Michael Gervais is a sports psychologist who works with athletes in “high stakes, consequential environments.” Sometimes those stakes are as low as winning and losing (he’s worked with the Seattle Seahawks for eight years) and sometimes they are as high as living and dying (like in his work with Felix Baumgartner, the Austrian who free dove from 130,000 feet as part of Red Bull’s 2012 Stratos project). No matter the consequences, his end goal remains the same: to help his clients respond constructively to high stress environments.
“I'm fortunate to work with people that are some of the most extraordinary thinkers and doers in the world, and in some cases they're working in operating environments where mistakes are costly,” Dr. Gervais says. “To operate well in those environments requires a mastery of craft, a mastery of your body and mastery of mind… [those people are] teaching and informing the rest of us, in many ways, what it means to have a full command of one's inner life and to be able to apply it on command in rugged hostile and stressful environments.”
This is, of course, a very fancy way of saying that Dr. Gervais helps his clients be more mindful. If that word just made you cringe, we hear you. Mindfulness is—and has been for some time—the panacea du jour in the wellness world, so overused it’s effectively devoid of substance. But Dr. Gervais’s work goes deeper than your usual run-of-the-mill “take five deep breaths and let serenity cascade over you.” (Though, to be clear: he is a fan of deep breathing.)
He is tasked with helping patients be hyper-aware in situations that threaten to transport them to anywhere except wherever they currently are (the deafening noise of an opposing stadium, 130,000 feet above earth, at the mercy of gravity’s will). The success some of his clients have had in that regard—Russell Wilson, a contender for this year’s NFL MVP, chief among them—proves a compelling case not just for why, in his hands, awareness is not some bullshit hack, but why it might actually be a future pillar of elite sports performance (alongside nutrition, recovery, and strength and conditioning, which, Gervais, points out, were once viewed with cynicism, too).
And why does any of this matter for you? Maybe your environment doesn’t contain “about to leap from the stratosphere” levels of stress. But the modern world is still leaving many of us feeling overworked, under-recovered, anxious, and alone. Here, Gervais walks you through some of the techniques that have proven most effective in his years on the job—the tools that have allowed his patients to build mental resilience, feel more confident and capable, and fortify their inner world against external adversity.
First off: how would you define confidence?
Confidence is, essentially, “I think I can do that thing over there.” Confidence is not “I can.” Confidence is “That looks hard—I think I have the skills to match it.” Confidence comes from one place and one place only: what you say to yourself. It's not built on past success. Past success certainly has a great influence on it, but confidence essentially has to pass through the gate of what you say to yourself. The good news about that is, ultimately, we are responsible for what we say to ourselves. It’s a trainable skill. So, by default, confidence is trainable, and it's 100% under our control.
It’s interesting that you say it’s not built on past success. Because I feel like when you think of confidence, it's: “Look at all the cool shit I've done.”
Past success alone is not enough. It's knowing how to use and pull past success into an appropriate appraisal of the demands that you’re about to meet. And if you believe you can meet those demands based on your skills and your state of being, you got it.
How many of the people that you work with struggle with confidence?
Well, I think that that's a human thing. I think most of us want to do something extraordinary in life and we want to live and be the best versions of ourselves. That means we're going to go into spaces and places where we're a bit over our skis. But being a little out of control of things—it sounds so trite—that's where learning takes place. And that's also where capacity is built.
Think of it like a balloon: when we breathe into a balloon it expands at the edges, and becomes a bit thinner. In the center of the balloon, the center of our comfort zone, we're super skilled. We know we can sit at the couch and be fine. When we get to the edges, we are not skilled. That's where we start to go, "Do I have what it takes because I'm not proficient in this space?"
We aren't teaching kids and young people the mechanics of confidence, which is self-talk. And there's two basic camps of self-talk: positive productive self-talk, and that more critical biting destructive, negative self-talk.
What are some of the exercises you have clients you've worked with used to sort of quiet the destructive side and enhance the productive side?
It begins with awareness. The first order of business with anything that has to do with the psychology of excellence or the psychology of growth is becoming aware of your inner experience. And then having the tools and skills to navigate it, to make it better. One of the great practices to increase awareness is mindfulness. And mindfulness training has been around 2600 years. Modern science is saying, "We should pay attention. It's really doing some good stuff here." [laughs] Brain chemistry, brain structure, behavioral, psychological changes that are happening for people that are meditating and doing mindfulness—it's extraordinary.
