The Art of Mental Training: A Guide to Performance Excellence was written by DC Gonzales (DC), a former Naval Aviator, FBI Agent, and Military Cyber-Security Specialist. In his book, DC employs non-fiction dialogue by providing the lessons he learned on the subject of mental preparation from a wise Master named Leo-tai. Leo-tai was his mentor and friend during his younger years in Naval academy.
DC’s central thesis is that the quality of ones’ performance is ultimately decided by the thoughts going on inside our minds. He firmly believes that if you can control your thoughts, you can create the “Ideal Mental Climate” necessary to succeed. From his experience with top athletes, executives, pro-fighters, soldiers, doctors, lawyers, and many other successful people in their respective fields he noticed that the difference between high performance and average performance was mostly mental.
The mental techniques he suggests are straightforward to understand and apply. A few methods he describes in his book include attitude redirection, scenario visualization, and fear management. Throughout the book, DC uses the term Warrior to describe the character traits synonymous with those of great athletes. His Master Leo-tai was an exceptional teacher who is portrayed very similar in temperament to Mr. Miagi of Karate Kid. So alike that Leo-tai would call DC, “Danielsan.” The same name that was assigned to the lead actor in Karate Kid.
One of the first things Leo-tai taught DC was how to control what he called the “internal mental climate.” The first and most important way to do that is to maintain a positive attitude regardless of the situation. Positivity is a skill in perspective that turns negative situations into a positive (hence the term). He says, “a positive attitude creates optimism and positive energy.” He makes it clear that positivity isn’t a mysterious energy force that occurs by thinking happy thoughts. Instead, what he is describing is the productive cycle positivity creates. “Positive energy creates good momentum and the likelihood of positive things to happen,” he says.
He believes that all performance, in sport or business, is dictated by the thoughts and images we allow to exists in our minds. It’s the responsibility of the individual to create the self-awareness necessary to control the thoughts going on in their heads. In the case that negativity does arise, DC proposes we “interrupt the negative-self talk with positive-self talk and positive images.” Even in the worst case scenarios in which we are faced with a loss or setback, it’s positivity that reminds us that setbacks are temporary, and can be used as a tool to learn something new about yourself. Leo-tai would say, “a positive attitude never works against you.”
The second technique described in the book is a mental rehearsal technique that sport psychologists commonly refer to as “visualization.” The topic of visualization has been studied and referenced extensively with positive results since the early ’80s. For example, one study evaluating the legitimacy of mental training assembled four different groups of world-class Soviet athletes. The training regimens were separated as follows:
- Group I – 100% physical training, 0% mental training
- Group II – 75% physical training, 25% mental training
- Group III – 50% physical training, 50% mental training
- Group IV – 25% physical training, 75% mental training
When the four groups were compared shortly before the 1980 Winter Games Group IV had shown significantly higher improvement than Group III, with Groups II and I following. The results were in that order proving the more mental training an athlete had, the better they were able to perform. DC explains this phenomenon as the “mental edge.”
This internal place of the mind is an effective pre-game strategy of practicing overcoming adversity and staying in control. As a former wrestler, I can attest to the credibility of visualization techniques. In high school every Friday night, at the end of practice our wrestling coach would have us lie on our backs as he narrated an entire wrestling match. I always felt slightly more prepared on Saturday when I took these drills seriously. DC uses a great metaphor describing visualization as “watching film our yourself all in your mind” with every little detail and emotion attached to it. As DC describes it, “visualization is about imagining, everything before it happens.” This includes predicting the adversity you may have to overcome and how you would respond to that adversity. By doing this, he states that you can’t be surprised by difficulty when you have already imagined it.
The third idea that DC explains that every great athlete must understand is how to control fear. DC states that being afraid should never be an option because as he says, “being afraid helps create the conditions that make failure more likely.” Fear turns a competitor from someone trying to win, into someone trying not to lose. It can restrict your thoughts while negatively affecting your psychology in terms of shallow breathing, reducing neuro-muscular connections to your muscles, and increasing your nervous systems’ stress response causing you to rush and make mistakes.
DC explains in scientific terms that fear is a “perceived psychological threat to your ego and self-esteem.” Instead, he suggests that what we should do is look at failure from an entirely different perspective. He believes that the only way to accomplish anything significant one must place themselves at risk that failure may occur.
To control fear, DC states that one must recognize that fear happens inside our heads. In that some level of fear is normal, but what is most important is that we “don’t let it get out of control.” Fear as he understands it is a perceived threat of something in the future. So to take control of fear, you must bring yourself back in the present moment by focusing on your breathing rhythms, which will automatically transport you back into the present. He closes the chapter on fear by saying that “behind every Olympic gold medal lie hundreds of second and third place finishes. Being afraid to lose shouldn’t be feared because loss is part of the process of being great.
I enjoyed reading this book. It was written in a manner that didn’t require any experience in mental training. The dialogue format between DC and his master Leo-tai made it feel like I was benefiting from a sacred relationship between a young student and his sensei.