Sunday, November 30, 2008

Re-Train the Negative Brain

Re-Train the Negative Brain
By Dr. Randy Borum
Article first appears in Black Belt Magazine, January, 2008, pp. 48-50)

What generates the strongest feelings for you – the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat? According to brain scientists, the human brain is essentially “hard wired” to be negative. Numerous studies have shown that the electrical (neural) connections in your brain are stronger and faster when they are responding to something unpleasant than when responding to something neutral or pleasant.

Might this provide a scientific explanation for why “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop”? And why does the brain behave like that? And can we do anything about it? All very reasonable questions. Science provides some insights and possibilities.

Many scientists believe that this negativity bias comes from evolutionary adaptation. The idea is that a long time ago (roughly between twelve thousand and two million years ago) as the human species was beginning to emerge, the world was a tough and dangerous place with devastating weather events as big parts of the earth were frozen under glaciers interspersed with floods. Those humans who survived were the ones whose brains alerted and protected them from the hazards. Those would be our ancestors. That’s the theory anyway.

To be a bit more practical, the consequences of responding too slowly or insufficiently to danger are often more dramatic and hazardous than responding slowly to a neutral or positive stimulus. In a way, the negative brain is trying to protect us by prioritizing what it looks for, how it evaluates information, and how it urges us to act. It does this automatically, and often without our conscious awareness. When presented simultaneously with something negative, neutral and positive - the brain will naturally focus on the negative almost every time. This essentially means that worry is our brain’s default state and that negative emotions will “trump” the positive ones. Well, that explains a lot doesn’t it?

Now that you have read the bad news, perhaps no amount of good news will bring back your previously cheerful state…but I’ll try. One of the most remarkable features of the human brain is its ability to learn and adapt. You can take advantage of this knowledge to create what psychologist Martin Seligman calls “Learned Optimism” or the optimal state of experience that Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi simply calls “flow.”

We have the ability to change our own level of happiness – up or down - and to facilitate within ourselves a positive and perhaps optimal mental and emotional climate. Some scientists suggest that each of us has our own individual “set point” of happiness or positivity, and that maybe as much as half of that is genetically determined. But regardless of our natural tendencies and predispositions, nearly all psychology researchers would agree that we can change our “state” of positivity.

How do you do it? First, you need to recognize that optimism is a choice. You are going to have to take some responsibility for what you attend to, what you ruminate about and how you respond to it. It may not come naturally at first, but the more you do it, the more you will amplify those positive pathways in the brain and to mute the negative ones.

Positive psychology researchers often talk about three components of happiness. The first is to “get more pleasure out of life.” Find and appreciate what is positive and pleasurable as you go through life each day and savor it. If something delights your senses or makes you smile or laugh or feel interested – pause and pay attention to it while enjoying the pleasurable feelings that it brings. Feeling gratitude and being thankful can also foster positive feelings. The second component is to become more “engaged” in whatever you are doing. Too often when training or doing a kata, it is easy to mentally disengage and just go through the motions. Instead try to focus on and experience what you are doing without any other distraction. Don’t think too much or over-analyze, just experience what you are doing in the moment. The third component of happiness rests in finding ways to make your life feel more meaningful. Seligman suggests that you take inventory of your own strengths (such as courage, compassion, humor) and look for new ways to use them to achieve your goals or to help others.

Over the next week, consider trying (and writing down) these easy and practical steps to nudge your negative brain. Get a piece of paper for each day of the week. You don’t have to write a narrative just jot a quick note to yourself about the following five things:

• Write one blessing or thing in your life (or that happened that day) for which you are thankful.
• Write one thing you noticed during the day that brought you pleasure.
• Identify one person who you are grateful and happy to have in your life. Take a minute to think about why. Consider telling that person what you appreciate about him or her.
• Do something nice for someone, whether a friend or a stranger.
• Take one to two minutes to breathe deeply and allow all your muscles to relax. Focus only on your breathing.

You might find that being happy, positive or optimistic is hard least at first. But it is well worth the effort. Mute the negative and amplify the positive.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Learning to Switch Off Your Brain

Learning to Switch Off Your Brain

By Dr. Randy Borum
(Article first published in Black Belt Magazine, December, 2008)

Have you ever wished you could just switch off your brain? Most people, from time to time, struggle with negative thoughts or nagging self-doubts. It can be even worse when you’re under stress or pressure. It’s bad enough that these thoughts cause discomfort or anxiety, but they also hurt performance.

Our first response is often to resist the thoughts and try to force them to stop. Paradoxically, that sometimes makes them worse. This ironic mental process has been the focus of Harvard Professor, Daniel Wegner’s research for more than two decades. Wegner often describes this as the “White Bear” problem. In the book “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions,” Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky made the following observation: “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear (white bear), and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”

Wegner and his fellow researchers decided to put that to the test. They asked people to think aloud for five minutes, but specifically to avoid thinking of white bears. Guess what? People would mention white bears about once every minute. So trying not to think about something doesn’t necessarily make the thought go away.

But here’s the real kicker: there was a rebound effect. After five-minutes of thinking aloud while trying to suppress the white bear, the researchers then gave participants permission to think about the white bears during the next five minutes of talking. The participants mentioned white bears more frequently than they did the first time. In fact, they even mentioned them more frequently than another group given the same permission, but who didn’t first have to suppress them.

Not only might our attempts to stuff down negative thoughts be ineffective, they might make matters worse. Some psychology researchers seem to think that this suppression-rebound process might explain how clinical obsessions get started.

So, if we’re bothered by negative thoughts, and trying not to think about them won’t work, then what should we do? There may be an answer in a technique or practice called “mindfulness.” Mindfulness blends principles of Eastern philosophy with Western psychology, but is different from Transcendental Mediation. It is not a religious practice and does not require any particular brand of spirituality or faith, but it allows you to deal with your thoughts without fighting them. Like the gentle martial arts, it allows you defend against a (mental) attack by flow, rather than by force.

The essence of mindfulness is very simple. It is about being quietly focused in the present moment- the “here and now” - while non-judgmentally observing your thoughts. The description may seem a little new-agey at first, but it is founded on a couple of very practical assumptions. First, by staying in the present you avoid the cause of most nagging thoughts and distractions. When negative content creeps in, it’s usually about something that has happened in the past or about something that might happen in the future. Being mindful is being fully in the present. Second, by learning to observe your thoughts without reacting or getting caught up in them, you take away their power to control you. Thoughts are just mental events. They are not necessarily true. They do not necessarily reflect reality. And they need not define who you are.

Research shows that mindfulness interventions are effective for managing stress and even for controlling pain and reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Mindfulness-based stress reduction programs are currently being taught in hundreds of hospitals throughout the United States. But you can get started on your own. Here’s a quick-start guide, but keep in mind – it takes practice. Learning not to get frustrated is part of the journey.

Start by finding a quiet place and time where you can sit comfortably you are unlikely to be disturbed. Close your eyes. Don’t worry about your thoughts at this stage, just focus on your breath and body. Begin to breathe deeply from your belly/diaphragm (your stomach should extend before your upper chest does). Most of us tend to breathe from our upper chest, so focus on pulling your breath from deeper in your abdomen. Inhale through your nose and exhale slowly through your mouth. Breathing in for about a count of four and out for a count of about eight. Start with three of these deep breaths. Then resume breathing regularly at a relaxing, steady pace

To keep your mind fully in the “in the moment”, focus only on each breath. As thoughts or worries enter your mind, you simply acknowledge them, without evaluating or labeling them and return your focus to your breath and to the present. Thoughts are not good or bad. Remember they are just mental events that you are observing. For example, if you find yourself thinking “This is silly” – you would say to your self in your head “I just had a thought that this is silly…back to my breath…..”

