Dr. Jen Schumacher, currently the assistant director of the performance psychology program at the United States Military Academy working with cadets and teams on psychological aspects of elite performance, grew up in a swimming family. Large family gatherings were spent on the beach and taking part in open water swim races. She later gravitated toward the pool to earn a collegiate scholarship.
She’d perform well in preparation, setting personal records in practice, and yet during meets, she suffered from low confidence, high self-doubt, performance anxiety, and comparison to others. You name it, she struggled with it in the mental domain. She devoted her academic career to solving that problem, not only for herself but for those in the athletic and tactical performance fields.
“I needed to develop confidence. It was a skill I knew I lacked from an early stage,” she said. “We’re often caught up with the output. What will be my evaluation at the end of the year? Will I pass my physical exam? Will I get that promotion at the end of the year? And sometimes we fail to focus on the input.”
Some skills can be acquired through practice, time, and effort — much like physically training a muscle — to help people mentally prepare for tasks that may incite some form of fear, stress, or trauma. Dr. Schumacher sought out some of the best mental specialists in the country to help equip her mentally for her return to competitive open-water marathon swimming.
In addition to devoting countless hours to her physical training, sleep schedule, fueling habits, and recovery methods, she needed to focus on her mental preparedness in advance of her return.
Below are the four mental skills Dr. Schumacher incorporated into her training as well as advising West Point cadets to do the same in her profession.
- What is Your Why? — Why are you doing this particular task? Why is it important to you? What is your personal connection to this particular task? Find meaning in what you’re doing as a moral compass or North Star in your journey to remain motivated and focused. It’s simply not enough to be doing things for the sake of doing them. Keeping your purpose present allows for deliberate, concise action and decision-making.
“It can be such a powerful tool in keeping us on track in difficult times,” Dr. Schumacher said. “Reflecting on your why, both individually and collectively as a unit, can help build and maintain resiliency in the face of adversity.”
- Words of Affirmation — Memorizing a set of affirmative phrases before entering a performative task can help alleviate the ‘flight or fight’ response your body has in stressful situations. What can you say to reframe the experience into a positive one to remove a feeling of fear or anxiety and complete the performance?
During Dr. Schumacher’s open-water swim between two Hawaiian islands, she had to face one of her biggest fears — swimming with sharks. Thanks to memorizing a few words of affirmation, specifically “It’s not the shark you see that you need to worry about,” she was able to continue and finish her swim — turning a potentially debilitating situation into a moment of her lifetime. This skill coupled with a rhythmic breathing strategy can help your return to focusing on the goal.
- Visualization — This is a great skill to use when performers don’t have access to the place in which they will be performing. Creating an immersive experience — whether through A.I. technology or stimulating the senses through physical recreation (i.e. photos, sounds, and smells of the environment). Much like how a golfer practices their swing to create a muscle memory of the swing motion, tactical operators can submerge themselves into situations to be more prepared to focus on the task at hand.
During Dr. Schumacher’s crossing of the Catalina Channel off the coast of California featured a rocky, mossy climb amid choppy surf to complete the race. After spending afters horizontal and not using her legs, suddenly she was asked to go vertical and rely on her leg strength on uneasy terrain. She devised a visualization strategy for that scenario and envisioned herself moving accurately across the wet rocks to her finish.
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“When the moment came, I remember I had an almost out-of-body experience where I scurried up the beach it was as though my hands and feet were finding the exact perfect rocks to select. I was upright before I knew it,” she said. “I credited much of my success to being able to develop that confidence through the skill of imagery.”
- Being Present — Too often in performance-driven activities, the performer is focused on the outcome. That type of mental mindset can lead to performance anxiety and a lack of focus at the moment in an attempt to force a favorable outcome.
“We don’t know what the end result will be. Sometimes we fail to focus on the process of getting to that end result,” Dr. Schumacher said. “We help tactical operators remain present and focused on the process, especially when there is some pressure, or level of anxiety, or competition that might need us to focus on the outcome.”