I am admittedly resistant to the “self-help” genre. Maybe this is because I just like to read stories, or because I value creative writing more than actual information. I’m not suggesting this is a good thing. And I’m not suggesting that I’m not in need of some help, and new perspectives now and then. It’s just that a lot of these books are so cliché and so cheesy. I find myself saying, “no kidding” a lot and rolling my eyeballs so much that I’m in danger of a sprain.
This said, I kept hearing about a book called Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence by Gary Mack with David Casstevens. About the third or fourth time it hit my radar, I was compelled to check it out. The basic premise is that athletes have to train their minds as much as they train their bodies. In other words, they have to build their mental muscle. Along these lines, Ty Cobb is quoted as saying, “The most important part of a player’s body is above his shoulders.” Likewise, golfer Bobby Jones has said, “Competitive golf is played mainly on a five-and-a-half-inch course: the space between your ears.”
Mack, a sports psychologist, uses quotes and anecdotal examples from famous athletes of the past and the present, including several skaters such as Sarah Hughes, Scott Hamilton, and Peggy Fleming. It deals with a lot of concepts that many of us are already aware of but could always use a refresher on, like: think positive, remain confident, and stay focused. Maybe it’s not even valid to call it a self-help book. I suppose it’s more like sports psychology watered down a bit, and snazzied up with anecdotes. The result is very readable.
I liked it. I found it helpful. Granted, it took me a long time to read (about five months!) but I think that’s okay and maybe ideal: it’s one of those books best digested slowly. It’s nice to keep coming back to it. I have an excellent book about writing called Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg that I’ve been reading over the course of at least 15 years. I suspect that when I finally finish it, I’ll probably start over again. It’s kind of like a steady, long-term companion. I can see myself taking Mind Gym off the shelf periodically in the future, if not to fully re-read then to review some of the sections I underscored as especially applicable to skating or just to life in general.
As a coach, I asked myself while reading: How can I use this to help my students? What tips can I pick up to motivate, to inspire, to help allay their anxieties and fears? Like I said, some of this information was valuable reinforcement of things I have picked up elsewhere. For example, Mack discusses the importance of focusing on the things you can control instead of the things you can’t. I started thinking about this simultaneously obvious and brilliant notion years ago after reading Caroline Silby’s wonderful book, Games Girls Play. (I highly recommend you read this, if you haven’t already – she is also a psychologist and a former figure skating competitor.) I have been trying to utilize and impart this mentality ever since, but it’s great to be reminded of it.
Similarly, Mack extols the power of positive thinking and demonstrates that even the words you use – either out loud or just in your head – impact this. For example, “I’m not going to fall on this, anymore” versus “I am going to land this.” It’s better to avoid the negative formulation altogether: just by planting that image of falling in your (or your student’s) head, you could increase the chances of it happening and vice versa. At this year’s PSA conference in Chicago, Frankie Perez did an excellent sports psychology presentation on this same topic. I have tried to keep tabs on my own phraseology during lessons since then – i.e. instead of “don’t bend your freeleg”… “straighten your freeleg” and I appreciate this as a more direct and clear way of delivering the message. And, even on a more everyday note, instead of “don’t forget your keys” how about, “remember to take your keys.”
Mack also delves extensively into the use of mantras and mental visualization in order to get in The Zone for game-time. While I was reading this, I had a student who was struggling with a moves test. A painful knee injury and a serious case of asthma meant that she could really only skate sometimes 20 or 25 minutes per day a few times a week. It was hard for her to develop confidence for the test without much repetition of the moves and without much cardiovascular training. Motivated by Mind Gym, I asked her to do a mental run-through of her moves every night for a week leading up to the test. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she ended up having one of her best performances ever, despite all the obstacles. She hurdled them and I’m happy that she now has the gold testing medal she deserves.