After you have spent a few minutes just listening internally and focusing on your breath, allow yourself to begin listening to the sounds around you – even the sound of quiet – give yourself permission not to evaluate, label, criticize or comment on them. Just listen, without judging. Next, when you are ready, you can slowly open your eyes and observe the room as if you are seeing it for the very first time. Allow you eyes to rest on some spot or object in the room and remain there for about 30 seconds or so. Observe and examine it without thinking about or evaluating it. Then move on to another object with the same pattern and for about the same amount of time…then to another….all the while allowing yourself to be aware of your breath and of your body. When you are sensing (but not analyzing) – simultaneously - your environment, you body and your breath, then you are fully in the present or “in the moment.”

The steps are simple, but staying on the moment takes practice. Try setting aside a time twice a day for the next week or so to exercise mindfulness. See if it can help you win against negative thoughts without fighting them.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Physical Strength, Fighting Ability Revealed In Human Faces

A mechanism exists within the human brain that enables people to determine with uncanny accuracy the fighting ability of men around them by honing in on their upper body strength. What's more, that assessment can be made even when everything but the men's faces are obscured from view. 

ScienceDaily (Oct. 25, 2008) — For our ancestors, misjudging the physical strength of a would-be opponent might have resulted in painful –– and potentially deadly –– defeat.

Now, a study conducted by a team of scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara has found that a mechanism exists within the human brain that enables people to determine with uncanny accuracy the fighting ability of men around them by honing in on their upper body strength. What's more, that assessment can be made even when everything but the men's faces are obscured from view.

A paper highlighting the researchers' findings appears in the current issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society.

"Assessing fighting ability was important for our ancestors, and the characteristic that the mind implicitly equates with fighting ability is upper body strength," said Aaron Sell, a postdoctoral fellow at UCSB's Center for Evolutionary Psychology and the paper's lead author. "That's the component of strength that's most relevant to premodern combat. The visual assessment of fighting ability is almost perfectly correlated with the perception of strength, and both closely track actual upper body strength. What is a bit spooky is that upper body strength can even be read on a person's face.

Sell conducted the study with Leda Cosmides, a professor of psychology and co-director of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology; John Tooby, a professor of anthropology and also co-director of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology; Michael Gurven, an associate professor of anthropology; and graduate students Daniel Sznycer and Christopher von Rueden.

The study consisted of four sections, each of which asked the test subjects to assess the physical strength of individuals based on photographs of their faces, their bodies, or both. Subjects were asked to rank the physical strength or fighting ability of the people in the photographs on a scale of one to seven. When the photographs depicted men whose strength had been measured precisely on weight-lifting machines, the researchers found an almost perfect correlation between perceptions of fighting ability and perceptions of strength. "When you see that kind of correlation it's telling you you're measuring the same underlying variable," said Tooby.

They also found that perceptions of strength and fighting ability reflected the target's actual strength, as measured on weight-lifting machines at the gym. In other sections of the study, the researchers showed that this result extended far beyond the gym. Both men and women accurately judge men's strength, whether those men are drawn from a general campus population, a hunter-horticulturalist group in Bolivia, or a group of herder-horticulturalists living in the Argentinian Andes.

Leg strength was measured along with upper body strength in both the United States and Bolivian populations, but the results showed that perceptions of men's strength and fighting ability reflect upper body strength, not that of legs. "That makes sense," said Cosmides. "If, for example, you're trying to lift something really heavy, or run a long distance, your lower body –– your legs –– will also be significant. But for fighting at close quarters, it's the upper body that really matters."

Added Tooby: "Whether people are assessing toughness or strength, it's upper body strength they implicitly register. And that's the critical information our ancestors needed in deciding –– or feeling –– whether to surrender a disputed resource or escalate aggressively."

The researchers suggest that the ability to judge physical strength and fighting ability serves different, but equally important, purposes for men and women. In men, the mechanism is a barometer for measuring potential threats and determining how aggressive or submissive they should be when facing a possible enemy. For women, the mechanism helps identify males who can adequately protect them and their children. Men have a lot more experience with rough and tumble play and direct experience with fighting, yet women are just as good at assessing these variables. The authors also point out that neither men nor women fare as well in assessing women's strength. This is entirely expected because, ancestrally, inflicting violence was mostly the province of men.

"The next step is to isolate what it is in the face that indicates upper body strength," said Sell. He suggests that the correlation may lie in the heavier brow ridge and thicker jaw that result from increased levels of testosterone. "Many studies have been done on the effects of testosterone on the face. There's a good chance testosterone is involved in regulating the body for battle, and men with high testosterone –– those with a heavy brow ridge and thicker jaw –– developed bodies that were more prepared for combat."

"One reason we evolved the ability to perceive physical strength in the face may be that it's where we focus our attention when we look at someone," said Cosmides.

"Even if we are able to see someone's body, we always look at the face. It's so rich in social information –– what a person is thinking or feeling –– and adding the assessment of physical strength is a huge benefit. A person who is angry and strong offers a much greater threat than the person who is angry but weak."

Adapted from materials provided by University of California - Santa Barbara.
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Friday, October 17, 2008

The Psychology of Reality-Based Self Defense

The Psychology of Reality-Based Self Defense
By Dr. Randy Borum
(Article first published in Black Belt Magazine, October, 2008)

You have seen the advertising headlines. They prey upon the nagging fear that maybe you and your family will be violently attacked by a stranger “on the street.” They promise you life-saving “secrets” that will give any middle-aged business traveler the defensive acumen of an elite military operator. All contained in a set of DVDs. This has become the marketing platform for many of the so-called “Reality-Based” martial arts programs. Can the promises live up to the hype? Here are a couple of ideas to consider:

Learning to defend yourself requires training for self-defense: This may seem like the ultimate obvious point, but it carries two important implications. First, effective self-defense preparation requires actual physical practice – quite often, a lot of practice – to assure proper execution of even a couple of basic maneuvers. Based on what is known about human performance and motor skill learning, it would be nearly impossible for someone simply to read about a technique in a book or even watch it several times on a video, and then be able to perform the skill correctly. When you factor in the stress of being in a life-threatening situation, the chances of doing it right dwindle even further. Repeated and ongoing physical practice is a necessary condition for self-defense training. The DVDs may contain some great moves, but without a lot of physical practice, they probably won’t work for you when you need them.

The second implication is that training to defend your life can be quite different from training to master a particular martial art or fighting system. There is a mythical motto often heard in law enforcement and military combatives training that “under stress you will revert to your training.” This is only partially true. Under stressful or threatening conditions, your dominant response emerges. Getting the trained response to be the dominant response takes practice.

Just knowing a technique will not make it an automatic response. It is quite possible even to train a skill, but not be able to perform it if attacked. When I was a police officer (before I was a psychologist), I knew of multiple situations where a professional who had demonstrated classroom proficiency in defensive tactics and qualified as “expert” on the range could not apply either skill under high-risk conditions. Law enforcement has since moved to using more active, dynamic, scenario-based training. This is essential for transferring defensive skills to unpredictable, life-threatening encounters.

Self-Defense requires learning how to respond to an attack: We have established the point that getting your body to respond properly to defend you will require that you engage in physical practice and train under dynamic, unscripted conditions. Your brain has to work too, though. An advantage of training in reality-based systems is that you can gain experience getting hit and attacked. Believe it or not, this is an incredibly valuable experience – at least from the perspective of self-defense training. In a violent encounter, fear is not necessarily your enemy. Panic or “freezing” might be. You definitely need to keep your head in the game.

