A couple of weeks ago I commenced a six-week Mental Conditioning Program with Michael Inglis, Sports Psychologist to North Melbourne Football Club. In The Mind Room’s trendy Collingwood warehouse space, I found myself seated amongst an intimate group of athletes and coaches. The group was the right size for me to feel comfortable sharing ideas and experiences, while also providing rich enough diversity. There were young athletes from cricket, diving, basketball and cycling as well as a coach from gymnastics and a personal trainer.
As I looked around I saw boundless potential; a scintillating fusion of vitality, confidence and hope. These attributes stand in stark contrast to where I see myself. Although active, I have been telling myself for some time that I am too old to improve; that it is all downhill from here. If I’m honest, too, a fractured leg a couple of years ago has helped to perpetuate this story in my mind. It’s a story where I can congratulate myself for “getting out there”, but where I have let go of any aspirations for improvement. It was during my session last week that Inglis picked up this constraining reality, shook it, then dumped it on its head.
During a discussion about our responses to our Performance Rating Forms I had shared my negative self-talk around age and injury. I hadn’t been conscious that I was even doing this, not until I completed the activities Inglis had set us. I wasn’t even aware at the time that this related to my performance in a meaningful way. Then Inglis dropped a bombshell: These are just beliefs and I do not have to accept that either aging or injury equates to declining performance. I say bombshell, because if I suspend these beliefs then I have to accept that my performance is down to me. I have to start working hard if I want to achieve results. Inglis had exposed my excuses for what they were.
Clues as to how to shake off these constraints came during our peak versus poor performance activity. It became very clear to me when I reflected on these that a key difference between the two was my thoughts. In poor performance I tend to tell myself that I’m tired and I focus on blaming external factors. In peak performance my thoughts are around my actions. Inglis’s mental conditioning program focuses on thoughts, as well as feelings and physical sensations; what he describes as internal states that no one else can see. These are distinguishable from external, observable factors such as trigger situations and behaviour performance.
In the week since the class I have been practicing the meditation that Inglis assigned us for homework. He taught us to use mindfulness to help self-regulate our attention to the task at hand. He discussed this in relation to the concept of Automated Self-Regulation, which involves allowing skills and abilities to instinctively take over. It’s about allowing the mind to remain quiet and focused on present-moment actions; what Inglis describes as, “getting your head out your body’s way”. A key learning from this was that the struggle to be without distress is the problem, not the presence of negative thoughts and feelings in themselves.
Even after one class, I noticed a considerable difference to my running by applying these new learnings. Previously my runs took on the same pattern. My running partner and I would chat for about half a kilometre and then gradually she would ease ahead of me; within two or three kilometres she would disappear from sight. I would precede to plod around at a comfortable pace for someone sliding steadily down the performance slope. This weekend, however, I actually kept my running partner in sight and on Tuesday I held her off for a good section of the run. Dare I say it, but I was actually working hard and shifting at a respectable pace.
It’s early days yet, but the mental conditioning training has awakened my curiosity. I want to know where it can take me; can I sustain these changes? Inglis has opened a door and challenged me to see my world in a different way. It’s not a comfortable feeling, but it’s exciting at the same time as being unnerving. I feel that I have greater self-awareness and can already see myself becoming more resilient through this training. I am looking forward to tonight’s class with great anticipation.