Mindfulness has two basic core tenets. One is awareness and the second is wisdom. And the linking between the two is the present moment and insight. So let me deconstruct that for just a minute. Awareness of what? Awareness of our thoughts, emotions, our body sensations and the unfolding environment around us. If we had an increase in awareness of those four things and we stopped there, we would butcher the ancient beauty, the tradition that's presented—but we would be a better performer and a better doer. We would become more aware and we could adjust more eloquently to when our thoughts are off, when our emotions are not conducive to the task at hand. You can see that from a sports lens for sure.
But we'd fall far short from the deeper part of mindfulness which is wisdom. And so how does that take place? Well, you can't be in a conversation with somebody that's a wise man or woman and become wise. You can't read a book of wisdom and become wise. You have to earn it. And the way that you earn it is through spending increased frequency of time in the present moment. Now, the cool thing about the present moment is when you stitch moment one, with moment two, with moment three, that's where high performance is expressed. And it's also where wisdom is revealed through insight.
One of the things that pulls us out of the present moment is critique, is judgment: This isn't right, this isn't good enough. I'm not right. I'm not good enough. I can't. All of that negative constricting, destructive type of thinking pulls us from being into this moment, whatever this moment is. And so that's the game inside the game: becoming aware of that inner experience and then having the tools to navigate.
The skill is to go from negative, critical mind to productive, positive mind. But this doesn't mean that we make stuff up. This doesn't mean that we say, "Oh, the boat is burning and I'm just going to stay in the burning boat. I think we're all going to be okay.” What is that? That's this airy-fairy type of pop-psych B.S. thing that makes my hair stand up. It's so wrong, this idea of naive optimism.
We've got to earn the right to be optimistic by finding the things that can be good, and building a framework around that, as opposed to this naïve, "Hey, just be positive, everything's good." You can get there by saying something that builds you up: “You know what, I put in the work. Let's go. I love being tried. Try me.” That type of chip or confidence-building mechanism works.
Say there's a field goal kicker who has had seven or eight great years and then the ninth year, they just can't hit anything. And now they've missed three or four important field goals, choked a few times, they come into your office and they say, "I don't know what to do. Every time I'm going to kick field goals, I hear this voice in the back of my head." What would you do?
The word “choking,” let's just use that for a moment. Conjuring up the image: we grab our neck. Really, what's happening is we're choking off access to our craft. That’s a psychological construct where we have a thinking pattern that is restricting the access to the movement patterns that are well-grooved. So let's use your scenario now, and let's say someone comes in, and says, "I'm choking." What they're basically saying is, “I'm really far away from what it feels like to be my best.”
There's only three things we can train as humans: our body, our craft, and our mind. So in that frame and that conversation, we first need to rule out, “Are you able to do it when there's not pressure?” If the athlete were to say, "I'm actually struggling in practice, too,” well, maybe it's a technical thing. Maybe it's a fatigue thing. If it’s not technical or physical, maybe it's psychological.
If it is psychological, great. What are the thoughts that are getting in your way? Usually it's about “The moment is big and I don't feel like I have the skills, so I feel small. I don't have the skills to manage the moment.” So we would deconstruct [from there]: is the moment big? There's really no such thing [as a big moment] in my mind. You’ve heard it your whole life: the Super Bowl is a big game. And I can create a narrative where that's true. But when I strip it down, it's no different. More people are watching. But the rules are the same. The balls are the same. The consequences are the same. One team wins, one team loses.
The only person that changes the stakes is the person performing. The hype machines of the media need to make it big, because they need eyeballs. That's their business. As an athlete, most of us, we have to make an informed decision early on. If you think the Super Bowl is like every other game, let's stay committed to that philosophy. A game is a game. Consequence is the same. Do you have the ability to be where your feet are? And are you going to change that because people are watching?
So I hear what you're saying—
But I totally disagree.
[laughs] I don't totally disagree but I want to push back a little. The outcome of the Super Bowl is objectively a bigger deal than the outcome of a preseason game. You disagree? I can understand in the timeline of eternity that winning the Super Bowl does not amount to much, I guess.
It's cool. I was fortunate to be part of a team that did it and it's wonderful. In the most materialistic sense, yeah, it's the last game of the season and the winner gets a trophy. Well, that happened in fourth grade too. That happened in eighth grade. I mean, come on. I don't want to diminish the industry that I'm in. It's exciting. It's electric. It's wonderful. It's challenging. It's really hard. But there's something bigger at play.