For most Americans, the statistical likelihood of being violently attacked by a stranger is is pretty remote. And most of the good people who read Black Belt Magazine certainly aren’t going to go looking for a fight. But some coward, drunk or bad guy hunting for trouble may cross your path, and chances are they will not be looking to fight fair. For many normal, law-abiding people, the experience of being hit in the face the first time is shocking and disorienting. Those moments of dismay when you are reflecting on the pain in your cheek or asking “What the hell????” are the moments your attacker is delivering the second or third blows. You may have lost before you even have a chance to think of that super-cool move you just learned on your new DVD set. If you are attacked, keeping your mental composure is every bit as important as knowing self-defense techniques. You must prepare to act under attack.

Find out what works for you. Some reality-based programs tell you that they are based on “natural” or “instinctive” human reactions. Others claim to have universal principles that are guaranteed to work in any situation. The reality (pun intended) is that situations vary and people who want to defend themselves are different from one another. When it comes to learning self-defense, one size does not fit all. Human beings are pretty complicated. Not everyone has an inner, violent barbarian just waiting to be unleashed. History is full of examples where armed people were killed by their attackers, even when they had opportunity to use their weapons.

If you are shopping for a self-defense system, you need to set realistic expectations about what you hope to accomplish based on the time you are willing to invest in training and on what feels right for you. Remember the power of the dominant response? Psychological theory and research show that people decide whether or not to act depending on whether they think can execute a skill effectively and whether doing so will cause them to be successful in accomplishing a goal. You need to develop confidence that you can respond in a particular way to an attack and a belief that it will work. This is part of what you hope to accomplish through repetition and practice in dynamic scenario-based training. Does it feel “natural” or do-able for you? Can you see yourself responding in this way under an actual attack? If not, perhaps that particular system is not a good fit for you.

There is no quick fix, or one-size-fits-all system for effective self-defense. Even carrying a weapon does not assure your survival. If your goal is self-defense, you should train specifically for that skill – not just for practicing an art. Regardless of the method or system you choose, it will be important to consider the critical role of maintaining mental composure and preparing to survive and respond to an attack. Finally, you should make sure that you have confidence in your approach to self-defense and in your ability to use it under the most stressful conditions. That is when you will need it most – really.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Getting Un-Stuck

Getting Un-Stuck
by Dr. Randy Borum
Article first published in Black Belt Magazine, September, 2008

In our quest to achieve, at some time we have nearly all hit a sticking point. We will often find that once we attain a certain level of performance in speed, power, strength, or timing that it becomes nearly impossible for us to do better. It is important that we learn how to get ourselves “un-stuck” so that we can take our learning and our performance to the next level.

The human organism, of course, has certain true biomechanical and physiological limits, but most of us are nowhere near those boundaries when we hit our personal barriers. The nudge needed to push us through is more likely to be mental. For the recreational martial artist, just getting “over the hump” often provides the needed momentum and confidence to make larger improvements. For the elite martial artist, even very small increments of improvement can mean the difference between winning and losing.

Getting “stuck” is a type of performance failure. We keep reaching for a certain a goal or objective, but we repeatedly fall short. Under these circumstances, a very common response is to “keep trying” (doing more of the same) and - as we become increasingly frustrated – conclude either that it can’t be done, that we can’t do it, or that it is not worth the effort necessary to succeed. A quote commonly attributed to Albert Einstein shows the futility of such an approach: Insanity, says the quote, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Maybe this means that a key to getting unstuck is to do something different, not just trying harder. One way to do something different is to re-focus our effort onto the mental aspects of our performance. Our first task is to make the goal possible in our minds. That may seem overly simplistic, but it is vitally important. Athletic history is full of examples where mental barriers constrained a particular sport for years.

One of the most famous illustrations of the power of the possible is the elusive four-minute mile barrier in track. For years, the best runners in the world could never quite make it. Over and over they tried, many coming within a second or two, but always falling short. Finally, in 1954 Roger Bannister hit the four-minute mile. Once that happened, several other four-minute milers soon followed – more than fifteen of them emerging in the first three years after Bannister’s success.

It doesn’t take a sport psychologist to understand that our beliefs and our “mental models” of the world profoundly affect our performance and behavior. Making a task possible in your mind, is necessary to making it do-able in practice.

Here is a situation where your mental imagery skills can really come in handy. By creating vivid, “first person” experiences in your head, you can actually build a history of personal success into your mental model. In previous “Psyched!” columns we have discussed the process and applications of mental imagery, but in case you missed it, here are basics of how you can use it to get un-stuck.

First, you need to take some time to learn how to create vivid images in your head. Vivid means that they should be at least as realistic as if you were actually doing the task. It usually helps to use all your senses, and then to think about the fine points of each one. For example, consider the pictures you see when you are mentally creating a scene - then think about the color, sharpness, and brightness. Include the sounds, smells, and tactile sensations. And don’t forget the internal sensations too – how your muscles feel, your breathing, tension, thoughts/self-talk – all of that is part of creating a mental experience.

When you get through the basics of vivid mental imagery, you can make a plan to apply it to your situation. You may find it helpful to set a goal for yourself that is just slightly beyond your sticking point – in speed, endurance, repetition or whatever is limiting your performance. Then, create vivid mental images – in real time – of you successfully performing to your new goal level. Be sure to give yourself the advantage of thinking positively and feeling confident in your mental image before you begin. You should begin with a confident expectation that you will succeed.

You should mentally rehearse these scenarios repeatedly, until it all seems to flow naturally. As soon as you begin imaging, the vividness comes immediately and you are automatically feeling confident of the outcome. When you get to that point, put it to the test. Plan to get un-stuck in an environment that closely mirrors the one from your mental images. Re-connect with the feeling of confidence that comes from having already done it before, and allow yourself to perform at you new level.

Once you get past the sticking point, you may find that subsequent improvements begin to flow again. If not, you can go back to your imagery to work yourself through the next barrier. Remember to acknowledge your successes to yourself. Delight in what you have accomplished, and continue to re-define and expand what it possible for you to do.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Science of Excellence

The Science of Excellence
by Dr. Randy Borum
First Published in Black Belt Magazine, August, 2008

Sport psychology is only one of the sport science disciplines to advance remarkably over the past 25 years. Mental skills training can improve any martial artist’s performance, whether for a beginner or an experienced practitioner. But the competitive “edge” is usually most significant at the elite levels of competition where fractions of a second and fractions of a point determine the winners.

Elite athletes are generally defined as those who compete professionally or on National and International teams. This designation suggests the individual has acquired a high level of expertise in his or her sport. Sport expertise is a topic of great interest to sport psychologists. But what creates “expertise”? Research shows that some of the key factors are: Lots of deliberate practice, high-level coaching, ongoing 360-degree view of the athlete, and a supportive yet challenging training environment.

Deliberate practice: Training and practice only facilitate expertise when certain conditions are met. It is true that expert martial artists probably practice more, than novices, but achieving optimal results from training time requires quality, not just quantity. For practice to produce maximum benefit, the martial artist first must be motivated to attend to the task and also be working actively to improve performance. It is also critical that the practitioner receive specific and immediate feedback about her or his performance and that the same or similar performance tasks be repeated frequently. Practice may not count when you are just bouncing with a beat, singing along, running through the day’s “to-do” list in your head. Deliberate practice requires that you maintain focus, monitor and modify your behaviors, and really work to improve your skill.

