Full text of sports psychologist Dr. Sean Richardson’s talk: Mental Toughness: Think Differently about Your World at TEDxVictoria conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Dr. Sean Richardson – Sports psychologist
Last Tuesday I was sitting at Starbucks and I was drinking a soy decaf non-fat vegan latte. Yeah, I know, it’s a recent diet change.
I was procrastinating from doing some important work. A headline in The Globe Mail caught my attention. It said ‘Wait! Do nothing.’
And it was an article about how the medical system and it fuels our incessant demand for instant gratification when we’re sick, with what it terms ‘over treatment’ – unnecessary tests and prescriptions for minor ailments – all to create a sense that at least something is being done.
You know that feeling when you’ve had the flu, and you’re bogged down. The demand to do something can be almost overwhelming. It’s like a drug addict going through withdrawal and you know just anything to get some relief.
How many people have had a nasty flu in the last year? Yeah. Maybe there’s been something worse or maybe someone you care about is facing a deadly disease.
My father-in-law is dying of cancer and you know isn’t there anything that you would do just something to make a change and quickly.
But what if there is an intervention? What is if there isn’t a prescription that can make a difference? What if the doctors don’t know the answer?
Or, what if the answer they have could do more harm than good? Do you still go ahead with it, despite the negative consequences?
According to the article, there is a growing number of physicians and academics who are advocating the practice of nothing! Being patient. Trying to understand more before taking action.
In a way it’s kind of refusing to fuel that demand for instant gratification. Hippocrates, he pre-empted this 2500 years ago when he said:
‘To do nothing sometimes is a good remedy!’– Hippocrates
However, being a PhD in Performance Psychology, I can tell you that doing nothing your brain is not going to like it. Uncertainty isn’t going to make it comfortable, especially where survival and health are concerned.
You see, at a neural level uncertainty and inaction are counter-instinctual. We are hard-wired to work out and respond to threats to our survival as quickly as possible.
That hardwiring is in the limbic system in our brain. It’s home to the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which releases adrenaline and noradrenaline, in response to a perceived threat. It prepares you for violent physical action. Most of us know this as ‘fight-or-flight’.
The toned down version of fight-or-flight is a strong anxiety, coupled with a compulsion to relieve the anxiety. And you know that’s a demand for instant gratification – remove the fear now.
The fight-or-flight is actually pretty useful. If I’m standing on a road and a car is hurling towards me at 100 miles an hour, fight-or-flight – violent, muscular action – good, very good.
Now don’t get me wrong. You know in the game of life or death, failure is not an option. Do whatever you can to survive right now, because in the next moment once you’re still alive, you can figure out how to deal with the side effects of your chosen course of action.
But the thing is an average day in North America, how many of us face a real threat to survival for which you really need fight or flight…? Aside from you know your annual get-together with the in-laws.
You know most of the time we only face threats to our ego. ‘Did you just say that I’m stupid?’
How many people have been up on a stage like this? How helpful is anxiety to public speaking? It begs the question: do we have the most evolved piece of neural technology to really deal with the challenges of the modern world we live in?
I believe that now we live in a world where we have outpaced the evolution of our brain, of a significant part of our brain, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis is flawed, if not dysfunctional in facing and making decisions in most of modernized life.
Fortunately, nature or God or whatever you believe in has provided us with an upgrade. It’s the neocortex, and it has the capability to adapt and change, to override the limbic system when that’s not serving its user.
So how can you use your neocortex?
My advice is make a choice! And it’s to work with your feelings not against them, validate your emotions. They’re there for a reason.
Sometimes you need to survive. Instant gratification is good, when you’re dying in starvation. But this is not about being a slave to feelings. Like a bad investor to a short-term market change.
Listen to the strong emotions with discernment and decide ‘Is this about survival or about willpower?’ And take action accordingly.
So what does all this stuff about delay of gratification have to do with, what I usually talk about with is ‘mental toughness and high performance’. I work with professional athletes and business people.
I’ve just explained that to the brain, to the survival brain, failure is not an option. Yet what I’ve observed in my work is that accepting failure, being okay with not getting the result you want, right now, is one of the best, best success strategies. It’s very challenging and it’s going to take some mental toughness to respond effectively.
To paraphrase one of my favorite athlete statements of all time – Michael Jordan said,
‘In my career, I’ve missed over 9000 shots. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and I’ve missed. I failed over and over and over again in my life. And that’s why I succeed. I can accept failure. I just can’t accept not trying!’
Do you know how tough that is to do, to accept failure? Think about it for a moment. How good are you accepting failure?
And how’s that going in your business, you know losing profits on your sports team? How about those Canucks? Oops! Don’t put that one online.
Your family, conflict, your health and fitness. You know the thing about failure is when you get ruled by it, it’ll tighten you up. You play it safe and you make decisions that limit you and keep you small and stop you from growing.
I worked with a professional Australian football team for five years. Our first year it was a win at all costs – gotta achieve the result – ‘Win-or-else!’ kind of attitude.