How can 100 seconds a day improve your mental toughness?
Our brains are trained from an early age to focus on the negative. It’s a normal part of being human, since negative events in our lives used to mean life or death. In this day and age, however, there is far less risk and a greater probability of success if we can retrain our brains to skew to the positive. So how do we start to re-wire something that’s so ingrained? Well, it turns out, it may only take 100 seconds a day.
Dr. Jason Selk is one of the premier performance coaches in the world. He served as the director of mental training for the St. Louis Cardinals and helped them win their first World Series in over 20 years. In 2011, he assisted them in winning their second World Championship in a six-year period. He's also helped professional athletes in the NFL, NHL, and NBA and works with Fortune 500 executives to help them to reach their full potential. His latest book is Organize Tomorrow Today: 8 Ways to Retrain Your Mind. I recently interviewed Jason for the LEADx Podcast where we discussed the mental exercises that help world class athletes achieve their goals. (The Interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: When you went to the St. Louis Cardinal Baseball Clubhouse to talk to the players, they only gave you 10 minutes. What did you pick to teach them?
Dr. Jason Selk: Well, Kevin, some people think it's a funny story. For me, it was not. For months I had been working with the front office, with the Cardinals, and what I had been told is that I had a year contract where I was going to go down to Jupiter, Florida, spring training, and for a week I was going to spend the first two hours of the day with the team, with the coaches, doing a presentation. I was going to be available throughout the day for individual attention, and then they were going to use me once spring training broke, about 20 hours a week working individually with players and coaches. I got down there in the first day. Walt Jocketty walks me into Tony La Russa's office, and again, I'm prepared for a two-hour presentation and then to be available eight to 10 hours to work with the individuals. Tony very quickly lets me know that I've got only 10 minutes. I started thinking about the contract.
I knew that I had signed the contract, and I'm serious on this, I couldn't recall ever having seen the contract with their signature because it didn't happen. They never did sign it, so I realized very quickly, “Okay, I don't have a job with the St. Louis Cardinals. I've got an interview.”
It's a 10-minute interview, and I've told everybody back in St. Louis, everybody I could get to listen, that I was the new director of sports, so I was highly motivated to make that 10 minutes count. The initial preparation I was going to cover in a two-hour period was all five tools of the mental workout. Now, I walked in and the first thing I thought I needed to do was probably get a hook, and so I said these words. I said, “Okay, originally I thought I had two hours. I've just been notified I have 10 minutes. What I was going to cover with you all is something called the mental workout. It's a five-step process. I won't have time to cover all five steps, but I will have time to cover one. Now the mental workout, since its development, has been scientifically proven to put you all in a position to play better baseball more consistently.” Now I thought if I said those words, that I would get some people's attention.
The only time you have science on your side, I think especially with elite performers, and you can show the science of how what you're going to teach them is going to benefit them at a significant level. I think you have their attention and then you just have to deliver, and so I just started in on the first tool, which is the centering breath. It's a very simple tool for people to digest, and again, it's all science-based. Was it a matter of were people going to go out and try it? Or even just initially think, “Yeah, this makes sense. It's something good.” The centering breath, it's a tool to deal with the normal reaction to performance, which most people don't understand that when you go into a performance, and it doesn't have to have a bat and ball or a stage, anytime we're at work, that's a performance, you know?
You make a call to a client. You have a meeting with a prospect. You have an interview with the boss. Whatever it might be, those are all performances and the normal reaction for human beings when we go into those environments is, we call it ‘performance anxiety,’ but biologically all that means is your heart rate elevates significantly. Now the problem with that is that it sends a very clear message to your brain that it's going to into fight or flight. What happens is, when your brain experiences that performance anxiety or the elevation of the heart rate, it worries, and to protect itself, it disables all thought except, “Fight this thing or flight; run from this thing.” It all goes back to saber-toothed tiger days and really that boils down to survival.
Well, these days we're not going up against saber-toothed tigers, and losing the detailed thought, losing the ability to have detailed thought is a very bad thing in performance, whether it be a baseball player trying to hit a 96 mile an hour fastball or a salesperson trying to allow the other person to realize the value in the product they're presenting. We need the brain to work, so the centering breath is the biological tool that controls normal performance anxiety. All you do is breathe in for six seconds, hold for two, and breathe out for seven. We know that if we do that, if we take a centering breath before and even during performance, it will slow the heart rate, it will control the heart rate. This will allow the brain to remain in a very effective state so that it has the ability for detailed thought, which is very important in all of performance.