High-level coaching: Martial artists who seek to be the best often seek out the best possible instructors and coaching. Expert coaches tend to have higher levels of domain-specific knowledge in their art, and tend to plan and structure practice sessions more carefully. With regard to martial art knowledge, coaches at the elite level have in-depth knowledge of the tactical, technical and general aspects of the art and can adjust the type of instruction to the practitioner’s needs and skill level. With athletes who are more advanced, they tend to spend a greater proportion of time discussing tactical instruction, rather than reviewing fine points of the fundamentals. As for structuring practice, Joseph Baker and his colleagues from Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada conclude that: “Meticulous planning of practice is one hallmark of coaching expertise. Voss (and colleagues) found that expert coaches spent more time planning practices and were more precise in their goals and objectives for the practice session than their non-expert counterparts.”

360-Degree athlete monitoring: It typically takes much more than desire to build an elite-level martial artist. It requires a systematic and ongoing assessment of all key domains of human performance and the resources to meet the needs. The sport of mixed martial arts, for example, is generating more and more professional fighters, but many of these athletes and their schools are not prepared to support elite-level training. Consider the US Olympic Training Center or the Australian Institute of Sports – these institutions have created an infrastructure to nurture excellence with the best knowledge and resources that the sport sciences have to offer. Their services include sports medicine, physical therapies, strength and conditioning, sport/performance psychology, nutrition, biomechanics, and physiological testing. Each athlete is assessed in each domain. Their status is monitored, and their training plan is modified accordingly within a long-range plan to prepare them to perform optimally during competition. Someone has to be looking at the “big picture” for every athlete all the time and have access to specialized resources to respond to specific needs. Life also overlaps with training, so that changes in family relationships, school, work, finances, or health can substantially affect an elite martial artist’s competitive performance. Hence, the need for 360-degree monitoring – viewing simultaneously all aspect of the athlete’s life, capacity, status, and behavior.

Optimal training environment: Constant surveillance over all aspects of the athlete’s training, life and status - with unrelenting pressure to perform - can be extremely stressful. Managing that pressure is one of the skills elite-level athletes must acquire. But coaches and others responsible for training also must be mindful and thoughtful about the culture or climate of the training environment. Studies indicate that athletes believe the coach is the primary force in creating the motivational climate of training. Research has also shown that elite-level athletes tend to prefer and respond best to a motivational climate that emphasizes mastery (learning, improving, gaining competence) over performance (outcomes, winning, gaining superiority). Elite athletes should be surrounded by others who are supporting their efforts to excel and who share their commitment to high-level learning. They want to be challenged, but they also want support. They want to get better, not just to be “broken.” Of course, consistent with the 360-degree view, elite level competitors must also be confident that their basic needs (and those of their families) will be met. It is difficult to focus fully on training when one is uncertain about the stability of her or his housing situation, financial preparedness, or pressing medical bills.

Wrestling, boxing, judo, taekwondo, and karate are all recognized Olympic sports with National team martial art practitioners competing at elite levels. Mixed martial arts is growing quickly as a professional sport, but often without the infrastructure or resources available to our Olympic athletes. Excellence is a team effort. Coaches and athletes must recognize and use the skills and expertise of sport science professionals to support, motivate, and nurture the next generation of elite martial artists.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Cogratulations Team USA Medalists!!

Deontay Wilder - Heavyweight - BRONZE

Henry Cejudo- Freestyle - GOLD

Randi Miller - Women's Freestyle - BRONZE

Adam Wheeler - Greco-Roman-BRONZE

Ronda Rousey - BRONZE

Mark Lopez - SILVER

Diana Lopez - BRONZE

Steven Lopez - BRONZE

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Ronda Rousey Makes Judo Olympic History

America's Vegan MMA Judo Sweetheart

By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 14, 2008; Page E09

A few minutes after Ronda Rousey became the first American woman to win an Olympic medal in judo, she was asked what she would do next.

"What am I gonna do?" she repeated. "As of right now I am a vegan. I put that off until after I was done with this tournament."

Some athletes go to Disney World; Ronda Rousey gives up dairy products.

"And then I'm gonna go home and I'm probably gonna take over the loan on my step-dad's Prius and I'm gonna drive a clean car," the bronze medalist continued. "And I'm gonna get a surfboard and learn how to surf, teach myself. I made up this long list of stuff that I couldn't do while I was training that normal people do. It's kind of too late to go to prom, but you know, I'll find something to make up for it."

Rousey's history-making day in the 70 kg competition was marked by a thoroughly odd mix of drama and comedy. At one point she dissolved in tears after losing a meeting with 2005 Dutch world champion Edith Bosch. A reporter later asked her how she recovered from that disappointment to rally in the loser's bracket; "I drank an iced tea," she said.

After her win by yuko in the bronze-medal match, she handed out enthusiastic hugs to every coach on her team; she was later asked to describe her winning throw.

"Don't ask me about terminology, I'm horrible," she said. "You're supposed to learn all that stuff to get promoted, but I never did."

She talked happily about her plans to go out in Beijing tonight, and then ran off to get the flag that was placed on her father's coffin after he committed suicide while battling a blood disorder 13 years ago this week.

None of her quirks are exactly hidden, thanks to her blog, where she has revealed that she sleeps with a stuffed ewe, is turned off when she can beat up a guy easily, looks like Julia Styles Stiles, dances naked in her living room every morning and eats imitation crab meat like string cheese. Her mom--a former U.S. world champion judo player with a PhD in education psychology--has a blog too.

"We're kind of a geeky tech family," AnnMaria De Mars said. "When I married Ronda's dad, instead of an engagement ring he got me an engagement Macintosh."

And then there's the vegan MMA thing. A reporter asked De Mars how a vegan lifestyle would squared with a violent sport like judo; "I mean, we're tough but we don't kill our opponents and eat them," she pointed out.

Rousey, 21, plans to take a year off from competition to try out college, at either Southern Cal, Pepperdine or Loyola Marymount. She said she still might try to return for the 2012 Olympics. Of course, several of Rousey's close friends from the competitive judo world have gone into mixed martial arts--Manny Gamburyan and Roman Mitichyan, for example--and they've asked her to try that as well. She's thinking about it.

"I might learn how to throw a punch, but I'm not making any promises," she said. She was asked whether she'd have the guts for that brand of fighting; "look at my face, does it look like I can take a good hit right now?" she replied, pointing to her red and battered cheeks.

De Mars, though, still needs some convincing.

"She's really smart, see that's the thing," she said. "I think if you're really really smart and you could maybe discover a new drug that cures AIDS or something you should go and do that, and let other people punch each other in the face."

Monday, August 18, 2008

Lopez Family Kicking for Taekwondo History

Diana Lopez - BRONZE
Steven Lopez  - BRONZE

After suffering his first-ever defeat in three Olympic Games, and first loss in six years, welterweight Steven Lopez (Sugar Land, Texas) rebounded to win a bronze medal Friday night at the Beijing University of Science and Technology Gymnasium.

Italy's Mauro Sarmiento, the eventual silver medalist, defeated Lopez in sudden-death overtime in the quarterfinal round. When Sarmiento advanced to the finals, Lopez was entered into the repechage for one of two bronze medals. Lopez defeated Sebastien Konan from the Ivory Coast, 3-0, and then defeated Azerbaijan's Rashad Ahmadov for the bronze medal, 3-2.

The bronze medal gives the Lopez siblings three medals at the Beijing Games. Diana Lopez captured bronze in the women's featherweight division and Mark Lopez was the silver medalist in the men's featherweight class.

Source:  USA Taekwondo

By ERIC TALMADGE - USOC via AP August 8, 2008

BEIJING (AP) Since about as long as she can remember, Diana Lopez has been fighting with her three brothers. Not just little skirmishes or disagreements over bathroom rights, but the all-out, kick-and-punch kind of fighting.

Her parents encouraged it. In fact, it was their dad's idea. And it all seems to be working out pretty well.