Still, there are societal and material benefits to winning that last game of the season. And so in the moment, I just feel like it's going to be hard to not feel that pressure.
I agree. There are real changes that happen after winning. It changes people's family legacy in many ways. And the pressure comes from: What if I can't do my job? What if I can't bring it? What about when the consequence isn't losing the Super Bowl, but is something like in the case of the Stratos project: potentially losing one's life?
Really what it comes down to is how you respond to now. And if Felix or other men and women that are performing at high consequence environments aren't able to be where their feet are and adjust eloquently, then there's consequences.
So that's the mission here: figure out how to train your inner world—your mind, so to speak—and organize your inner life so that you can be exactly where your feet are in any environment, in any situation, in any circumstance. If you can do that, the outcomes will take care of themselves.
What is one exercise that people could do today to start working on cultivating that awareness of mind?
I would go to the ancient traditions of mindfulness. I would get to know your mind. Once you become aware of thought one, how it impacts thought two, and how thought one and two take you to thought three—and the emotions that encapsulate that—then you can start to play. But without awareness, it's really hard. Now, mindfulness is not for everybody. So another strategy is to journal or write what it's like to be inside your mind. And so just keep a running log like things you say to yourself that work, and things that you say to yourself that don't work.
Here’s a practical exercise: Imagine a white piece of paper with three columns. The first column would be those thoughts that you're done with, those destructive critical, judgmental thoughts. Write them down and really look at them and make a decision that you're done with them. They don't serve you anymore. With the second column, write down the productive types of thoughts, the thoughts that fire you up. They might not make any sense to anyone else and they might sound really cheesy to somebody else, but they're thoughts that work for you.
For every one productive thought that you have, you need to back it up with three things—and this is the third column. We'll call it the “back it up” column, write down three reasons that give you the right to say that thing. That means you need some real experiences in your life that you're going to anchor to, that give you the right to say that epic thing.
Now, we've got something that’s real. You've externalized it, you've looked at it, you've done some cognitive, intellectual work that is based in and rooted in real history.
Say you keep getting nervous public speaking, could you tailor this exercise to something specific like that?
Good question, because nervousness implies, usually, a body switching on. There's an activation level: there's sweat, there's a tremor, there's a heartbeat. So part of the work is to understand that thoughts and emotions in our body, they work so closely together. Thoughts do impact emotions and our body sensations; body sensations also impact thoughts. If you go way upstream though and you get your thoughts right, you'll have better physiological responses, better emotional responses. So this work is to go upstream to do that.
Let's say that you're continually nervous. It might be as simple as a reframe. "Hold on. my body's switching on. I want it to switch on." It's simple as that. And then if you can put your body on a scale of one to 10, where 10 is, “I just threw up on my mouth I'm so nervous,” and one is like, "I'm way too chill for this thing that I need to go do,” what you're looking for is a four to six type of activation level. Well, if you're aware of your body on that scale, because you're training awareness of your body, and you feel your body switch on to a seven, it's just a little too much juice, this is where self-talk [comes in]. "I'm going to bring her down a little bit. Thank you, body. Appreciate you for firing up. I'm still eating breakfast. My presentation is at 2:00. Let's chill out a little bit." But how do you bring it down? Well, it's a combination of breathing and reminding yourself of the work that you've done.
I heard a psychologist whose name is Lisa Feldman Barrett on a podcast talking about how her young daughter's karate teacher said to the kids before their black belt test, "Get your butterflies flying in formation."
It's really good, isn't it? Now, how do you do that? It's a good thought. Those are good words, and what that's doing is recognizing for that child or an adult is that, "Oh, yeah. Butterflies are normal." So when you feel butterflies and you say, "Oh god, I'm nervous." Well, now you've just made it anxiety. You've made it nervousness. When I feel butterflies I go, “Yeah, let's go. The body is switching on.” Now, I'm in control.
It sounds so simple. We're talking about the invisible though.
That’s the difficult thing in these conversations because I think a lot of people will hear it and just be like, "Well, that's bullshit." I also think a lot of people hear this and they'll be like, "I don't have time for that." But I feel like it’s an ongoing practice, and so if you think I don't have the time for this, that's going to keep you from doing the five to 10 minutes a day that could keep you from having your back against the wall in a situation where you need to get from a seven to a five but you haven't done the work. And that's usually how I respond to people when they're like, "I just don't have time." I'm like, "Yeah, but when you need it, you're not going to have the time to not have done it before."