Kevin Kruse: The next step is what you're calling an ‘identity statement.’ So what do we do with that part?
Selk: Let me explain the why behind the identity statement. Back in 1960, a fellow by the name of Maxwell Maltz writes a groundbreaking book, Psycho-Cybernetics. In that book, he identifies for the first time a concept known as self-image. Self-image, for all intents and purposes, Kevin, is very similar to self-confidence. Now we know self-confidence is the number one variable for impacting human performance. What Maltz identifies back in 1960 for the first time is that a person's self-image—again, think of it like self-confidence—it’s developed by how we talk to ourselves about ourselves over time. We also know this, that a person will not outperform nor will they underperform their self-image for long, so if feel like as a baseball player, if I feel like I'm a career 275 hitter, once my batting average gets to 275, what subconsciously starts happening is, I stop putting as much effort into the preparation, which then will start to cause maybe the 275 to go a little bit lower. Now when the 275 goes a little bit lower, I realize, “Hey, look. I'm better than that,” and so I start putting in a little bit extra work to bring me back up to the 275. It's very, very scientific, and when I first heard of this, I thought, “Wow. That just does not feel like it’s science,” but that was my inexperience in knowledge.
If anything, self-image is understated. But again, what Maltz identifies has been completely proven. You cannot argue intelligently against this at this point, that a person's self-image is determined by how they talk to their self over time. Unfortunately, because of something called PCT, Problem Centric Thought, we have, as humans, a biological tendency to focus on the negatives. Completely normal. Now because of that, and because of perfectionist tendencies, and so forth, most people are out there talking to themselves and about themselves in a very negative manner.
And so if you think about what that means is, most people then have a self-image much lower than what it could or should be. So what the identity statement, the second tool in the Mental Workout does, is that proactive approach to really going to work on your self-image, instead of allowing what is normal and natural to happen, which would be over time, you say things that are more negative about yourself than positive, which lowers your self-image. What we're going to do is be proactive on this, and we're going to put together a personal mantra that forces us to create a self-image of where we want it to be.
So for example, when I first started in the field of Sport Psychology, and I was a complete nobody at the time. But I was saying to myself, “I outworked the competition at the time. I am the most effective Sports Psychology Consultant in the world.” And Kevin, both parts, neither one of them were true. Again, I was just getting out of college, and so I didn't really have an established work ethic and I was a nobody.
There was this story: I went to a YMCA and tried to give them what's now turned into ‘10-Minute Toughness,’ that mental training program I developed. I went to a YMCA and tried to give it to them for free and they wouldn't even accept it for free. So, literally, I wasn't even the best in St. Louis, much less the State of Missouri or even the country, and we're not even talking about the world yet. So it wasn't true, but this is what we know of self-image. It's a whole lot more important to touch on and focus on your desire as opposed to your reality. All right.
And then another guideline you want to think about is, you want to say it as if it's already been accomplished. Now I'm going to give a one-third guideline. You want to have two parts to it: a process focus, something that you can control. Really, for me, it was to outwork the competition. I could control how hard I worked. And then the second part you want to have is a result focus, which was the, “I'm the most effective Sport Psychology Consultant in the world.”
So I put all those things together, and then what happened is because I was doing my Mental Workouts at least once a day. I was saying to myself every single day, “I outwork the competition every day. I'm the most effective Sport Psychology Consultant in the world.” At some point, Kevin, I don't know exactly when, but I started to believe it.
And then once I started to believe it, I think that's when my competition started hearing about me pretty quickly after that. Like the baseball player example. If I wasn't working hard, I felt this kind of stress and anxiety of, “Hey, you’ve got to get going.” And again, I used it to make positive behavior changes. I didn't sit there and let it overwhelm me, I used the negative emotion to make positive behavior changes. Then when I would, like the example of going to the YMCA, and them not even letting me give it to their clients for free, I mean, I was so embarrassed and insulted, it really again just increased my work ethic.
I knew that I had a decent platform in terms of the program. I knew that the mental training plan was pretty solid. I had to work on my marketing skills. I had to work on, “How do I sell myself to people?” And so, I started putting energy into that. But again, an identity statement really helps develop the self-image, putting it at a level that you are proud of the performance. Instead of having it low, which is where most people are.
Kruse: I've seen goal-setting research that says setting goals too low or too high is not helpful. What do you think about that counter-argument to this?