The fighting Lopez family - Diana and her older brothers Mark and Steven, with eldest sibling Jean as their coach - are the first trio from the same family to represent the United States at the Olympics since 1904.

They made history when they each won their weight class at the 2005 world taekwondo championships - a feat no three siblings had ever accomplished in the same sport in the same year. Now, having all made the U.S. team, they are making their first appearance together in the Olympics and are ready to make history again.

The last U.S. Olympic trio - Edward, Richard and William Tritschler - failed to medal, in gymnastics.

But the Lopezes are all gold medal contenders.

"I feel like it is almost unfair," said Steven, who at 29 already has two Olympic golds and four world championship titles. "It's like when we go into the ring, it's four to one."

Coach Jean, himself a silver medalist at the 1995 world championships, said fighting comes naturally in his family.

"We have a combative nature," he said. "Taekwondo is just man-against-man, or woman-against-woman, and I think that is what captivated us."

Jean said the family found taekwondo, a Korean martial art that is focused on fast, high kicking, by chance.

His father, Julio, had always liked kung fu movies, and there was a martial arts school just down the street from their house.

"It just happened to be taekwondo," he said.

Jean was soon hooked, and the others were enrolled by their parents not so much as a sporting activity but to instill in them discipline, respect and confidence.

Now, they have helped put taekwondo on the U.S. sports horizon. Steven, for example, was named one of People magazine's hottest bachelors for 2004 - not a common honor for an athlete from an event many Americans still can't pronounce.

By the time they were teens, sparring was a part of life. But fighting in the ring, when it's a family matter, has some different rules.

"My brothers take it easy on their baby sister," said Diana, who will compete in the under 57-kilogram division on Aug. 21. "But I can kick as hard as I want."

"Sometimes she'll graze my face, and I'll think, 'Hey, I just got kicked by my sister,'" said Mark, who also fights on Aug. 21, in the under 68-kilogram class. "It reminds me to try to kick faster."

To train for the games, the Lopez family - along with Charlotte Craig, the fourth member of the U.S. team - spent 10 days in Singapore getting acclimatized and, more importantly, getting used to being away from their home in Sugar Land, Texas, where Jean runs the Elite Taekwondo school.

To save money, Diana and Mark shared a room.

"That was kind of weird," Diana said.

"There are times when I may feel I need to get away," she said. "But if I'm not getting along with Mark, I'll hang out with Steve, and if I'm not getting along with him, there's Jean."

Though Steven has cause to be confident - he hasn't lost a bout since 2002 - the road to gold for Diana and Mark will tough. Both will be fighting against South Korean opponents, and South Korea has never failed to get at least a bronze out of the eight competitors it has sent since taekwondo joined the Olympic roster in 2000.

"The Korean team is a very strong team," Diana said. "Korea is very good at being technical and efficient. But Mark and I make it a fight. We are very confident, and we know our job."

No Koreans are in Steven's weight category, the under 80-kilogram class. Instead, he said that he expects his toughest competition to come from Turkey and Iran.

But he isn't especially worried - for himself or for Mark and Diana.

"The goals, our expectations, are to go out there and win gold medals," he said. "In my opinion, they are ready. This Olympics is very special to us because we will be walking into the opening ceremony as a family."

Mark, 26, was even more confident.

"We are here to make a statement," he said. "We are the best in the world."

Taekwondo begins on Aug. 20 and concludes Aug. 23.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Peoria (IL) Journal Star Editor's note: Sports psychologist Dr. John Murray is providing Journal Star readers daily updates from the Olympics. The former tennis pro and Florida resident is working with judo competitor Adler Volmar. The goal is to offer insight into the mental and psychological aspect of sports, right up to Volmar's matches and immediately following them. The doctor will add some Beijing observations both inside and outside the sports venues. You can read the blog on working with Volmar HERE.

Murray's full work and profile can be found on his own Web site:

Monday, August 11, 2008

Boxer Joyce Praises Sport Psychologist, Gerry Hussey

Boxing: Joyce praises sports psychologist

A jubilant John Joe Joyce heaped praise on sports psychologist Gerry Hussey (shown left) after he showed his mental toughness in overcoming Hungary's Gyula Kate, a long-time foe of his.

Yesterday's Olympic first round clash was the fourth championship bout between the light welterweight rivals, with Kate winning the previous three.

But Joyce, 20, showed marvellous composure and used a clever attack plan to claim a deserved 9-5 win and progress through to the last 16, where he will face Felix Diaz of the Dominican Republic.

Hussey, a former amateur boxer who has been the Irish High Performance boxing team's psychologist for the past three years, certainly has a fan in Joyce.

'When Gerry is around, I always do well. I lack self belief sometimes but he looks after all that side of my performance,' said the Mullingar youngster.

'He could not get in here to be with me (today), but he has been working with me in the training camp and the Olympic Village and that preparation really paid off.

'I showed in the ring I was believing in myself and, once I believe in myself, I will perform to my potential and then I can do anything.'

No stone has been left unturned with Hussey, who runs Alpha 1 boxing gym in Galway, even showing the Irish fighters a walk-through DVD of the Olympic Village before their arrival in Beijing.

The Glenamaddy native has helped the Irish team develop psychology systems and techniques in many areas, from building self esteem and self belief to developing communication and relaxation techniques.

And Joyce warned anyone standing in his way of a Beijing medal that with his so-called 'bogey man' out of the way, he will only get better.

'I know the longer a tournament goes on the better I get, and that's why I was hoping for a good draw.

'I didn't get it, I got the toughest draw I could have got really because of the respect I have for Kate.

'To have finally beaten this guy will help my confidence. He has been my bogey man in the past. I hope that's the end of him.

'I'm not looking beyond the next fight right now and as a team we're just delighted that we've the two wins from two with Kenny (Egan) winning on Saturday as well.'

Story from RTÉ Sport:

Friday, August 8, 2008

Should You Wear RED Shorts?

This "clip" comes from our friends at

Many sports teams select their uniforms based on the mascot, city or country they are representing and not on a referee’s preference or bias but a new study has found that choosing the color red for a uniform in competitive sports can actually affect the referee’s split-second decision-making ability and even promote a scoring bias.

Psychologists Norbert Hagemann, Bernd Strauss and Jan Leiβing from the University of Münster specifically found that referees tended to assign more points to TaeKwon Do competitors dressed in red than those dressed in blue. The researchers presented 42 experienced tae kwon do referees with videos of blue- and red-clad competitors sparring. The two sets of clips were identical except that the colors were reversed in the second set, making the red athlete appear to be wearing blue and vice versa. The referees were then asked to score the performance of each competitor, red or blue, after each video.

The psychologists found that when the competitors appeared to be wearing red, they were awarded an average of 13% more points than the blue competitors, even though every athlete was presented in both colors at some point. What’s more, points awarded seemed to increase after the blue athlete was digitally transformed into a red athlete and decrease when the red competitor changed to blue.

The findings, which appear in the August 2008 issue of Psychological Science, suggest that referees may hold a split-second bias toward red-clad athletes when the competitors are evenly matched in skill: “Referees’ decisions will ‘tip the scales’ when athletes are relatively well-matched but have relatively small influence when one is clearly superior,” wrote the authors.

“Although there is a need for further research, including research on the effects of different colors, our results suggest a need to change the rules or support referees by providing electronic decision-making aids in those sports in which this color bias may be a problem,” they concluded.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

University of North Texas Psychologist to Support U.S. Taekwondo Team

University of North Texas Psychologist to Support U.S. Taekwondo Team

From a UNT News Service press release

Many Americans only dream of attending an Olympic games in person.

But Karen Cogan, an assistant professor of psychology at UNT, has been invited to the Olympics three times to support U.S. athletes.

