Working Above the Shoulders


By Joshua Firmin, OSI Assistant Director

During a recent drive home from Millinocket a few weeks back I took the opportunity to dive into a new podcast, “The Ready State,” which had caught my eye through various social media channels.  The episode was an interview with Mark Verstegen, one of the world’s top experts in the field of human performance.  During the interview, Mark shares his approach to building athletes through four pillars of performance – movement, nutrition, recovery, and mindset.  As the interview progressed, it was interesting to hear Mark talk about how important developing mindset, or doing “above the shoulders” work, is and how often it gets overlooked.  Mindset, also defined as the mental attitude, disposition, or inclination one holds is a very powerful tool that can be applied to many different aspects of our lives.  As athletes, we spend a lot of time working to improve our physical capacity in sport while neglecting to develop a strong mindset. Without a strong mental foundation, we are unable to realize our full potential.  Understanding the influence of mindset on athletic performance and learning how to develop and improve your personal mindset are an important part of being an outdoor sport athlete.       

Often in the outdoor sport world, we try to “get in the zone” to attempt a challenging endeavor.  Whether waiting at the starting line of a race, sitting in the pool above a big rapid, or staring down a steep and technical trail, it’s easy for our heads to become filled with unproductive thoughts and emotions.  Nervousness, doubt, and anxiety can swirl through our brains clouding out focus.  How can we teach our brain to shut out the noise so we can perform like a smooth operator?

The answer, unfortunately, isn’t cut and dry.  Just like snowflakes, every brain is unique, and every person develops his or her (every person is a singular pronoun) mindset differently.  Take a look at high-performing athletes in any sport and you’ll see that in addition to the incredible amount of physical capacity they’ve developed they utilize personalized routines to help them find a focused performance mindset. 

Thankfully, these techniques aren’t just reserved for the elite.  Athletes at any level of sport can experience the benefits of improving their mindset.  While not technically a muscle, the brain can be trained like one to improve different aspects of cognitive function.  Just like the physical components of sport, good mindset is a skill that requires practice to develop and maintain.  Imagine your brain like a giant trail network, with different trails leading to different mindsets.  Each time a specific mental “trail” is used the more worn in it becomes, negative or positive.   The more the pathways to a positive headspace are used the more likely the mind will default to those “performance” settings when the need arises. 

One technique that many athletes use is positive visualization.  This typically involves mentally visualizing the ideal execution of a given task.  If the only thing you can think about before a ski race is crashing on a difficult downhill corner, it’s very likely that you will crash in that corner during the race.  A more effective mindset would be to visualize skiing through the corner with perfect form.  One high-performing athlete using this technique is Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps.  Phelps developed a practice of watching a mental “videotape” of the perfect race, visualizing every tiny aspect of the event, from the position of his body to the timing of his breaths.  In competition, he uses the “videotape” to focus on delivering a world-class performance.  As evidenced by the number of gold medal Michael Phelps has earned, positive visualization is a useful tool.  To be clear, this technique is most helpful if the capacity to perform actually meets the standard of the visualization.  I can visualize performing a gold medal figure skating routine, but I don’t actually have the skill do it in real life.   

World Champion whitewater kayaker Eric Jackson (EJ) has a different approach to finding his zone.  In the Fitness for Paddlers column of Kayak Session Magazine’s Fall 2017 issue, EJ writes about developing a “broad-external” focus for success in whitewater paddling.  He asserts that in a dynamic environment like whitewater things are constantly changing. It can be challenging to try to focus on perfect execution when so many variables are out of your control.  How do you deal with the unexpected crashing wave when it wasn’t part of your mental rehearsal?  The short answer: you can’t. It would overload our brains by attempting to process all the variables, ultimately leading to poor performance.  EJ’s tactic is to extend his focus outward to his environment.  This serves two purposes.  First, it helps transfer attention away from thought-consuming internal monologue.  That nagging voice in your head that can be difficult to shut off.  Diverting his attention to something external can turn down the volume.  Second it allows for focus on fixed elements (think rock, tree, etc.) rather than dynamic elements like the moving water.  This shift in focus reduces sensory input from a constantly changing environment and frees up mental bandwidth that can be allocated to deliberate movement. 

It’s important to remember that there are many other mindset-developing methods and techniques out there. The concepts of internal visualization and broad-external focus are just two examples that can be applied to developing a performance mindset for outdoor sport.  Mindset is a large contributing factor to success in sport and it requires practice to teach the brain how to engage in effective thought patterns.  If you’re interested in diving deeper into the subject I’d suggest checking out The Art of Mental Training by DC Gonzalez, and The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive by Jim Afremow as a place to get started.  With time and patience, a little “above the shoulders” work will help elevate your skills and enjoyment in your sport.

Team OSIAmy Falcione