Selk: That's a really good point, and here's what we know: the research on affirmations, which again, ‘identity statement’ is simply positive self-talk. That's all affirmations really are. Affirmations say two things. Number one: “The further from the truth, the more impactful they can be.” Now the counterpoint to that is, “Unless you can't even wrap your mind around it.” Okay, so there's a very simple correction. All you do is, you grade, and you incrementally change the identity statement.
So for example, if back in 1999 when I started with that identity statement, “I am the most effective Sport Psychology Consultant in the world.” If my mind couldn't wrap around it, if I didn't believe that I had the ability to make that happen, then yes. It's not going to work, and again, this is kind of along the lines of the affirmation that said, “The further from the truth, the more impactful.” But you must be able to believe in it.
What I would suggest someone do right there is instead of saying, “Best in the world,” why don't we go back to St. Louis? “Well St. Louis feels a little too low, so how about we start with Missouri? I'm the most effective Sport Psychology Consultant in Missouri.” And then maybe three, six, nine, 12, 15, 18 months later, if you're starting to see some progress toward that goal, then maybe you take it to that region. And then maybe again, once you start to see, “Yeah, I think I can do this in the region.” Then you move it to the nation and then maybe the world.
Maybe I'm a big dreamer, but I know, for me, back then, I wanted it to be true so badly, I was willing to do the work. I wasn't naïve about it. I knew that it wasn't going to happen just by sitting in my chair and saying positive things to myself. But those statements forced me to get up out of the chair, to get my butt to work earlier than what I felt like my competition was doing, and to stay later. And it was eventually that that caused me to, I think, be at least in the ring for the top Sport Psychology Consultant in the world.
Kruse: You’re not saying, “Just say it and it’ll happen.” It still does take hard work.
Selk: There are so many people out there that believe, that if they just get a positive mindset, it's going to happen for them. And look, I think that that's a really good thing. I mean, I'm certainly a proponent of having a positive mindset, but you said something where you said, “It's the positive mindset that promoted the action.” See it's the action, and that's why on that identity statement, you want to have two parts. Don't just say, “I am the most effective Sport Psychology Consultant in the world.” Don't forget the first part. “I outwork the competition every day.
I mean, I'm no dummy, but I also know that I'm not as smart as maybe some of the people—IQ-wise—that I'm going up against. So I wasn't going to be able to outsmart people. I know, for me, to get where I want to go, the characteristic that I really have to hang my hat on is, “I've got to outwork these individuals. I’ve got to be more prepared. I’ve got to do more studying. I’ve got to be willing to dig in and spend more time with clients if that's what's necessary,” but it was both parts. The action and the desire, put together, that I think unleashed the real equation of success that—for me—has worked out and I think for a lot of people, it helps work out as well.
Kruse: We talked about centering breath, then saying your personal mantra. The next step is Personal Highlight Reel. What is that?
Selk: The Personal Highlight Reel is visualization. Visualization is known in sport psychology and performance psychology as the number one tool that people can use to prepare for success. When I created the Mental Workout, I really wanted it to be as efficient as possible. I don't want people spending time on anything other than the most important tools, the centering breath, the positive self-talk, and the visualization. Those are your top three tools. Visualization is number one. And that's why, of the 100 seconds, visualization gets 60 seconds of the pie.
What I want people to do in the visualization is to take just 30 seconds, and visualize over the last 24 hours if possible, if you have to go back further than that, that's okay. But try to keep it more recent, the better, and be very specific. Just replay in your head two or three things you did well in the previous day. It could be something from your personal life. “I got up and spent some time with my wife and kids before going to work.”
It could be that you made good choices at the dinner table the night before. It could be in the professional life. You did a really nice job making the right calls to the right people that day. It could be that you, on the call, followed a script that you had put together and you feel really good about it. You want to see specifically the success you had, two or three of them, from the day before.
And that's 30 seconds, and then after about 30 seconds, you want to take another 30 seconds, and you want to imagine, “Okay. In the upcoming day, what are two or three successes I really want to have?” And then that's what you want to visualize in the next 30 seconds, the upcoming success. Again, be as specific as possible. What we know, whether it be with the positive self-talk, or with visualization, the more specific you can be, the better. The more impactful, the stickier it is for your brain.
Kruse: I had never thought about spending time to reinforce what I did in the previous 24 hours. I'm definitely going to add that to my routine.