That's where it pays dividends. I have not met a world-class athlete or coach that doesn't nod their head up and down that the mental part of the game is important. It's critical. The higher you go in the performance domains, the more critical it becomes because everybody's got physical talent. And so those that can handle stress—those that can dissolve pressure by seeing that the championships are just another game, this moment is the only moment I have, I'm going to maximize it whether anyone's watching or not—those individuals train their mind.
And if we pull back and we look at sport over the last, let's say, 60 years. 60 years ago head coaches did everything: nutritionists, psychologists. They were the head coach. And then the avant-garde coaches said, "There's this new discipline coming on board called strengthening and conditioning. Maybe we can be bigger and faster, stronger in the fourth quarters." So we brought them on. You know what? It worked. There was this outsourcing of intelligence around how to train the body.
And then came athletic training, to repair these bigger, faster stronger bodies at a faster clip for a competitive advantage. Then nutrition came on the scene. So now we've got head coaches that are bringing on strength coaches, certified athletic trainers and nutritionists. Well, where else are we going to go?
That's what's happened now. The avant-garde coaches are saying, "Hey, we got this really exciting discipline that's maturing: sports psychology. Let's start training and having that be part of a competitive advantage." And I think we're just scratching the surface at this point.
How much does confidence have to do with expectation? For instance, in high school, I was a good soccer goalkeeper—until I knew I was a good soccer goalkeeper. Originally, I was carefree and framed it as, "The goal is huge, the ball is small, and I'm fairly small. If I let it in, it's not really my fault. The cards are stacked against me." And then the varsity coach was like, "You're pretty good.” And from that point on I was a headcase. I had plenty of confidence when I didn't know I was good, and the minute I knew I was good, I was like, "Fuck, I got to stay good."
I would hope actually that most people have felt what you're describing. And it's so prevalent, there's a name for it: impostor syndrome. You're calling it expectations. They're overlapping with each other. It's basically the construct that people saw something in me and they're expecting that I can do that all the time. That's a psychological framework that is built on avoiding failure, as opposed to a psychological framework that's built on approaching success. Like, “I'm going to figure this out. Great. It's stacked against me, I'm going to do my best." What a great approach in life like. So how do we do it? We recognize that what we say to ourselves matters. So back to step one, increase in awareness of the narrative that is either constricting you or creating freedom. It's one of those two: constriction or freedom. And the more space we have, the more freedom we have to play, usually the better things go in all facets of life.
And then how much of this is about your identity? The minute I started thinking I am a good goalkeeper, now if I perform poorly, it's not just a poor performance, it's sort of antithetical to the identity I've created. It’s not just that I had a bad game, it's that I am bad.
What we're supposed to do with the ages of 12 to 18 is figure out who we are. It's actually marked by role confusion or identity. And so we're supposed to try: Am I punk? Am I rock’n’roll? Am I R&B? Who am I? You try a bunch of things on. And when you latch on to one thing—”I am an athlete”—at the age of 14 or whatever, it’s because your community talks to you about the thing that you're special at. You'll foreclose on the other identities that you haven't tried out yet,
So when somebody goes on to their stage, and they have foreclosed on all other identities, well, if I don't do my thing well, I don't matter. The fight, flight, freeze, or submit mechanisms fire up. (We don't talk about the freeze and submit often enough, but those are real things that happen.) The brain goes, "Oh, I know what to do. This is survival." So it chokes us down. It tightens us up. It creates a physiological response to run from a saber tooth or the warring tribe. But, really, what we need to do is freaking catch a ball.
When you do the deep work, you're far more than the role that you inhabit, far deeper than the skin and the bones that collect to make your physical body. We're far deeper than our genders and our ethnic make up. There's something really common as a thread amongst all of us. And yes we inhabit and embody bodies that look a certain way, and cultures that reflect values. But when we go deeper into who we are, we are far greater than the thing we do.
Matter of fact, what I'm learning from the best in the world right now— tip of the arrow performers—they are flipping the model of “I need to do more to be more” or “I need to do extraordinary to be extraordinary.” They're saying, "That ain't working. That's not the way it's supposed to work." They're saying, "I need to be more. I need to be more grounded, more present, more authentic, more creative, more me, more connected to my loved ones, my teammates. I need to be first and then let the doing flow from there." And that then really addresses that identity issue. Be you and you are far greater than the thing you do.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Originally Appeared on GQ