BC 138. Chris Villarreal | Fear & Confidence Are NOT Mutually Exclusive

Former Performance Course Athlete turned Army Ranger, Chris Villarreal joins the Peak Performance Podcast for one of the best episodes of the year.


You will discover…

  • The life lessons Chris has learned as an Army Ranger.
  • The importance of visualization and how he utilized it as an athlete and in the military.
  • A fascinating story of a police officer falling back on his training and habits.
  • Why confidence and fear are not mutually exclusive.
  • The power and weight of body language in sports and in the military.
  • And more…



But it’s a journey.  No one starts out as Alexander the Great or General Patton.  You start along that path of leadership, you’re going to make some crazy mistakes and you’re going to screw up a lot, but it’s skill and it’s something that you’ve just got to practice.

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Cain:  Hey, how are you doing?  Brian Cain, your Peak Performance coach, here with the Peak Performance Podcast.  Today our guest is Chris Villarreal.  Chris is a 2005 graduate of Allen High School in Texas, where he was a three-year letterman and middle linebacker while also serving as captain.  Chris then went on to the United States Military Academy, and in his time at West Point he ran three marathons, started a functional fitness movement, all while completing degree work in Civil Engineering.  Villarreal designed, funded, and built the functional fitness area at the school’s gym as part of his senior project.  He was able to raise over $25,000 to purchase gear and fabricate a 12-man pull-up bar at the facility.

Chris also completed the US Army Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape school while at West Point. Villarreal was then commissioned as a second lieutenant in the US Army infantry after graduation in 2009.  He then attended infantry officer school, airborne school, pathfinder school, and earned the Officer Leadership Award while at ranger school.  Chris was stationed in Fort Lewis, Washington, before being deployed to (I hope I’m going to say this right) Kandahar, Afghanistan, as a platoon leader, where he earned a Bronze Star.  After finishing his service in 2014, Chris went on to earn a Master of Science in Petroleum Engineering from Texas A&M while working as a petroleum engineer for Matador Resources in Dallas, Texas.  It’s my honor and privilege to welcome Chris Villarreal to this edition of the Peak Performance Podcast.  Chris, thanks for being with us.

Villarreal:  Thank you for having me.

Cain:  If you would, could you talk about your experience coming up as an athlete at Allen with the Performance Course and kind of the importance of that training and what you’ve kind of learned through the Performance Course that’s helped made you successful as an Army Ranger today.

Villarreal:  Well, I guess I kind of started with Performance Course when I was in 4th or 5th grade and I kind of stuck with it the entire way going through middle school, high school, and even some training right before leaving off for West Point.  The biggest thing that I took out of it – I mean, it’s really the discipline.  I would say the discipline and consistency.  Whereas it’s never pleasant to get up on a summer morning at 7:00 AM to go start getting an hour and a half workout in, but you get in the habit of the consistency and discipline.  Once you start developing that – that’s where I credit my success to, is having that.

I guess I’m a believer in when things start going wrong, you don’t necessarily – it’s not the movies where you turn into a superman and all of a sudden you rise up to the challenge.  I think you fall back to your training.  You fall back to what you know.  In everything that I’ve accomplished you just have to fall back to the discipline and the training.  Performance Course was really what helped kind of set the tone for that, for moving on and everything I did after high school.

Cain:  If you would talk a little bit about kind of after high school, you go to West Point and when you’re there, West Point has one of the best centers for enhanced performance and mindset training in the world.  Very cutting-edge.  Could you talk a little bit about what kind you learned there, about mindset and the Center for Enhanced Performance, and then just the importance of mindset overall.

Villarreal:  Well, I think one thing they talk about and I remember when they were going over it, I was like, “Man, this is the same stuff that Geno was putting out way back in the day with the gold setting.”  I had originally gone right before I started SERE school (which is that Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape school).  That was a completely new experience for me.  I didn’t know really what I was going to get into.  One of the officers that was setting up the program recommended that all the guys going to SERE check out this Center for Enhanced Performance.

While there they do a whole lot of work on goal setting, making sure that you understand your big goals and then build up your action plan with small, intermediate, and immediate goals in between, and then list the steps and how you’re going to get there and see kind of that aspect. Then you get into lots of visualization, lots of really detailed visualization and kind of different techniques that you’re going to go and accomplish and how you can use those to accomplish your goals.  Then also kind of self-control, breath control, relaxation techniques, understanding there may not be a whole lot of time for rest, so you have to figure out when can you kind of get your body to rest and recover, even though it may not be a night’s sleep in bed but when you can take many breaks and trying to get all the recovery that you can.