As a sport psychologist with the U.S. Olympic Taekwondo Team this year, Cogan will provide a listening ear and helpful advice to team members competing at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China. She traveled with team members and their coaches to Beijing for an Olympic test event after attending a qualifying event to select the team members last year.

Cogan already has witnessed sport history made at two Winter Olympics – Salt Lake City in 2002 and Torino, Italy, in 2006. As a sport psychologist with the U.S. Freestyle Mogul Team, she helped to provide support to the coaches and athletes - including silver medalists Travis Mayer and Shannon Bahrke in 2002 and bronze medalist Toby Dawson in 2006.

"One of the administrators with the mogul team is now an administrator with the U.S. Olympic Training Center, and he recommended me to the team because I had done good work with the mogul team," Cogan says, adding that she accepted the job as sport psychologist in the 2008 Olympics even though she knew nothing about taekwondo, a Korean martial art and combat sport.

"I asked a lot of questions and learned the terminology. Just by watching, I picked up a lot of things," she says.

Taekwondo is famed for its use of kicking techniques, which distinguishes it from martial arts such as karate or southern styles of kung fu. Under Olympic rules, sparring takes place between two competitors in an area measuring 10 meters square. Each match or bout consists of three nonstop rounds of contact with rest between rounds. Points are awarded for permitted, accurate and powerful techniques to the legal scoring areas; light contact to a scoring area does not score any points.

Cogan says mental preparation and training for taekwondo athletes is, in some respects, very similar to that of other athletes, including the mogul skiers she's counseled.

"Personal issues and anxiety can get in the way of best performances. There's also pressure from well-meaning family members and friends who want to get tickets to competitions and have other requests, and the ability to handle media attention," she says.

Cogan works with athletes on:
  • relaxation
  • management of anxiety
  • positive thinking
  • goal setting
"I help them devise some sort of plan or routine leading into the competition that becomes more personal for each athlete," she says.

With the mogul team, Cogan helped competitors who were frustrated with lack of practice time on a course. She pointed out that the team had to make special arrangements before the competition season to go someplace where there is snow, and hope that there is enough snow for training.

"They're lucky if they get 40 days on the snow during the training camps in a year," she says.

Instead of worrying about training conditions, taekwondo athletes may feel anxiety over their opponents, having to anticipate the others' techniques, and over scoring. Unlike mogul skiing - in which athletes compete for the fastest speed down a 27-degree hill that is between 755 and 885 feet high - taekwondo is "a very subjective sport" for scoring, Cogan says.

"Even if you have one of the best fights of your life, you can still lose based on the scoring. And coaches have believed there has been some bias against the U.S. by judges in the past, so it's hard for an athlete or coach to stay focused when he or she doesn't believe a fair call has been made," she says. "The competitions are also single elimination, so if the judging isn't fair, the athlete doesn't have a second chance."

Cogan says her biggest challenge with the taekwondo team, which has not had a formal sport psychology program in the past, is building strong enough relationships with the coaches and athletes so that they feel comfortable to talk to her, but not be intrusive. She has already conducted several interventions with team members.

"I have provided them with a firm foundation of mental skills, and now we are down to maintenance as they go into the Olympics," she says.

UNT News Service press release
Nancy Kolsti can be reached at

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Fighting Through Fatigue

Fighting Through Fatigue
By Dr. Randy Borum
(Published in Black Belt Magazine, July, 2008)

“Fatigue makes cowards of us all” Vince Lombardi

What do you do when you are completely exhausted, spent, and “done”, but there is still time left on the clock? Fatigue can be a martial arts athlete’s toughest opponent, simultaneously attacking your thoughts, emotions and body – trying to get you to quit.

Fatigue is not “all in your head,” but how you react and respond to it can determine how it affects your performance. Sport psychologists investigating “motivational intensity theory” find– when the going gets tough - the degree of effort that people put out is determined by the justifiability (Is it worth it?) and attainability (Is it possible to do it?) of the goal. Interestingly, research shows those same motivational factors also determine whether your cardiovascular system will react and compensate to help you exert more effort when you need it most.

This means that motivational factors under your control can and will affect your performance when you are fatigued. Building on these scientific findings, there are two immediate implications for martial art and combat sport athletes: (1) it is essential that you set goals for yourself and use them constantly to drive your motivation; and (2) when the demands are high, feeling confident and keeping a positive attitude will really help you push through.

Fighting effectively through fatigue is really about preparation, not just about “digging deep” in the heat of competition. How do you prepare to sprint when you are already running on fumes? Here is a three-pronged approach to preparing for your fight against fatigue:

Train to the specific energy demands of your sport: The human body uses different systems of energy depending first on the intensity and second on the duration of the activity. For years, “road work” was considered the cornerstone of conditioning for boxers. While running may have its place in combat sport training, jogging for several miles at a time does not “mirror” the biological energy demands of the sport. Whether the athlete is in a boxing, MMA, wrestling, or point sparring match, he or she is typically not required to maintain an steady, constant, low level aerobic demand over a half-hour period with no rest.

Instead, the sport generally requires multiple, intermittent “bursts” of power at maximal or near-maximal levels, with several-second periods of “rest” in between. The oxygen and metabolic energy demands are quite different in these two activities. So sprints and interval-type training, for example, match the sport-specific energy demands better than a four-mile jog. You will fatigue much less quickly when you have trained your body to anticipate the sport-specific energy demands of competition. Think also about the mental demands of your competition environment - such as lights, crowds, and bad calls from the officials - and prepare for those in training as well.

Minimize Wasted Energy: Even if you are in good shape physically, you may still “gas” if you have not adequately trained your mental game. Tension, anxiety and worry also consume energy and personal resources. Negative thoughts compete with your preparation and competition focus. Constant tension in your muscles makes them tire much more quickly. Jittery feelings – if you perceive them negatively – activate your sympathetic nervous system and cause your body to prepare for a threat, potentially using lots of energy in a way that does not help your performance. By learning to control your level of physiological arousal and to manage your thoughts and self-talk you can help to minimize the amount of wasted energy that comes from an emotional drain.

Breathing is a very important part of managing your energy and fighting fatigue. If you are breathing irregularly or holding your breath while exerting yourself – which is not uncommon – you are limiting the supply of oxygen available to your muscles and your brain. Learning to breathe from the diaphragm and to breathe regularly even under demanding physical conditions should be a priority for your training and your competition plan.

Maximize Positive, Productive Energy: Remember, research shows when you are fatigued that goal attainability is one of the main drivers of your effort. Attainability does not just refer to the level of task difficulty, but also to your belief in your own ability. Psychologists call it self-efficacy, but most athletes just refer to it as confidence. It is very important for a combat sport athlete to enter a competition with a deeply rooted faith in his or her own ability to perform well and to succeed. This skill starts in training. Try not to give voice or credibility to self-limiting beliefs or unproductive thoughts that creep in. When you are training, practice keeping your focus on the present. Don’t allow yourself to say: “I don’t know if I can do it.” Don’t look at the clock or worry about how much time is left in a training interval. Just perform in the moment.

How does one further develop that confident energy? The best source of confidence is past experiences of success, whether in training or competition. Remember your past successes. Recall them often; remembering specifically how you felt and how it happened. Another source of confidence and positive emotion is self-talk. You should direct that voice in your head. Don’t just wait for it to react. Rehearse and repeat positive messages to yourself about your skill and ability. Connecting with your personal “feelings” of success and competence, settling your body into your optimal “zone” of intensity, and creating a positive thought environment should be highlights of your pre-competition routine.

