Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence by Gary Mack

Today we’re discussing one of the books from the fit knowts Mindfulness Collection: Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence by Gary Mack. This book examines the fact that we train our bodies all the time – we go to the gym, we practice, we work on these physical skills – and just as we need a physical gym to train those skills, we also need a mind gym, an area and a place to build the mental toughness and the mental capacity that brings about excellence on and off the field. This philosophy is what Mind Gym is all about.

The position of author Gary Mack is that once you reach a certain level of competency in your sport or career, developing mental skills becomes just as, or even more, important than physical skills. Any elite athlete can attest to this and it's really a great book for young athletes and anyone who coaches young athletes. Today we're going to focus on five key insights presented by the author and how to use them. Let’s dive in!

Fear of Failure

No matter what you do in life, there will be times when you will experience pressure. In competition, pressure happens all the time, but the fear of failure is specific because it's the point at which pressure becomes negative instead of positive. It may seem counterintuitive, but pressure can actually propel you to a high level of performance. That last minute buzzer beater, hitting a home run in the bottom of the 9th, all of those are pressure moments. However, they represent positive pressure that leads to a great performance, which is much different than the negative feeling produced by the fear of failure.

Of course, the fear of failure is one of the catalysts of poor performance. So how do we avoid that fear of failure? Pressure, in and of itself, is not a reflection of who you are as a person. You are not a failure if, in that moment, things don't work out. The truth is, fear of failure really only occurs in your mind when you define a situation as pressure-inducing instead of focusing on the positive of the moment to perform at the highest level. You may begin to second-guess yourself and say, ‘Oh, I might mess up.’ We're trying to avoid that as much as possible, and throughout Mind Gym, there are exercises that will help sharpen your focus so you can transform those pressure situations into a positive experience.

The Kaizen Concept

A Japanese principle, Kaizen is used in both sports and business with the goal of constant daily learning and improvement. For example, when you watch fit knowts TV, you are practicing Kaizen. The concept of Kaizen is really about consistency, which is another skill that prevents us from performing poorly because when we perform consistently, being able to hit peak performance is that much easier. To improve with Kaizen, it's really important for athletes to recognize both their strengths and their weaknesses. If you’re really great at one thing and not so good at another, you’ll need to consistently work on that weakness to turn it into a strength.

One example that Gary Mack uses in Mind Gym is Hank Aaron, one of the greatest hitters of all time in Major League Baseball. Hank Aaron spent an entire summer hitting changeups because it was a pitch that he wasn't great at hitting, yet he was actually able to turn that into a strength. It was the consistency, the Kaizen, looking at that weakness and mastering it to turn it into a strength. Mack highlights first-hand experiences of athletes, emphasizing not only the theoretical but also the practical applications of how these athletes have overcome barriers and hit peak performance using the mental toughness techniques discussed in in Mind Gym.

Set SMART Goals

We all have goals, but being close to the new year, we see resolutions and goals set that tend to fall by the wayside. The reason we lose sight of our goals is they lack focus. SMART goals are a way of setting goals in such a way that they become more achievable. SMART is an acronym for goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-sensitive. You probably have heard about SMART goals before and for those of you who are personal trainers, this concept is one of the foundations of goal setting for clients.

If we go back to that Hank Aaron example, the goal wasn't to become a better hitter, it was to get better at hitting changeups – that’s specific. He worked on it over the course of one season to really hone in on this skill and really elevate this part of his game – the goal was measurable. Achievable? Sure, we’re talking about one pitch. With enough consistency and Kaizen, of course it would be achievable, right? If I want to bat .800, that's never happened before in baseball, it will never happen because it's not that kind of game and it's not an achievable statistic to aim for. But being able to get better at hitting a changeup, that's something that we can aim for. You could even get more specific than that by saying, I want to have a certain average hitting changeups. Maybe it's an improvement of 100 batting average points on the off-speed pitch. Hank Aaron's goal was specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-sensitive in that span of one or two seasons or over a summer.

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is an interesting principle that basically describes what happens when our conscious state isn't matching up with what's really going on in the present moment of competition. An example that Gary Mack uses is actually one from golf, from 1999 at the British Open. An excerpt from the book states, “Jean Van de Velde was ahead, leading the 1999 British Open by three shots and with only one hole to go, many would have played it safe.” The issue here was that Van de Velde had been playing aggressively the whole tournament and had been doing really well. At the time, he was actually 150-1 underdog leading the tournament on the final day, having played aggressively all week. So what did he do? He played aggressively, he had been doing it all week. Unfortunately, this resulted in him hitting a triple bogey on the last hole and then losing in the play-off.

