My Ground Truth

Psychologist | Military-Grade Mindfulness Trainer & Coach | Carsten J. Grimm

Understanding the Fundmentals of Mental Skills Training

In a previous post I talked about how having a toolbox of mental resources is one way to ensure we maintain our wellbeing and resilience. In this post we’ll be taking a closer look at some of the basics of this toolbox, in particular some of the fundamental principles around what psychologists mean when they talk about ‘mental skills’ training. 

Thinking Like The All Blacks

Many of us have by now heard of the term ‘red head blue head’ which has became semi-famous within sports psychology circles thanks in part to the exceptional work of Dr Ceri Evans in helping the All Blacks with their mental skills training.  

In New Zealand we’re trying pretty hard to forget the fact that up until and including 2007, our beloved rugby team had only won 1 World Cup in 6 attempts, despite going in as red hot favourites most of the time. What was going so wrong? Then finally in 2011 the All Blacks won the World Cup, 8-7 in the final against France, in a super tight, tense, test of grit and mental composure. Then they won it again in 2015. No Kiwi will ever need reminding of the recent history of course. But what happened? Why the massive turn around in performance? How does a team go from 1 victory in 6, to winning 2 back-to-back? Was it because the team was fitter and stronger than they were previously? Maybe, sports science is always improving, so we know how to grow fitter and stronger athletes, but relative to other teams were they that much physically superior? Probably not. The answer probably has something to do with what goes on in the brain, and learning the skills necessary to manage some of our very unhelpful default settings. 

Red head Blue head

What sports psychologists have known for a while now is that too much anxiety derails performance. Some nerves are good, in fact they’re often necessary and may help you reach a new level when the chips are down and it’s time to fight for that last inch in a tight game. But we all know that hot, prickly feeling of being flustered, dry-mouthed and frazzled, unable to think clearly, and unable to remember what’s important. Just consider what it was like the last time you went toe-to-toe with your significant other. Or how inelegantly you expresed yourself when someone cut you off in traffic. Or how you lost it when your kid asked you for the 100th time if they could have an ice cream before dinner. That, right there, is red head. That’s your physiology out-muscling your skills to cope with the demands of the situation. That’s your body’s fight-or-flight response telling you that you had better freak out and either run away or get ready to fight to the death. It may well be the 21st century, but your brain is still running on some very old, outdated, hardware. 

Red head versus Blue head.  Image borrowed with thanks. 

Red head versus Blue head. Image borrowed with thanks. 

What we need is the other side of our nervous system to kick into gear, right when it’s getting hairy. Instead of the fight-or-flight side of the house running the show we need our rest-and-digest response to step up and tell the brain to chill out, we got this. Blue head is the feeling we’re looking for in all high performance, high pressure situations. It’s that calmness of knowing what you need to do and being ready to execute, no hesitation, nothing in your way, nothing slowing you down. It’s that feeling like knowing where the ball is going to go and just going straight there. It’s that calm quiet voice of confidence. Blue head.

And then when we have figured out a way to activate this calming mechanism, this way of getting into blue head, we want to practice it. A lot. Just like we would if we were training for distance running, or if we were lifting heavy weights for strength training. We want to get miles and miles of training, or as I often say, we want to get ‘reps’ on this way of practicing down-regulating our arousal response, and training our attention to focus. Reps, and reps, and reps. 

What Goes on in the Brain  

So why is it so hard to go from red head into blue head? Well partly it’s just how we’re wired, it’s not our fault. It’s our in-built survival mechanism trying to protect us. At it’s most simple there is a fight for resources in our brain, between the rational thinking part (the prefrontal cortex) and the emotional part (the limbic system). The limbic system wants to keep you in red head. The prefrontal cortex wants to be able to chill everything out and get you into blue head. But the red head can be much, much more powerful. That’s why we need all those reps of practice learning to switch states. That’s what all those sports psychologists have been trying to tell us. And that’s what the All Blacks finally figured out. How to get into blue head when it counts. And how to get the reps to train yourself to get there.  

The fight in your brain for resources; the prefrontal cortex (rational part of the brain) in the calm blue head state. And the limbic system (emotional centre of the brain) in red head, the stressed state.  Image borrowed with thanks. 

The fight in your brain for resources; the prefrontal cortex (rational part of the brain) in the calm blue head state. And the limbic system (emotional centre of the brain) in red head, the stressed state. Image borrowed with thanks.