I have found that one of the more challenging aspects of coaching is helping students control their nerves on the day of the performance. On this topic, Mack provides one of my favorite anecdotes of the book, and one that I think is very relevant to skaters. He describes working with groups of new firefighters. He writes: “I often give a classroom demonstration. It is a test you can take yourself. If I asked you to stand on the seat of a chair or on a tabletop, would you have a problem doing that? Probably not. But what if that chair or table were twenty stories in the air, and I asked you to perform the same task? What thoughts would you have? How would you feel? Could you do it? The task is the same. So what is the difference? For many, it’s a four-letter word: Fear.”
I have been gradually sharing this excellent image with some of my older students. After all, what is the difference between doing your run-through during practice and during the performance? Only the judges. It is otherwise the same. In fact, it is arguably better, since there aren’t any other skaters on the ice.
In addition to reading Mind Gym from the perspective of a coach, I couldn’t help also reading it with the eyes of a former athlete. Wow, I kept thinking, what if I had read this or something like it, back then? I was not exactly overflowing with confidence as a skater. One of my own more memorable mantras before competitions was: “I just hope we don’t get last.” I was kind of joking and kind of serious. Mainly, I suppose this was a protective technique: if we happened to get, say, second to last, I managed to feel, if not thrilled, then at least relieved.
But what if? What if I had aimed for the so-called stars instead of planting such a negative image in my head? If I had believed that I could have climbed the podium, would I have increased my chances of being there more often? I suspect that’s possible, but there’s no use in wallowing in regret. I do think it’s useful to analyze these kinds of things so you can extract a lesson. As Joe Biden aptly put in that crazy Vice Presidential debate not so long ago: Past is prologue. What worked? What didn’t? How can you change your own methodologies or thought patterns to reach your own goals and to help others?
My brother and I were incredibly fortunate to be coached by Robbie Kaine. He was a positive force, indeed, and imparted an idea that Mack also touches upon: while you always want to try your best, the process is superior to the outcome. As Charles Barkley is quoted in these pages, “I know that I am never as good or as bad as any single performance.” I think I was slow to understand this, and, in fact, probably didn’t fully process it until after I was finished competing; it’s as if it had to percolate for a while or I needed distance and the resulting perspective in order to see it. Better late than never: now, as a coach, I try to pass this mentality onto to my own students. I can only hope they are more clear-sighted than I was.
Mack touches on so many other valuable concepts like, setting goals, trying to think yet not over-think, and to train in a way that allows you to run on autopilot once you arrive at the game or the performance. He addresses sportsmanship and the importance of loving what you do. I certainly get the impression, from these pages, that Mack is enthusiastic about his own field.
Finally, he encourages athletes to look in the mirror, to really see themselves as others do. I think this is one of the most powerful parts of Mind Gym. It’s not that we should value what other people think over what we think, but it’s good for all of us to realize that we are using our minds and our bodies in a larger context. As athletes, we can get very caught up in the minutia of technique, ranking, and the next competition. This is probably especially true in an individual sport like skating. But what effect might we have on other people as examples or as mentors? It’s great that he helps to broaden this perspective.
On this note, I’ll leave you with what I think is one of the best sections of Mind Gym. It’s toward the end, and if I take nothing else from this book (or impart nothing else in this blog), this quote makes it worth reading:
“Everyone eventually leaves the game. Imagine for a moment you’re attending a testimonial dinner in honor of your retirement from competition. Maybe you’re retiring after high school or college or at the end of a professional career. Maybe you’re a weekend warrior. Your friends are at the banquet and so are all your coaches, former teammates and those you competed against. Each one stands up and says a few words about your character and how you played the game. What would they say? What would you want them to say?”
Think about this for a moment. Whether you are a skater, a lawyer, a beekeeper, a banjo player…or a writer: what would you want them to say?
Have you read this book? Any other books that have been of help? Click on “comment” below.
For those of you who are interested, I have another book on deck that’s supposed to be great for skaters called, Skating out of Your Mind. Yes, I’ll reviewing this at some point in the near-ish future.
Thanks for reading.