Cain:  In terms of the visualization and mental imagery, we’ve talked with athletes through the Performance Course about the importance of that the night before a game, the importance of that of taking a playbook that you’re trying to learn, and instead of seeing the X’s and O’s on paper, kind of putting yourself in that.  Taking it from the paper, making it 3D, and seeing yourself out there perform.  Could you talk a little bit about some of the benefits of visualization and mental imagery and kind of how you would do it and how you would use it, because I think a lot of athletes do that – and you probably did it as a high school player but didn’t know that it’s called mental imagery and visualization.

Villarreal:  Yeah.  I know as a football player somehow – I don’t know how I got the book but I got something called like Mental Toughness Training in Sports when I was like a sophomore in high school.  I think it mentioned something about that.  I ended up reading that over the course of basically two nights.  I was like, this is pretty good stuff.  It mentioned a little bit about visualization.  I picked it up and going through high school I was a linebacker.  So really you’d watch the video, then you’d just picture yourself like, okay, this is exactly what I’m going to do when the guard pulls or when I see this step, you just close your eyes and you understand/kind of see exactly what you expect to see in the game.  Then you just get that mental rep.  It sounds cliché and it sounds “Oh, mental reps – okay, whatever, coach,” but it really is like you have to really picture yourself go through it.  Even if you’re going through in your mind in your bedroom and you take those two steps just like you would when the ball is snapped.  That’s just putting another rep in your brain.

Kind of like I said, you don’t really rise up and become Superman.  You fall back to your training. You fall back to what you know when things start going wrong.  When the ball is snapped and you fall back immediately to your training and part of that training is the visualization.  It just kind of makes it more reactive and it makes it more familiar to, I guess the situation.

Cain:  Two things that you’re talking about that we’ll cover with the athletes in the course is, one, you don’t rise to the occasion – you’re going to sink to your training and habits.  Absolutely love that, and to hear that being said by you, hopefully for the athletes listening to this they’re not going “Well, this is something that this guy Brian Cain made up” or “This is something – this is real-deal holyfield.”  You aren’t going to rise to the occasion.  You’re going to sink, whether it’s combat, whether it’s athletics, whether it’s getting on stage and speaking.  You’re going to sink to your levels of training and habits.  Preparation is the separation.

I think the other piece about the mental reps is in football.  Because it’s a contact sport you can’t go out and practice for 5-6 hours a day, so how do you get the reps?  You can watch film but you can take that to the next level using visualization.  It’s one of the things Urban Meyer talks about in his book Above the Line when Ohio State is – if you remember Ohio State when they won the national championship a couple years ago, I think it was Braxton Miller got hurt, J. T. Barrett got hurt, and then the third-string quarterback that won the national championship (the name is escaping me right now off the top of my head), Cardale Jones had been taking mental reps all year.

So Urban Meyer was like, “I was not concerned that he would be prepared because I knew he was prepared because he had taken all the mental reps.”  Not necessarily the physical reps.  Because the #1 and #2 quarterback are going to get the most of that, but 10 yards behind the one or two quarterback, every rep was Cardale Jones going through and doing the footwork and playing the play out in his mind so that when the time came he’d be ready to go.

Villarreal:  Yeah, and I think – I mean one time I saw the kind of sink to your training the first time when we were in Afghanistan.  When fighting does happen, you realize no one is turning into Jason Bourne.  You’re doing exactly what you’ve been training to do, to where the first few seconds of a fight are automatic.  Like you’re doing exactly your reaction to fire.  You’re not even thinking about it.  It’s exactly how you’ve been trained.  You get on the knee.  You engage.  Then once you take a breath you’re like, “Oh man, these first five seconds of the fight just happened and I didn’t even really have to control.”  Everyone kind of knew exactly what to do.

I know a cool story that I read.  It was a book by Lieutenant Colonel Grossman called On Combat, and he talks about kind of the different psychology of combat and then how the military prepares for war and some of the training and then goes through – he was talking about cops.  There was a police department where they would train for if a suspect pulled a gun on you, to train to disarm them, to grab the gun from them and to put it away.  Well, the way they would train would be hit – like two officers, buddies, they’d have their rubber guns.  One guy would pull the gun and then the officer would disarm them, and then you would hand the gun back and practice again.

Well, there was an officer that it actually happened in real life.  The suspect pulled a gun on him. He grabs the gun, disarms him, perfect.  Perfect.  What does he do?  He falls back to exactly his training and hands the gun right back over to the suspect.  They’re like, what did you just do?  You disarmed the suspect.  It’s like, well yeah, he did exactly what his training had taught him to do, which was disarm the suspect and then, just like he practiced, he handed the gun back to him.

Cain:  That’s unbelievable.

Villarreal:  So yeah, that was one story where I was like, it’s perfect practice.  You can’t just go out there and think I’m just going to get the effort in there and I’m just going to put in all this time.  It’s like unless you’re doing it exactly how you need to do it in the game, you fall back to what you know.

Cain:  Well, as we talk about all the time, it’s game-like practice, game-like reps.  People think sometimes, “Oh, I went out and practiced for three hours today.”  Well, maybe you could have had a more quality training if you only did an hour and a half and it was game-like.  It’s not the time you put in; it’s what you put into that time.

If you would, Chris, let’s talk a little bit about the role of confidence, whether it was confidence as an athlete or confidence in combat, and is confidence important?  Where does it come from?

Villarreal:  I think confidence is definitely just – it’s I guess directly related to the amount of preparation that you’ve done.  So you fall back to – confidence is just – or I guess you can say you can be confident but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be afraid.  I think some people think, “Well, I’m really nervous, I’m a little bit afraid, but that means I’m not confident.”  Well, I kind of think you can still be both.  I think where people (the great ones) succeed is where you can recognize the fear and you can still say, “Okay, I acknowledge it – the fear is there, I am afraid, but I’m still confident, I’ve still done the work, I know I’m ready for this, I can still get the job done” and you go out there and you do it.  Especially if as a leader you acknowledge like, “Yeah, I’m nervous and I’m afraid but it’s my job.  I have to be the calm voice of the situation and I have to demonstrate to my team that we’re ready for this.  We’ve done everything that we need to do and we’re able to go win this.”

I think the confidence, like I said, it’s all about preparation.  The more you prepare the more confident you can be, but don’t think that just because there is fear doesn’t mean that you can’t be confident either.

Cain:  Chris, I’m going to tell you right now that’s probably the most profound thing I’ve heard anyone say in the 100 or so podcasts that I’ve done, is that confidence and fear are not mutually exclusive.  They can be the same.  Whether it was Georges St. Pierre, a UFC fighter who would go to the cage with confidence but with a healthy dose of fear, and people in the UFC and Mixed Martial Arts would be saying, “Well, you’ve got to be fearless.”  Fearless I don’t think exists.

Villarreal:  No.

Cain:  I think it’s – even like myself, I just did my first IRONMAN, and literally lining up at the starting line I’m going, “Okay, I don’t know if I’m going to finish this.  I’m probably 60% sure I’m not going to finish this but I’ve done everything that my coach asked me to do for the last 20 weeks in training, so at the same time I’m confident that I can finish this.”  It was bizarre.  Then you get into it and you’re like, yeah, I’m gaining confidence as I do this because I’m like, okay I don’t know – it was like your first deployment, your first IRONMAN.  I don’t know.  I’ve never done this before.  But I know my training was on and I did it, but I don’t know if it’s going to lead to results because I’ve never done it before.  Was it the same way with your first deployment?

Villarreal:  Yeah.  Well, I think you go out there and it’s completely foreign to you.  It’s a high-stakes game.  But you know that you’ve done the best training in the world.  You have the best equipment in the world.  You have every resource available to you so you just know.  Like the first time you go out you’re like, “Oh my god, this is for real.”  But you just know that you’ve done the work.  You’ve got to take a deep breath.  It’s almost fake it till you make it.

I guess as the officer, I was on my first deployment and you’ve got to stand up in front of your guys and brief the mission and lead from the front.  You really have to work to – you can’t show your nervousness or your fear because then you get your guys nervous and fearful so you have to be kind of – you’ve got to be the competent and calm leader.  So yeah, you just fall back on what you know, I guess.

Cain:  One of the things we talk about in the program is never showing weakness.  You didn’t say those exact words, but it’s what you said in the sense of as the leader or as the captain of your football team or as the coach of your football team, you’re going to be nervous going into a game. But as the leader, when everyone is looking at you, your confidence, your energy, your body language, or your nervous energy is going to transcend into them.  Even though you might be really nervous on the inside, you have to project that confidence and (as you said) fake it till you make it.  You said breathing is an important part of that.  Talk about the importance of breathing to keep you patient in the face of adversity.

Villarreal:  That was the one thing that the Center for Enhanced Performance at West Point they hit on a lot, is breathing, then also just the body language and kind of recognizing how fake it till you make it –  it sounds like a cliché but there is actually (I think) some good wisdom in that, because if you can say “I’m going to project this body language,” it kind of tells your brain “Okay, no – he actually is kind of confident, he actually knows what he’s doing.”  So if you can kind of calm your breathing down, focus,  work on acting like or at least getting your breath under control in kind of a relaxed pattern, it’s kind of telling your body like, “Okay man, calm down, calm down.” Then you can kind of understand what your body language is telling other people.  Then you can kind of make sure that you’re not doing nervous body language.

I think when I was getting ready to deploy, we had an interrogator that kind of gave us a cultural class because a lot of times when you’re there, you’re –  they speak Dari or Pashto and you speak English, so what’s the one common language?  It’s body language.  We all read a book called What Every Body is Saying and it kind of gives a lesson like these are your body language cues, that this is nervous energy or this projects that you’re nervous, this projects that you’re strong.  So as long as you can make sure that even though, say I’m speaking English and the Afghan is speaking Pashto, there is that divide but I can translate or I can say this with my body.  That can be extremely powerful.  Then you can also think if you’re talking to your team or you’re talking to your soldiers, you can be saying one thing but if your body is saying the complete other thing, you can bet that no one is going to be listening to what’s coming out of your mouth.  They’re looking at what you’re saying with your body.

Cain:  Fantastic.  Did you know all of this when you were playing high school football?

Villarreal:  I did not.  No.  A lot of it came from kind of the leadership training through the military. You kind of get a sense for it all and I wish – I think back, I’m like, “Man, if I would have known some of this stuff and if I would have known this when I was a football player, I think I could have made a big difference.”  But it’s a journey.  No one starts out as Alexander the Great or General Patton.  You start along that path of leadership, you’re going to make some crazy mistakes and you’re going to screw up a lot, but it’s skill and it’s something that you’ve just got to practice.  You just have to recognize it and make the mistakes and say, “That probably wasn’t the best technique to use.  I think next time I have a similar situation I’m going to use something else, but I’m going to learn from that and I’m going to take these lessons learned and be a better leader in the future.”

Cain:  Chris, last question for you here is, if you could take – let’s imagine you’ve got all the Performance Course athletes in front of you and they open up their skullcap and you can throw out a seed of success that’s going to germinate and land in every single one of their brains and they’re going to take it and they’re going to use it when they leave your meeting with them.  What would be that one seed of success that you would plant inside of the brain of the high school athlete if you could go back – whether it’s yourself or your experience in high school athletics – what would be that seed that you plant inside of their head?

Villarreal:  Like what seed?

Cain:  There are so many seeds that you’ve already dropped in this podcast but if you had to come back – you might have already said it, but if it would be one so that the high school athlete listening to this goes, “Okay, where do I get started with Chris Villarreal’s podcast that got me all fired up for me to go run through a wall – where do I get started,” where do they start?  What’s the one thing?

Villarreal:  I would say goal setting.  Understand how to do it to where you have your big goals and your small goals, because I think kind of there are a lot of things that will start to materialize and you’ll start to understand once you start putting together a good list of goals.  One of them is: Hey, figure out what’s important to accomplish this goal, figure out what you need to do, and then look at what you’re doing in your life that you probably don’t need to be doing, or what is a hindrance to those goals.

They say in the military when you look at the mission or you look at your new unit, you always ask like, what are we doing right now that we don’t need to be doing?  And what are we not doing that we need to start doing?  So I think you start looking at that when you have your goals.  You start eliminating kind of the extraneous details that are going on in your life that I guess are taking away from accomplishing those, and you won’t get bogged down in the details when you realize – like football.  You block.  You tackle.  There’s just not a whole lot of other things.

I know working out in high school I would get real caught up like, “Oh, maybe if I try these supplements” or like, “Hey, this guy is going to a personal trainer and they’re doing this sexy exercise – maybe that’s it.”  It’s like no, all that stuff is just the details.  It’s the fundamentals, it’s the discipline, and it’s the consistency and it’s just moving the heavy weight around.  It’s doing the right thing and that’s 90% of it.  It’s getting sleep.  It’s doing a good diet.  All that other stuff, it’s not that big of a deal.  So do that.

I guess the other thing would be if I was just talking to Performance Course athletes and high school athletes, the goal setting, but if I could, I’d also want to just be smart.  You can’t play football if you’re dead.  So recognize if you’re on a boat, wear a life jacket.  Wear a seat belt in the car. Don’t mess around with guns.  Look around and if it’s like “This is a kind of crazy situation but I’m 16 and I think I’m invincible,” you’re not.  If you think what would be the consequence if something went wrong here and one of the answers is “I could be dead” or “Someone else could be dead,” then don’t do it.  You can’t play football if you’re dead, so be smart.

Cain:  Chris, one of the best podcasts we’ve ever had.  Absolutely inspiring.  Absolutely fantastic. Thank you for taking the time, the energy, and the effort to help educate athletes and help be a part of the podcast.  Thank you so much.

Villarreal:  It’s my honor.  Thank you.

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