You will also benefit from having a plan to refocus and restore your positive mindset if you happen to encounter a setback in your competition. Many fighters and athletes have had success using “cue words” to help them re-focus. Choose one or two words that have personal significance for you to help bring you back positively and fully into the present. Energy-draining distractions usually when happen because we are thinking either about something that has already happened or something that might happen. Your cue words can prompt you to re-focus on the present.

Fatigue can be a formidable opponent, but with a smart conditioning plan, confidence, and pre-competition preparation, you can keep your mind and body infused with positive energy to prevail in the battle.

Monday, May 19, 2008

How Exercise Revs Up Your Brain

How Exercise Revs Up Your Brain

April 17, 2008 12:09 PM ET | Katherine Hobson | Permanent Link

When I'm in a blue funk, going for a run helps me feel a lot better. And prolonged periods of inactivity—say, after a big race—make me anxious, and something close to depressed. There are certainly a host of reasons why exercise seems to improve my mood (the Justin Timberlake on my iPod and the view from the Brooklyn Bridge, for example), but one potential factor is the idea, supported by a growing body of research, that physical exertion itself has a much bigger influence on the brain than previously thought. Just this week, a survey of existing research published by the Cochrane Library concluded that the same aerobic exercise that is good for your heart also improves cognitive function—specifically, motor function, auditory attention, and memory—in healthy older adults.

That's only one piece of what has become a burgeoning field. In Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, published earlier this year, psychiatrist John Ratey explores the neuroscience behind potential beneficial effects of aerobic exercise on anxiety, stress, depression, learning, aging, and even attention deficit disorder. (Research hasn't as fully explored the effects of anaerobic exercise or more passive activities like stretching and yoga.) "Even people who are overweight and who start exercising see improvements in mood and cognition in as little as 12 weeks," he says. One study found that exercise improved depression symptoms as well as medication.

A host of mechanisms are thought to be responsible. As U.S. News reported earlier this year in a story about keeping your brain fit, studies in rodents showed that running led to an increase in new brain cells in a part of the brain called the hippocampus that plays a large role in learning and memory. Researchers don't count brain cells in studies of live humans, but one study of regularly exercising adults did show increased blood flow to the same area. Because of the obvious implications for age-related memory lapses and dementia, much of the human research in this area has been in the elderly, says Henriette van Praag, a researcher in the neuroplasticity and behavior unit in the laboratory of neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging. She's now studying (in rodents) whether the progression of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's can be slowed by exercise.

Some studies have looked at kids. They haven't yet shown that getting exercise causes improvements in concentration and learning, but "what we agree on at this point is that there's a strong association between aerobic fitness and performance on standardized testing, grades, and other measures of cognitive performance," says Darla Castelli, a researcher in the department of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign. She was an investigator on a study published last year in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology that looked at the relationship between physical fitness and academic performance in 259 third and fifth graders. Aerobic exercise (as well as BMI) was related to achievement in reading and math. Now she's preparing to start a study in August that will compare cognition in a group of kids who participate in an after-school physical activity program with a group that does not.

Chemicals influenced by exercise, including neurotransmitters and growth factors, are being investigated for their role in mood and brain function. Even runner's high, that elusive euphoria that some people experience after prolonged or intensive running, is becoming clearer—literally. A study done in Germany, published in March in Cerebral Cortex, used PET scans to look at the brains of 10 athletes following a two-hour run. The scans confirmed that during the run, endorphins were released in certain parts of the brain known to be involved with the processing of emotions. But while endorphins may cause the runner's high, they're not the sole regulators of mood and emotions during a workout. "A lot of things contribute to us feeling better when we exercise," says Ratey. "Endorphins are one of them, but so are norepinephrine, serotonin, dopamine, and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF)."

So you're sold. How much do you need to work out to get these fabulous brain benefits? "Something is better than nothing," says Ratey. As little as 10 minutes of brisk walking can quench the urge for a cigarette for over an hour, he says, and Castelli notes that a single 10-minute bout of physical activity in an academic setting boosts attention and problem-solving skills in kids. A study published online earlier this month in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that mental health benefits were observed after 20 minutes of physical activity, though the more exercise and higher intensity, the better the effects. Which means that doing the recommended 30 minutes a day of aerobic activity will cover your brain as well as your heart.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Fighting for Success: Lessons from the Cage Applied to Life

Fighting for Success: Lessons from the Cage Applied to Life
(Article first appeared in MMA Authority Magazine)

By Dr. Randy Borum

Today’s mixed martial artist has become an icon of the modern gladiator. For centuries, combatant athletes and their sports have captivated the public’s interest. The events are exciting, of course, but the fighters themselves symbolize the virtue of an indomitable spirit. The mindset and character traits possessed by successful fighters can cultivate achievement in other areas of life as well.

Think about that project you have to manage, the deadline or quota you have to meet, or the critical presentation you have to deliver at work. Each of these tasks requires preparation, planning and personal readiness. You will probably encounter glitches and obstacles that you will have to overcome. Success is your ultimate goal. This is all true for fighters as well.

In this article, we will look through the eyes of a fighter to find out what it takes to succeed in whatever you do.

Make a Game Plan:

Chinese general and military strategist Sun-Tzu said: “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” Planning and preparation are the cornerstones of success in nearly any endeavor. Great fighters set goals for themselves to guide their training. Each goal is embedded in a larger overall training plan. Goals give a competitor something specific to strive for. Research shows that having a specific aim enhances performance beyond what you get with an unfocused, but still “go hard” attitude.

Effective goals are driven by your motivation Proper motivation provides your will to win… or to succeed. Whether you are a fighter or a businessperson, you have to understand what drives you if you are going to excel. It’s not enough just to want it, you have to be able to tap into a source of inner strength that will propel you in the direction you want to go.

Human motivation can be complex. We are drawn – simultaneously - to strive to achieve and attain our desired outcomes, while avoiding undesirable outcomes. Our driving motivations may come from within - like feelings of accomplishment or fun – or come from outside- like money or praise. Psychologists often refer to the internal motivators as intrinsic and the outside motivators as extrinsic. The top achievers in nearly every endeavor – even if they desire and receive fame and fortune – also possess a high degree of intrinsic motivation. They have the “fire in the belly.”

Ask yourself when it is that you feel most successful in what you do. What gives you the greatest feeling of joy, pride or satisfaction? What kinds of experiences make you say to yourself: “I love this stuff”?

When you understand your motivation, think about your short and long-term objectives. Think about where you want to be in your chosen field one year from now. Then chart a course – marked by a set of short-term goals – to make it happen. You may, for example, want to increase your sales volume by 10% each month for four months before asking for a raise.

A popular formula used for effective goal-setting in business and in sports in the SMART model. This suggests that your goals should be:

- Specific – because studies show that specific goals exert a greater effect on motivation and are more likely to be achieved. A specific goal might consider a time frame, units of change or other particular elements of task-related behavior.

- Measurable – because you should have a way to judge whether or not you goal has been achieved. Think about what it will look like when you meet your goal, then write it down and use that written description as your measure of success. You should also state your goal positively, stating what you WILL do, not what you WON’T do. Telling yourself what not to do almost never works.

- Attainable – because although people who set more challenging goals do tend to accomplish more than those with easy goals, the goals still much be realistic. Set yourself up to succeed.

- Relevant – because you are more likely to persist in working toward a goal that is meaningful to you. You should choose goals that are consistent with your values and priorities, so that you will be motivated to press toward them.

- Timely – because it helps to set timeframes or deadlines for specific goals, rather than just thinking it will happen “whenever.” Putting a timeframe on your goal will help to keep you focused. You can modify it if necessary, but don’t abandon your deadline without first setting a new one.