Selk: I think it's a really good idea, and I know when I was writing my first book, 10-Minute Toughness, the Mental Workout in 10-Minute Toughness is much longer. It's three minutes and 40 seconds. That book was really written for professional athletes and coaches. So this, I think, for our audience, the 100 seconds does it. The difference being, with the professional athlete, we needed to spend three minutes of visualization, so that we could really start to impact muscle memory. You and I, and folks in the business world, we don't necessarily need the muscle memory that the athletes do.
But even when I was putting that first Mental Workout together, I knew that three minutes and 40 seconds, “Man, that's a really long time.” I was worried that people would get bogged down with even how long that was. People are overwhelmed and trying to get them to commit time to that is very difficult. So I really considered getting rid of the past success visualization. I was kind of like you. I didn't put a lot into it in my life with the past success, and so I started doing some homework and research on the impact of seeing past success.
It really has a tremendous impact on self-image and self-confidence, which we know is the number one variable for human performance. Seeing yourself having already accomplished and done the things that cause success, has a greater impact on that than imagining success. So I'd tell you, for sure, to include the past success.
Kruse: Can you share any success stories from your clients where they got some real success from doing this routine?
Selk: Because of confidentiality, I don't get to really drop names. But I'll say this. The Mental Workout, it was the first thing I really did in the world of sport psychology, and it just so happened one of my best friends when I was finishing graduate school, played for the Houston Astros, and I put the Mental Workout together and I immediately called him. We spent a couple hours on the phone going through it—I think it was maybe good timing for me, bad for him—but at the time when I called him, he was really in the worst slump of his career.
I think he had gone less than three hits for three weeks in a row, which for a major league baseball player, you're not going to get through that very long without getting demoted. So we go through the Mental Workout, and he then goes four weeks in a row with 10 hits or more, which if you do that you can play as long as you want. So he started telling teammates in major league baseball, and they were telling friends in the NFL, NHL, and the NBA. And I'll tell you, the Mental Workout is what took me from a graduate student to being recognized as one of the top Sport Psychology Consultants in the world within two years, and there's just one reason.
When people pass the names around, that's nice. That's like getting an interview, but if the product doesn't work, they're not going to do it. At this level, they're not going to give you a second chance. That's just how it works. So I'd tell you, the Mental Workout is what took me from a nobody to a somebody for one reason. It just flat out works. I know, again, I grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It's a very blue collar town. Seems like mumbo jumbo, and I look at the science, and I'd try it, and that's all I'd encourage your listeners to do.
Maybe pick up one of the books and get a little bit more knowledge of the Mental Workout, so you know what you're doing. But try it for a month. Try it for a week and I think what you're going to see, it's maybe not going to be Earth-shattering immediately, but you will see that it has you more prepared, more focused, more ready to attack and win each and every day. It’s significant enough that you, if you try it, most people say, “Yeah, you know what? That's probably worth the 100 seconds I'm going to invest in this. It's probably worth the return on the investment.”
Kruse: I always like to challenge our listeners to become a little bit better every single day. Is there something we could try today in our work or life?
Selk: That's a great question. I'm so glad you asked. Here's where I start with anyone. Whether it be a professional athlete, baseball player, football player, MMA, or someone in the business world, the first fundamental—and again, this is one of those that I think sounds awfully soft, and a little strange—the first fundamental is you’ve got to start recognizing what you're doing well. See, here's what normally happens in the human brain, especially as we age: our brains are biologically built to focus on the negative.
Unfortunately, in expectancy theory, that which you focus on, expands. So what happens, you go through your day today, and maybe you're driving home from work, but your brain is—by the nature of itself—going to be more likely to focus on the things you screwed-up on today. If you let your brain focus on those screw-ups, by looking at those screw-ups, you're going to create more screw-ups tomorrow. Because you're going to beat your self-confidence down. Now if you can get yourself, instead of focusing on your screw-ups, and if you want to still focus on your screw-ups, that's fine. But here's what you got to do first.
Just ask yourself, “Okay. What are two or three things that I did well today?” The great Bear Bryant, one of the greatest football coaches to ever walk the planet, he never let his players watch video of plays they screwed-up on. He only showed players plays that either they did well or that their teammates did well, that they maybe needed to make the improvement on. But he wouldn't let them watch the negative for this exact reason.
And again, it's total science. You cannot intelligently argue against this at this point in time. So what I'd tell you is, just take a 30 second, 60 seconds at most, and get into the habit. It’s also nine times more impactful if you write it down. But think it or if you want to speed it up, write it down. Two or three things you did well, before you go to the critical side. Always start with the positive in terms of evaluation.
Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.