Mental training techniques are all the rage right now. I’m going to present a contrarian view. It’s been my experience from working with athletes that mental techniques impede rather than enhance performance.
If you’re at all familiar with my work, you know I firmly believe that deliberate mental techniques or strategies used to improve performance (and find happiness) are, in principle, ineffective. Here are four reasons why:
1. The experience of performers at the top of their game is the opposite of what mental coaches teach.
There’s a misalignment between the experience of performers at the top of their games and the strategies of the psychologists and mental coaches who are trying to help them. Virtually all of us would say that our best performances—whether in sports, work, or even relationships—came easily. We often hear phrases like: “clear head,” “wasn’t even thinking,” “had no expectations,” or “not sure how it happened” to explain a person’s feeling state when at his or her best. If optimal performance happens without calculated thinking, why would you employ a mental strategy that requires you to think?
2. Deliberate strategies are not the same as instinctive ones.
Mental strategies are not necessarily right or wrong. Many great performers visualize success, take deep breaths, find positive feelings, and relax. It’s when you turn these actions into a rote or forced practice (which requires thought and effort) that you’ll clog your own head—leaving little room for instincts to flourish. From a high level of consciousness (awareness), a person automatically visualizes the future, breathes efficiently, feels positive, and relaxes. Calculated visualization, breathing, positive thinking, and relaxation methods cannot help a person find a high level of consciousness.
3. Human beings experience life from in to out, not out to in.
In spite of what most people have been led to believe, nothing on the outside is responsible for how you feel on the inside. Therefore, wrongly believing that your feelings are caused by your circumstances or environment, and applying a strategy to overcome these feelings, is a waste of energy. It’s like building a trap for a monster and putting it under your child’s bed. Since monsters are not the natural byproduct of a child sleeping alone in his or her bedroom—they come from the child’s thinking—using a technique to avoid monsters only legitimizes and bolsters the child’s fearful thoughts.
4. Calculated mental strategies obstruct a person’s innate ability to ascend to clarity of mind.
An often-overlooked principle is that when we overthink and, thus, feel afraid, insecure, or blue, we’re innately wired to self-correct. While it may look like using a deliberate mental strategy has helped you find clarity in the past, if you’re honest about it, you’ll admit the results were always short-lived at best. This is because a high state of mind has nothing to do with mental strategies and all to do with your head’s natural propensity to clear. In fact, if you keep using strategies, you’ll obstruct this self-correcting system to the point where it might not function. Here’s an analogy to illustrate this principle: When a rollercoaster hits its low point, it will naturally rise back up. The only way to prevent it from doing so on its own is to panic, pull the emergency brake, and try to fix something that may feel broken—but isn’t.
The Bottom Line: No matter where you are or what you’re doing, your struggles are merely a reflection of the degree to which your head is filled with thought at that particular moment. Anytime you add more thinking—and, again, all deliberate mental techniques require thinking—you’re likely to struggle even more. If you forego the mental strategy (and avoid adding more thought), your head will empty, insights arise, and you will feel better. After all, you, like all human beings, are designed to regulate to clarity without effort.
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Garret Kramer is founder of Inner Sports, a sports management and advisory firm, and author of Stillpower: Excellence with Ease in Sports and Life, which teaches the states of mind that allow athletes and other individuals to excel. His revolutionary approach to performance has transformed the careers of professional athletes and coaches, Olympians, and collegiate players across a multitude of sports. Kramer’s work has been featured on WFAN, ESPN, Fox, and CTV, as well as in Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other national publications.