Why Mindfulness is the Next Frontier in Sports Performance

Michael Gervais is a sports psychologist who works with athletes in “high stakes, consequential environments.” Sometimes those stakes are as low as winning and losing (he’s worked with the Seattle Seahawks for eight years) and sometimes they are as high as living and dying (like in his work with Felix Baumgartner, the Austrian who free dove from 130,000 feet as part of Red Bull’s 2012 Stratos project). No matter the consequences, his end goal remains the same: to help his clients respond constructively to high stress environments.

“I’m fortunate to work with people that are some of the most extraordinary thinkers and doers in the world, and in some cases they’re working in operating environments where mistakes are costly,” Dr. Gervais says. “To operate well in those environments requires a mastery of craft, a mastery of your body and mastery of mind… [those people are] teaching and informing the rest of us, in many ways, what it means to have a full command of one’s inner life and to be able to apply it on command in rugged hostile and stressful environments.”

This is, of course, a very fancy way of saying that Dr. Gervais helps his clients be more mindful. If that word just made you cringe, we hear you. Mindfulness is—and has been for some time—the panacea du jour in the wellness world, so overused it’s effectively devoid of substance. But Dr. Gervais’s work goes deeper than your usual run-of-the-mill “take five deep breaths and let serenity cascade over you.” (Though, to be clear: he is a fan of deep breathing.)

He is tasked with helping patients be hyper-aware in situations that threaten to transport them to anywhere except wherever they currently are (the deafening noise of an opposing stadium, 130,000 feet above earth, at the mercy of gravity’s will). The success some of his clients have had in that regard—Russell Wilson, a contender for this year’s NFL MVP, chief among them—proves a compelling case not just for why, in his hands, awareness is not some bullshit hack, but why it might actually be a future pillar of elite sports performance (alongside nutrition, recovery, and strength and conditioning, which, Gervais, points out, were once viewed with cynicism, too).

And why does any of this matter for you? Maybe your environment doesn’t contain “about to leap from the stratosphere” levels of stress. But the modern world is still leaving many of us feeling overworked, under-recovered, anxious, and alone. Here, Gervais walks you through some of the techniques that have proven most effective in his years on the job—the tools that have allowed his patients to build mental resilience, feel more confident and capable, and fortify their inner world against external adversity.

First off: how would you define confidence?
Confidence is, essentially, “I think I can do that thing over there.” Confidence is not “I can.” Confidence is “That looks hard—I think I have the skills to match it.” Confidence comes from one place and one place only: what you say to yourself. It’s not built on past success. Past success certainly has a great influence on it, but confidence essentially has to pass through the gate of what you say to yourself. The good news about that is, ultimately, we are responsible for what we say to ourselves. It’s a trainable skill. So, by default, confidence is trainable, and it’s 100% under our control.

It’s interesting that you say it’s not built on past success. Because I feel like when you think of confidence, it’s: “Look at all the cool shit I’ve done.”
Past success alone is not enough. It’s knowing how to use and pull past success into an appropriate appraisal of the demands that you’re about to meet. And if you believe you can meet those demands based on your skills and your state of being, you got it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *