Note: this article is an excerpt from our Resilience Program and contains references to an exercise and audio file contained within.
Whether we realise it or not, we are masters of influencing our state of mind (and therefore the quality of our thoughts). While we might come up with all manner of rationalisations, as any advertiser knows, we are driven by our unconscious desire to move away from things that feel bad and towards things that feel good.
Think about how much time and money we spend as a species on drugs, alcohol, sex, religion/spirituality, entertainment, therapy etc.? Is this the result of critical analysis, or are we reaching for ways to influence our state of mind and make us feel “better” (at least temporarily)?
Whether its sustainable activities like hobbies/exercise, or perhaps less sustainable triggers such as drugs, alcohol (or the age hold adrenalin hit we get from extreme risk), we’ve all developed tools to shift the quality of our thinking. In this audio file we’re giving you a simple tool that can help shift the quality of our thinking while also improving performance across the board.
Better yet, this approach also bolsters resilience and, with continued practice, can improve your performance and enjoyment of most areas of your life - particularly in highly stressful situations.
We’ve adapted the technique from the book Relax & Win, in which acclaimed coach Lloyd "Bud" Winter recounts his remarkable success using this approach to train navy combat pilots during WW2 and Olympic athletes in the post-war period (who between them broke 37 world records).
More than just a tale of sporting prowess, Bud's experience training athletes and combat pilots raises interesting questions around our beliefs about performance under pressure, our relationship with stress, and how relaxation training can provide an edge in almost any pursuit.
Before WW2, Bud and his colleague at San Jose State University (boxing coach DeWitt Portal), attended a course by Dr. Dorothy Yates looking at how the relatively new field of psychology might be applied to boost performance.
Based on this experience, Bud and Portal developed a relaxation program they taught to the university boxing team leading them to win every bout that season, often in spectacular fashion.
The key appeared to be reducing mental and physical tension by practising a form of applied relaxation. In addition to finding this relaxation program gratifying in its own right, even novice students began showing what Bud called the "confidence of champions". This calm confidence also came with less fatigue, a greater receptiveness to instruction and quicker reaction times which was believed to be an innate skill that couldn't be improved.
As Bud was preparing to implement this program in his university athletics department, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Bud suddenly found himself a Naval officer tasked with improving the performance of combat pilots at the pre-flight school in California.
The cadets in his care were already the cream of the crop, however they still found themselves overwhelmed by the task at hand. Many understandably struggled with the enormous pressures of the job and the exhausting training regime necessary to prepare them for an even more grueling deployment.
Bud was tasked with addressing the following;
To speed up training and learning.
To teach combat aviators to fall asleep under any conditions (sleep deprivation was a deadly issue in both training and war)
To alleviate or postpone fatigue.
To speed up reaction time.
To improve concentration
To reduce the severe tension and pressure of war.
To learn physical skills quickly.
To maximize the coordination between muscles.
To get aviators in top physical condition so that they could fly frequent missions, survive in the wilderness or hostile territory and fight for their lives.
To be proficient in hand-to-hand combat.
In other words; resilience.
Their research suggested that the greatest enemy to peak performance in all sports or highly specialized skills (such as flying a plane) was too much tension. They believed the most common causes of "choking" - or in the case of flying "freezing to the flight stick" - were fear, anger, a lack of confidence, inexperience or trying too hard (or in our language; below the line or insecure). Not only did the resulting tension decrease physical performance, but it also inhibited clear thinking – a deadly handicap in battle.
In collaboration with the base psychologist, they devised a six-week relaxation program to be taught to half of the 200 cadets. The other half would act as the control with all other variables such as their training regime, meals, schedule, etc. remaining the same.
Within three weeks, they began to see results and by the end of the six weeks the differences were clear.
Somewhat counterintuitively, they found that relaxation training produced the most significant improvements in activities or situations where the pressure was the greatest. Concentration, obstacle course times, swimming, football, boxing and general reaction time all showed significant improvements over the control group. For some cadets the improvement in performance represented a complete metamorphosis - going from the bottom of the class to the top.
They also discovered that "learning to relax can be an important factor in how you feel, think and perform in all areas of our life". The trainers also experienced this boost; not only did their abilities improve but also their home lives - their wives would joke that they arrived home so much less fatigued that they must be sleeping on the job!
The same was true when it came to the cadet's academic performance. Without access to modern radar technology, a key requirement was being able to quickly and correctly identify if an aircraft was friend or foe. To test this ability, cadets were required to identify an aircraft that was flashed on a screen for 1/50th of a second, which most struggled to do at all. By teaching the cadets to relax their eye muscles, students greatly improved. Interestingly, when the trainers held a surprise test for all 200 cadets conducted while the WW1 documentary "Desert Victory" was played in reverse as loudly as possible, none of the control group was able to finish the test, with most throwing their pens down and saying the hell with it. Every cadet in the relaxation group finished the test.
One of the most critical issues the cadets faced was getting enough quality rest, an issue that would only worsen once deployed. To establish a baseline, the officers observed the cadets sleeping patterns and were horrified with what they found; the typical cadet was sleepless for 150 minutes through the night. Most of them also exhibiting strange behaviours like sitting up at regular intervals and sleep talking or climbing around the room believing they were on the obstacle course, none of which they remembered come morning.
As part of the relaxation training, they taught the cadets a technique to fall asleep in 2 mins sitting upright in broad daylight, eventually doing so with simulated cannon fire in the same room. After the six-week program, they conducted another sleep audit. The relaxation group was shown to have reduced their average body movements from 153 per night to 39, body turnovers from 48 to 13 and were sleepless less than 30 mins per night (compared to baseline of 150 mins).
According to Bud Winter, due to the overwhelming success of the program, this information and the techniques involved remained classified until he published "Relax & Win" in 1981. By this stage he'd had an exceptionally successful post-war career as a track and field coach. By using this relaxation method athletes he coached broke 37 world records.
His takeaways from teaching this relaxation method for 30+ years were;
With proper direction, anyone can learn to relax
You can't just tell yourself to relax - it is a skill you must practice and work at making a habit
Relaxation did indeed solve many of the "too tense" problems of combat flight
Relaxation applied to sports proved extraordinarily successful
Many of the traditional coaching methods were shown to be counterproductive
Champions let nothing bother them (they don't let external variables affect their mindset)
Fatigue is mainly in the mind
In performing a physical skill – trying too hard or putting out 100% effort will penalize performance
The best attitude going into a tense situation seems to be calm confidence (absence of insecurity)
During the war, a thorough, objective testing program proved beyond doubt that relaxation could help virtually everyone
Interestingly, in addition to improved performance Bud describes the relaxed state as providing a sense of improved wellbeing; "if you have achieved even a fraction of relaxation, a warm, pleasant feeling will come over you. You have a very comfortable feeling of well-being. This is the relaxed state; it feels great. We want you to capture this feeling and make a habit out of it."
Since the book was released there’s been major breakthroughs in our understanding of this peak performance mindset (flow states) and how it underpins our happiness, performance and overall wellbeing.
As Bud describes it; "when you are relaxed to this degree you will achieve an almost subliminal state of mind somewhat below full consciousness with which you can do many things much better. You can learn faster, concentrate better, and what you learn in this state you will retain much longer".