Planning to be Free: How to Develop a Mental Performance Plan

Uncategorized Dec 14, 2017


By Shannon Thompson

“How well have you prepared to be free?” ~ Michael Gervais

Most of us, regardless of our craft, have experienced the feeling of effortless excellence. I’m sure that many of you can remember moments when you’re challenged but you know you can meet the challenge before you. Known as moments in “flow state,” these experiences are infrequent for most, and elusive. Often our best performances arise from them. These moments tattoo our memories with such fulfillment that we continue to work day after day with the hopes of encountering another one.

My primary role as a mental performance consultant is to help athletes attain such optimal performance states consistently. The information and exercises below are designed to begin this process. The content to follow is framed in sporting terminology, but you will quickly see that it is applicable to any field. We will begin by exploring “who” you want to be, and also who you have already been at your best. This process is important because it gives you a clear target regarding the result you are hoping to achieve. Finally, I will provide you with a system to identify the actions required to “be” this version of yourself.

Who do you want to be?

 We begin with this question because it is the most powerful and efficient approach to figuring out your optimal self. You see, the answers to the questions we ask regarding desired change direct our attention, which in turn dictates our subsequent thoughts and actions. The problems upon which we choose to place our attention also shape the neural pathways responsible for future thoughts and actions in our brain, so we must choose wisely. If we choose to focus on who we want to become our brain searches for ways to create that reality constantly. It works with a broader vision which can see opportunities for “becoming” in more moments than a narrow, flaw-focused approach ever can.

This is important because where we place our attention tells our brain where to do work and build neurological pathways. When we tell our brain to focus on something, the brain builds more and stronger circuitry to strengthen that area of focus. This happens consciously and unconsciously, all the time. Our brain is an amazing and powerful machine, and its up to us where we want to direct this power. If we ask what is wrong with us, we may correct one weakness. But, if we focus on who we want to be our brain gets to work in a far more global way. It focuses attention on opportunities to become in every moment presented to us, and it affects a multitude of behaviors, not just those involving one weakness. Sometimes focusing on who we want to become can even correct numerous weaknesses on the way to becoming – without having to explicitly focus on them. Not to mention, the act of imagining who we want to become is far more inspiring and empowering than fixating on our perceived inadequacies.

Take some time to consider who you want to be like. Someone you admire might come to mind; feel free to borrow some of their traits! Or, a few powerful words might arise. Choose a focus that inspires you, and feels genuinely yours. When your desired self becomes clear, summarize him or her in a few words. Place these words somewhere you will see them regularly.

Who are you at your best?

This exercise involves identifying your signature character strengths, which are aspects of your character that are particularly abundant in you. Researchers have found that the quality of our performance is higher, and our well-being is enhanced, when we are able to use our signature character strengths regularly. So, the process of becoming aware of your signature character strengths and intentionally incorporating them into your work can improve the quality of that work, and your enjoyment of it. 

Begin by recalling three moments in your life when you feel you were at your best. Write them down in vivid detail. Where were you? Who else was present? What did you do and how did you? What character strengths did you demonstrate in all three moments (in order to take a free survey that will identify and rank order your character strengths visit https://www.viacharacter.org/www/ Once you have identified your character strengths, consider where you can use them in your craft. How can you draw upon them more frequently?

Continue on and examine your best moments for other commonalities of you at your best. These can be actions, methods of thinking, attitudes, and strategies. Note these character strengths and commonalities alongside where you have written who you want to be. Narrow these words and phrases to as concise a list or phrase as you can.

Action plan

As you’ve possibly felt through these exercises, key words can be powerful and energizing. However, identifying actions we can take to help ourselves become our best selves frequently, especially when our mood or circumstances don’t facilitate our best selves, is critical. When you have figured out who you want to become, and who you are at your best (be that character strengths, describing words, or role models), ask yourself, What actions do I need to take habitually, and before important moments to help myself be who I want to be? For some people this is a phone call to a friend, or reviewing their best moments, or reading inspiring literature. The key is to identify which are within your control that reliably set you up to be your best self – and then of course committing to carrying them out. 

Practice is the key to achieving an optimal performance mindset consistently. The actions you make you your best should be implemented daily—not just when you really need to perform. Daily practice will give you a way to experiment and devise the best system. Remember, mental habits take time to strengthen. You can’t just “turn it on” when challenges arise unless you’ve built your high performance habits ahead of time. The only way to be your best when it matters most is to be your best now. Let’s get started!

 About the Author 

Shannon Thompson is a mental performance consultant who specializes in high performance sport. Shannon holds a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

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