What really happened here was that Van de Velde said to himself, ‘I've played aggressive and I've been successful, that's what I need to do in this moment.’ Realistically, he should have played it safe. He had a lead that he could protect and we may never know what would’ve happened had he played it safe. What were the risks in that situation? What was the assessment there? Playing it safe might have resulted in an outcome that would have been more in his favor. Effectively, what he was thinking wasn't matching up with playing it safe. In reality, he was thinking, ‘I have to be more aggressive. I've been aggressive this whole time, why stop now?’ But in that exact situation, what were the odds that aggression was actually going to pay off versus playing it safe?

Cognitive dissonance is really important when we're talking about performance, it's really about evaluating the situation and recognizing, what can I do to be successful in this situation, not necessarily what I did last time but what I can do right now. So in Van de Velde’s situation, he wasn't comfortable playing it safe even though that was probably what the situation realistically called for. That’s another great example of where mental toughness could take over in that situation to say hold on, calm it down, take a step back, and let's recognize what the situation calls for so I can enable peak performance.

Inner Excellence

The last major concept discussed in Mind Gym is inner excellence – what can you say about your excellence in terms of athletics and performance and just in general, everyday life? Inner excellence is something that we all certainly strive for. In Mind Gym, Gary Mack talks about 10 qualities of inner excellence: dreaming, responsibility, optimism, emotional control, character, commitment, openness, self-confidence, the adversity threshold, and persistence/patience.

We’ll start with dreaming. We all have to be dreamers for sure. Nelson Mandela said, “There's no passion to be found in playing small - in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” In terms of inner excellence, dreaming is definitely a quality that needs to be present. Nearly every professional athlete or anyone at a certain level in their career will tell you that they first dreamed of being there.

As far as responsibility, it goes without saying is that we are responsible for our own actions. In terms of inner excellence, it's about showing up every day, that consistency, that Kaizen. That is what you are responsible for. Responsibility is surely a part of attaining inner excellence and becoming your own MVP.

Optimism, again, anyone who’s played at an elite level will understand that you just have to be optimistic about it. Realistically, the odds are usually against you. If you think about making any pro league or fitness goals or coaching and winning a championship or showing up to every single workout, something's going to come up, but you have to be optimistic that you're going to eventually reach your destination.

Emotional control is another big one. This can also be referred to as mental toughness in the sense that staying level-headed, remaining calm, and keeping control of emotions is very important. Letting your emotions get the best of you in situations typically won’t lead to high performance. Of course, there will be moments, but how do we reflect on those moments of perhaps losing control and not make them commonplace?

Character, not just individual strength of character, but also  character in terms of helping others. When it comes to being a team player, inner excellence cannot be attained without strong character. It's pretty straightforward. We all have to be givers of our talents as well as anything that we have to offer of value.

Commitment happens day in and day out. This means being committed to your SMART goals and your Kaizen, commitment to consistency.

Openness is manifested as a willingness to take criticism, to take coaching, to take to take help when you need it. Openness is actually almost one of the hidden components in this list of 10 - It's something that can get overlooked easily especially because sometimes our journeys to inner excellence can feel quite like a solo effort, but without that openness, it'll be much more difficult.

Self-confidence means we have to be able to hear that openness but also understand that we can achieve these goals, we can do it with the consistency, and we can understand situations where we need to adapt. Self-confidence is really about understanding situations and knowing that you're prepared for them. In terms of Mind Gym, that means doing the work, the mental toughness exercises to be prepared so when the time comes, you can turn pressure into a positive experience instead of a negative one.

The adversity threshold that Gary Mack talks about in Mind Gym is a certain threshold of adversity that we have to be able to withstand. There is no easy path to obtaining inner excellence or peak performance. We have to understand that adversity is going to come in waves and that there's a threshold where you must maintain your self-confidence, keep that pressure positive, maintain the consistency, set the SMART goals, work through the exercises and you'll be able to fight off that adversity for that time. Doing this will better prepare you for the  next set of adversities.

And last but not least, persistence and patience. Nothing can be attained without persistence and patience and it's a lifetime journey. None of us achieve anything in a short period of time in terms of inner excellence and peak performance. Persistence and patience, like openness, are almost one of those hidden gems in this list of 10 qualities of inner excellence. When you look at it, the other nine principles hinge on persistence and patience. Most people want results right away but it takes persistence and patience to work at what you want every day and get results.

We’ve gone over a few key insights from the book: fear of failure, Kaizen, SMART goals, cognitive dissonance, and inner excellence. Alright team, go out and read Mind Gym by Gary Mack.

Our summaries are available at fitknowts.com as 5-page PDFs or audio summaries of 20 minutes or less.