaphragm, on the other hand, lets in more carbon dioxide, which acts like a tranquilizer. Jensen’s found the ultimate breathing rhythm for relaxation is inhaling for four seconds, holding your breath for one second, and exhaling for six seconds. Ultimately, it can stop people from reacting poorly to a stressful situation.
But while the major issue with athletes in competition and anyone under pressure is energy levels that are too high, that’s typically not the case for the average citizen. Jensen admits that the most common energy problem executives complain about is a lack of motivation (think: that time in the middle of the afternoon, when you’re feeling flat and can’t focus). Perhaps counterintuitively, he recommends getting used to taking more breaks, and, yes, even naps. “You have to start thinking of yourself not as someone running a marathon, but as a sprinter,” says Jensen. “You’re only good for 90 to 100 minutes, maximum.” After that amount of time, he says, you need to revitalize yourself somehow. If you’re doing an intellectual activity, for instance, your break should be physical (going for a walk) or emotional (calling an old friend).
He also predicts that refreshing, 20-minute naps will become the next big wellness trend. “There’s no substitute for sleep,” he says. “If you look at people with high-octane intellect—Einstein, Edison, et cetera— they all napped!” It makes sense: when you’re thinking like a champion, amping up all areas of the brain for maximum performance in your day-to-day life, your mind might need a little more down time.
Your everyday guide to thinking like a champion
- Get enough sleep. Jensen recommends using an app that wakes you up at an appropriate time in your sleep cycle, and taking short 20-minute naps throughout the day as needed.
- Do breathing exercises for five minutes a day. If you’re stressed, Jensen says breathing exercises do wonders for calming the body down. He recommends breathing from the diaphragm and exhaling longer than you inhale.
- Take invigorating breaks from work. According to Jensen, our attention span is 90 minutes, maximum. After working for that amount of time, you should do something else, like going for a walk outside or calling a friend.
- Banish negative thoughts. Jensen says negative thoughts are just stories you make up in your head. Once you recognize that, it’s easier to reframe your perspective into a productive state of mind.
- Remember all of your capabilities, not just your weaknesses. Jensen says that in moments of stress, we often dwell on our faults, when in reality they’re just a small piece of the puzzle.
- Learn how to set your own energy levels. According to Jensen, the less your energy levels are influenced by outside sources, the better.
- Use your emotional energy for good. Jensen says all emotions are just energy, and whether they are positive or negative, they can be channelled wherever is needed.