OK. Let’s say you set a goal, but you miss the mark. What do you do? Re-group, Re-formulate, and Renew your commitment. Plans are valuable. Goals are great. Their primary purpose, however, is to guide and motivate you. Let them work for you even if you do not reach them. “A goal is not always meant to be reached,” Bruce Lee said. “it often serves simply as something to aim at”

The process of planning helps you to create a blueprint for success. It focuses your mindset on victory even before you enter the ring or the boss’ office. Goal setting promotes success in a variety of ways. General (and later President) Dwight D. Eisenhower once commented that: “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Do not get overly wrapped up in the outcome.

Get Tough

One of the most inspiring qualities of champion fighters is their mental toughness – the ability to persist through adversity; to never quit. In a study of the psychological characteristics of ten Olympic champions (who had accumulated a total of 32 medals), mental toughness was the most frequently mentioned trait (along with focus) by the athletes and their coaches. Many sport psychology studies highlight its importance in sport performance, particularly among elite-level athletes.

What is mental toughness? Well, it carries different meaning to different athletes. Researchers have even conducted surveys just to better understand how to define it. One of these studies conducted by Jones and colleagues and published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology came up with the following proposal:

“Mental toughness is having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to:

1) Generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on a performer; and,
2) Specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure.”

For more than a hundred years psychological researchers have recognized the importance of qualities related to mental toughness. Through the years, in-depth interviews have been conducted with those considered to possess “genius” in the fields of art, music, finance, business, science, law, medicine and others. Consistently, the “stand out” performers are the ones whose passion and commitment allow them consistently to persist through adversity.

More recently, researchers in the field of “positive psychology” have explored a similar idea that they call “Grit.” University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth has pioneered this line of research on “grit” without even drawing on sport psychology studies of mental toughness. But many features are remarkably similar. Duckworth defines grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.”

One of the most remarkable findings from the research on grit is that it appears to be just as important as – or perhaps more important than – IQ (natural ability) in predicting grades among Ivy league college students, retention among West Point cadets, and achievement in the National Spelling Bee. If grit and mental toughness are that important in determining who will achieve in such “intellectual” tasks, and it also consistently distinguishes top-level athletes, it probably deserves attention from anyone who wants to perform at their peak.

When a fighter has been dominated for two rounds of a three-round bout, what makes him want to continue? If an MMA fighter loses his first three professional bouts in a row, what would drive him to keep training? When you have worked tirelessly on a business proposal or project only to have it “shot down” by your supervisor, what makes you want to continue working on an idea you believe in and press on to make it better?

Recall that the research definition marks mental toughness as a natural or developed psychological edge. Mental toughness is, indeed, a skill. One that can be developed and trained. How do you develop that kind of resilience? Through preparation and practice.

A first step is learning how to pull yourself through the rough spots. As Winston Churchill said: “If you are going through hell…keep going.” This ability to transcend adversity is a key element of what psychologists call resilience. It is as important to success in business as it is in fighting.

Learning to modify and control how you think about a bad situation can really help to take the edge off of its negative effects. The best fighters don't ruminate endlessly over a loss or repeatedly beat themselves up over it. They develop an explanation that makes sense to them about "what happened" – then they figure out what they need to work on to keep that from happening again.

They console themselves with the realization that an occasional loss is virtually inevitable when you are competing at the highest levels of your sport. They do not define themselves as a “loser” simply because the lost a particular match.

When bouncing back from a loss, those with well-honed mental toughness will typically find a way to accept the loss, keep their confidence up, and develop specific, measurable goals they want to achieve in moving forward. They then get swiftly to the task of working to achieve them. Looking forward works better than continuing to look back.

Rely on Work, not Talent

Have you ever watched a co-worker deliver a pitch or conjure up an amazing report on short notice and envied their natural talent? And have you ever watched a talented fighter who doesn’t seem to work hard enough to get better? Raw talent or natural ability is not the best predictor of long-term success. And if you think it is – talented or not - you will probably limit how far you will go.

What does it take to be a champion? What separates the good from the truly great? Why do some succeed and move ahead while others are left behind? How you answer those questions probably reflects your mindset about human performance. And your mindset will drive your confidence, effort, persistence, and – ultimately your achievement.

In the book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success Stanford professor Carol Dweck contrasts two basic mindsets that people bring to learning or mastering a task. She calls them the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. The basic difference is whether you think a person’s ability to do something is determined more by talent or by hard work. Those who give priority to talent tend to have a fixed mindset. They believe their success comes from a fixed trait that they either do or do not possess. Those with a growth mindset view natural talent just as a starting point – not an end point. They believe ability can be improved through commitment and hard work.

Have you ever wanted to do something but thought that you were just not “cut out for it”? You could be falling prey to a fixed mindset. If you let it take hold, it will cause you to avoid challenges, to sulk over obstacles, to moderate your effort, and to eschew criticism or feedback from others. It will actually prevent you from growing, from learning, and from getting better.

If you don’t already have a growth mindset, can you develop one? Absolutely. But you have to take responsibility for the choices you make and for how you think and act in challenging situations. Dweck says there are four steps to creating a growth mindset. First, you have to recognize the self talk or inner voice of the fixed mindset. When you hear it tell you something like: “Don’t even try that move” or “Don’t even share that idea”, “You don’t have what it takes to make it work,” label that in your mind as the fixed mindset talking. Second, recognize when faced with a challenge you have a choice. You must acknowledge that you will choose whether to listen to the fixed mindset or challenge it. Third, talk back to the fixed mindset with a growth mindset response – like “It takes courage to try. By trying, I’ll make myself better.” The fourth step is to act on the growth mindset voice. You have muster faith and follow-through. By consistently making choices to listen to the growth mindset voice, it will become your more natural voice. Your mindset will encourage, rather than limit you.

There are other things you can do too to facilitate a growth mindset and to bolster your inner climate of success:

Keep a positive focus: The best fighters never let their doubts take over. They maintain a faith in their ability and steadfast confidence. They constantly look for positive cues in their environment and say positive messages to themselves. As a result they are less often bothered by negative thoughts, they are happier, and they perform better.

Control your intensity: Champions have learned to play or fight “in the zone.” They know how to keep their mind calm and their body energized without amping up to the point of feeling “jittery”. It takes fine tuning, and a strong awareness of your own body, but you can lower your heart rate with deep breathing, release tension from your muscles, and quiet a worried mind – all with a little practice.

Manage distractions: As you cultivate a growth mindset, you are learning to filter through negative messages from the inner “fixed” voice and buffering external distractions that do not facilitate your best performance. You might develop positive “cue words” to help yourself quickly get back on a positive track. Or you may just drown out the distractions with your own growth-oriented messages of confidence. Either way, you will be increasingly focused on what is important and indifferent to what is not.

Prepare to perform: Prepare to confront expected challenges. Sometimes challenges catch us by surprise. At those times we need to work quickly to recognize and act on our choices. But often we know in advance about an important meeting, presentation, sales pitch….or match. This gives us an opportunity both to practice and to create an inner climate for peak performance. Run through the task several times in your head, watching it go well every single time. Listen to the positive voice speaking to you. Feel the sensation of confidence and the inner calmness. Delight in the flow of being “in the moment.” And when “you’re on” in a real situation, your brain and body can respond as if you have been there and done this before.

The greatest athletes, the greatest performers, and those who excel in business – or nearly any task – use some common strategies. They set goals for themselves so they have a game plan and a roadmap for success. They learn to be tough and resilient – persisting through adversity and disappointment and pressing ever forward. And they constantly seek to improve their skills, while always working to get better. They surround themselves with the best people and listen to what they have to say. Whether in or out of the cage, these strategies – combined with your passion to achieve – can take you to the top.