Psychology of Peak Performance

PC: Tim Bergsten of Pikes Peak Sports

I have had the honor of spending time with Joseph Gray, top athlete on the US Mountain Running Team, national mountain running champion, and winner of countless other national and international accolades. The list is way to long to note here. Instead, let’s take a look inside some of the mind states that fuel Joe’s consistent peak performance.

As a yoga and sport psychology teacher, much of our work has focused on the inner game of athleticism. Whether you are an elite athlete, weekend warrior or jolly jogger, pin pointing specific mindset strategies will serve you well as you call to mind your next race, boardroom presentation, or trot on the trails.

Original work by David Clifford Photography, edited by Joe Gray

Original work by David Clifford Photography, edited by Joe Gray

Wise Training

Just as the body needs wise and structured conditioning, Joe acknowledges the mind as a muscle that also needs consistent and systematic training.

Your true capacity surpasses what you think is possible, and actually lives just beyond the edges of your comfort zone. Becoming intimately familiar with your own mind and body is the precursor to enhancing athletic potential.

This approach requires a mindful foundation so that you can get comfortable with the unpleasant moments and maintain concentration as you explore the edges of your training zone.

Not every training session will be a dance with anaerobic threshold, but those that do, are as much a mental exercise as they are physical. These hard training days can be seen as an opportunity to strengthen the focus and determination needed for peak race day performances.

Obstacles as Opportunities

Perception defines “reality,” and subsequently your attitudes and behaviors. How you perceive stress, obstacles, or so-called set backs measurably effects your physiology. When you interpret obstacles as challenges for your own growth, although your heart rate may increase, blood vessels remain open, similar to feeling courageous. If you crumble into perceiving obstacles as game-over buzzers, blood vessels start to constrict, limit blood flow, and lead to a vascular profile resembling coronary artery disease. It is a conscious choice to develop the capacity to become aware of your own biases. Choose to set yourself up for success or, find someone to help point you in the right direction.

 

 

As Joe and I discuss his relationship to recent race day obstacles, he recalls, “I always thrived in stressful situations as a child. I loved high intensity moments when the game got tight. In these moments, the tough decisions had to be made in order to seal a win!” Thriving under pressure is a trainable skill. As stoic philosopher Seneca writes, “If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before the crisis.”

Savoring Success, even the small ones

Rewards play a crucial role in shaping future behavior, and ultimately personal habits.

How?

Each time you receive a reward (race well), your brain is doused with dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s pleasure centers. When something feels good, like the taste of accomplishment, naturally we want more. Dopamine helps regulate movement, emotional responses, and motivates future behaviors, enabling you to return to the training regimen with deeper motivation.

Joe’s celebrations range from 10 seconds past the tape, to longer reflections on how much joy he derives “knowing that all my teammates, coaches and supporters will also be able to share that joy with me as they are all part of the build up.” Joe’s drive for future success extends beyond himself to include a deep appreciation for the community supports his success. He is an exemplary athlete, aligned for true success internally and externally.

 

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