What we can learn from athletes about how to pivot from negative to positive thoughts
Published on July, 22nd 2018
By Greg Wells
During my career, I have learned a great deal about human performance from working with elite athletes. The challenges athletes face push them and their coaches to learn to cope with enormous pressure. Many of those techniques are useful for the rest of us in our daily lives.
One of the most powerful mental skills athletes develop is the ability to pivot from negative to positive thoughts. It is a skill they practice a great deal because no matter the sport, and no matter how successful they are, all athletes fail over and over again.
In particular, they develop an ability to recognize, in the moment, that their brain is perceiving a situation as a threat, so they can shift to seeing it as a challenge to overcome. They go from an automatic reaction in their limbic system (“I am bad. This is scary”) to a conscious choice in their neo cortex (“I can do this”). In so doing, they shift their mood, energy and focus.
A great example comes from one of the most daring physical accomplishments of all time.
On October 14, 2012, Austrian skydiver and daredevil Felix Baumgartner floated upwards in a specialized helium balloon until he reached an estimated height of 145,000 feet above the Earth’s surface, well into the stratosphere. He then skydived to earth, becoming the first human ever to break the sound barrier without vehicular power.
His record breaking dive almost didn’t happen.
During the lead up to the jump, despite having spent his adult life doing crazy stunts, Baumgartner began to have panic attacks. In fact, he became so scared of the space suit he was to wear for the jump that he became claustrophobic if he even looked at his boots, gloves or the helmet. His brain had concluded that the suit was a significant threat.
Because he was so experienced, Baumgartner knew he could convince his brain to pivot. To make it happen, he worked with his team to reclaim his relationship with the suit, one piece at a time. He put on the gloves, did breathing exercises and then took a break. Later, he put on the lower half of the suit and visualized what it would feel like to be standing on the ground after he completed the jump. Eventually, he was able to get fully suited up and go through detailed visualizations of plummeting through the atmosphere.
While the extreme nature of Baumgartner’s dive is something very few of us will ever experience, the techniques he used to pivot from threat to challenge are accessible to us all.
Start by monitoring the physiological reactions that happen when your brain is in “this is a threat” mode. From there, you can experiment with calming and centering techniques used by elite athletes, such as positive self-talk, breathing exercises, visualizations, and reverse engineering the steps you need to take to overcome the obstacle.
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