MENTAL C.O.R.E. STRENGTH
Foundations for a High-Performance Mindset
Fitness gurus love talking about the importance of developing your core – the region between your chest and hips. It provides the foundation for optimal balance and explosive power.
However, there is another kind of core strength – mental core strength –and it’s found in the region between your ears.
Over the last several decades, researchers with Olympic athletes and other world-class performers have identified many of the mental qualities of high-achievers.
We will focus on four such qualities:
The goal here is simply to better understand what each of these terms means within the context of sport and performance psychology and to begin to appreciate why they are so consistently touted by elite performers and their mental coaches as being essential to optimal performance.
C is for Confidence
Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.
Confidence is the most frequently identified psychological attribute of elite athletes and performers. Not surprisingly then, enhancing self-confidence is universally viewed as one of the primary aims of coaches and sports psychologists.
Put simply, confidence is the belief that you can accomplish whatever you set your mind to. In academic psychology, this belief has been operationalized under the term self-efficacy. Research has repeatedly shown that confidence (or self-efficacy) is one of the most reliable predictors of performance.
Confidence appears to exert its positive effects on performance primarily by changing the way we interpret the physiological arousal experienced in competitive or high-stake situations, with confident performers tending to interpret arousal as a good thing – a sign that they are alert and ready to face an exciting challenge rather than anxious about facing a debilitating threat.
O is for Optimism
Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.
Whereas confidence is a belief about the self, optimism is a belief about the future. Achieving anything extraordinary requires great discipline and sacrifice. Optimism boils down to a fundamental conviction that hard work pays off – that all the effort and sacrifice will be worth it in the end.
Because optimism is the cornerstone of the positive psychology movement, ample research has been accumulated that attests to the positive impact of optimism on performance across a wide range of disciplines.
Optimism is thought to enhance performance primarily by promoting the mobilization and continued investment of effort and energy toward a goal. Since the outcome of any venture is uncertain, some amount of optimism is required in order to take even the first step in the direction of a desired outcome.
R is for Resilience
The moment we believe that success is determined by an ingrained level of ability as opposed to resilience and hard work, we will be brittle in the face of adversity.
~Joshua Waitzkin~ Author of The Art of Learning
In the physical world, resilience refers to the ability of a substance or object to spring back to its original shape after being deformed (think of a Nerf football). Similarly, in the context of performance, resilience refers to the ability to recover following a mistake, loss, injury or other adversity.
Resilience is an extension of the first two mental qualities. Being confident and optimistic is one thing. Being able to maintain that confidence and optimism in the face of obstacles, setbacks, and even failure is another thing altogether. Resilience is about being able to get back up when you get knocked down – not just once, but repeatedly.
In the sport and performance context, resilience typically flies under the larger banner of mental toughness. Resilience is often considered to be the pinnacle of all mental attitudes because it translates to an extraordinary ability to maintain undiminished effort in the face of defeat, adversity or against tremendous odds. Indeed, such persistent effort is one of the hallmarks of a successful performer.
E is for Equanimity
When force of circumstance upsets your equanimity, lose no time in recovering your self-control, and do not remain out of tune longer than you can help.
Equanimity (pronounced ek-wah-ni-mi-tee) refers to a state of mental and emotional stability that remains undisturbed by thoughts or experiences, whether good or bad. Other common words and phrases to describe someone with this quality includes “even-tempered,” “level-headed,” or “cool, calm, and collected.”
While the research base for equanimity is not as robust as the other qualities discussed above, the performance-enhancing benefits of such emotional non-reactivity should be obvious. Indeed, research on flow state suggests that we perform optimally when our attention is completely absorbed in present moment action, which can only occur if we are not grasping at the pleasant or pushing away the unpleasant.
Of all the qualities discussed here, equanimity is by far the least familiar and most elusive. Equanimity is truly the holy grail of the mental training quest, as all the other qualities are ultimately aimed at moving the individual toward a capacity to sustain continuous, undistracted focus and effort on the task at hand.
Equanimity provides a foundation for persistent effort, regardless of the outcome, because you are connected to the integrity of the effort itself.
In this article, I outlined four essential components of a high-performance mindset:
Confidence: Belief that you can learn and do difficult things
Optimism: Belief that good things will happen if you work hard
Resilience: Ability to persist through difficulty and bounce back
Equanimity: Unshakeable mental and emotional stability
This collection is not meant to be exhaustive or mutually exclusive. Indeed, these mental qualities share a great deal of conceptual interdependence with one another as well as with other popular concepts on offer in the mental performance marketplace, such as:
Grit: Angela Duckworth’s word for a combination of passion and perseverance, which are more important to success than natural talent or ability
Growth Mindset: Carol Dweck’s phrase for the belief that intelligence and ability can be improved through effort rather than being fixed or predetermined
My intention is neither to diminish nor supersede the valuable contributions of these and other researchers. This is simply my attempt to organize and distill a wide range of overlapping psychological constructs into a format that makes sense and is easy to remember. That’s where the acronym C.O.R.E. comes in.
The analogy with physical core strength is apt. Just as the abdominals, obliques, and lower back muscles supporting the spine provides the foundation for physical stability, the four mental qualities described here provide the foundation for mental stability by supporting effective regulation of attention and emotions while also serving as a protective factor against fear, fatigue, frustration, self-doubt, and burnout.
This article is also intended to serve as a jumping-off point for a more in-depth look at each of these concepts. The interested reader can explore some of my other articles on these topics by searching my blog or by clicking on the links scattered throughout.
There is no question that the path to excellence begins in the mind. Investing in the development of confidence, optimism, resilience, and equanimity will pay huge dividends in terms of your ability to reach your training goals and deliver your best when it matters most.
In mental training as in physical training, don’t neglect your C.O.R.E.!