Learn from one of the leading professionals in all of peak performance and sport psychology as well as #1 Best-Selling Author, Dr. Chris Friesen, in this podcast. He is the author of The High Achievement Handbook Series and gives you great insight into the mind and how to control it.
You will learn about…
- Dr. Friesen’s unique, guided, brain training and meditation technique
- Dr. Friesen’s advanced knowledge on sports psychology and how to maximize your mental potential
- “The Funeral Exercise” to help you establish core values
- The incredible story of boxer Danny Williams overcoming a dislocated shoulder mid-fight
- Dr. Friesen even explains why having some self-doubt is actually a good thing
Friesen: Most of us mere mortals like you and I and most people would say, “look at this pain – how am I going to win a boxing match with one arm?” It’s impossible. It’s basically impossible. And he just kept pushing forward and pushing forward. Like I said in the book, Stallone couldn’t have written a better ending. Danny Williams basically wins.
Cain: Hey, this is Brian Cain with the Peak Performance Podcast. Today our guest is one of the leading professionals in all of peak performance and sports psychology and he is a number one best-selling author. Dr. Chris Friesen is a licensed psychologist in Ontario, Canada, practicing in the areas of clinical psychology, clinical neuropsychology, forensic correctional psychology, and high-achievement sports psychology and performance psychology.
Dr. Friesen has training and experience that crosses a broad spectrum of psychological difficulties, including working with individuals who have anxiety or performance anxiety, depression, personality disorders, brain injuries often occurring from sports concussion, to severe traumatic brain injuries happening in military or in combat scenarios, and those involved with the criminal justice system – offenders of all types. Primarily, though, Dr. Friesen – and the reason why I’m so intrigued and honored to have him as a guest on the show this week is that he focuses on helping athletes and other individuals who are performing at the highest levels continuously improve and achieve and smash their goals.
As we said earlier, he is the number one best-selling author of The High Achievement Handbook series and in this podcast we’re going to focus on book one of the series. It’s called ACHIEVE: Find Out Who You Are, What You Really Want, and How to Make It Happen.
Dr. Chris Friesen, thanks for being on the Peak Performance Podcast.
Friesen: Brian, thanks for having me. I’m super pumped to be here.
Cain: Your background, I think, is tremendous in that it has a lot of the hardcore psychological science but you also have the application and are doing it in the real world. I think often what you find is you get people who are doing it that are unlicensed and don’t have a background in training or they have all the clinical background and psychological training but they just can’t seem to make the human connection with the high achiever because they haven’t been, as I would refer to you as, a “blue-collar psychologist.” You mentioned that term earlier when we were off the air and I thought that was fantastic.
Could you talk a little bit about kind of your unique background and experience both from the training and the academic side, but then also with how you go about applying it and what the – sometimes I think there is that gap between the science and the application. Could you talk a little bit about your experience in both and kind of closing that gap?
Friesen: Definitely. Like you said, I’m a licensed psychologist with various areas of expertise. I’ve always been really fascinated by high achievement and success since I was a teenager and I played hockey as a goalie actually. I went into my training and psychology in Canada. In the clinical psychology graduate programs there is no specific sports psychology training so all that training was sort of done after the fact.
One of the issues I’ve always had was there is some really amazing research coming out from cognitive neuroscience, sports psychology, just general personality psychology, that often doesn’t get percolated down to the everyday person or even high-achieving athletes or other high achievers.
I’ve always been the type of guy that applies all the stuff I learned to myself. I’m a big self- experimenter. I can tell you lots of things. I’ve tried various supplements. I’ve tried various meditation techniques. Almost everything I talk about – like in the book, for example – I’ve done it on myself and I’ve used it with athletes and other high achievers.
So I really felt that one of the things I noticed with a lot of self-help books is either they are written by academics, Ph.D. like myself (although I am not a researcher per se anymore), and it’s full of studies with very little application or, like you said, it’s written by someone like a peak performance sort of self-help book with someone who has zero experience or credentials in that area.
So I realized that maybe this is useful to a lot of people so I really wrote the book in a way that is ultra user-friendly. It takes sort of complicated scientific ideas or research findings and puts them into very easy-to-learn and -apply strategies. So that is sort of where I see myself as the type of psychologist that really tries to bring this information to people to help them really achieve the goals that are really important to them.
Cain: I love how you mentioned taking everything you had used with an athlete or with someone who you’re working with and doing it on yourself – something that I also try. Any technique or any strategy that I’m going to share with the team or with an athlete – why wouldn’t I use that myself if it’s something that I think is going to help them to achieve at a higher level? So I really think that that is a lot of the missing link. It’s like going to a fat doctor or to a poor financial planner. It just often doesn’t add up. You’ve got to be doing that stuff yourself.
You sound kind of like Tim Ferriss, the author of The 4-Hour Workweek and The 4-Hour Body who is kind of that human science experiment. One of the things that you mentioned that I want to kind of dovetail off into was meditation techniques. It’s something that I talk often with athletes about and I think that athletes and coaches have the stigma that you have to shave your head, put on an orange robe, burn some incense, cross your legs, and hike to the top of the Himalayas if you’re going to do meditation. What is your experience with meditation and what is the best practice that you’ve found?
Friesen: That is a great question. The way I describe meditation is it’s just a form of brain training. Especially with my neuroscience and neuropsychology background I often try and connect the two. I look at the research in those areas. So for example, the way I describe it to people – and this is how I describe it to myself when I use it on myself, this is the strategy I use. For example, what you’re doing is you’re brain training. You’re training the ability to stay focused. You’re training your brain’s ability to not get caught up or hooked by negative thoughts.
The way I say it is there’s three reps. Basically you sit down and you focus on your breathing. You don’t control your breathing. The first step is just to focus on your breathing. The next rep is basically to be aware of or notice when your mind is no longer focused on your breathing, which is inevitable. It happens to everyone. The goal is not to have a perfectly Zen mind where your thoughts never stray. It’s basically never going to happen. It’s an impossible goal. The idea is you notice when your thoughts wander away from your breathing. Acknowledge what your thoughts are doing.
So you say, for example, “I’m having the thought that this is boring” or “I’m having the feeling of anxiety because I have to go buy milk” or something like that and you basically describe what’s happening, what your mind is doing. What that does is it trains you to defuse or not get hooked by your thoughts. We are not our thoughts – especially our negative thoughts. We want to be able to pick and choose which thoughts we allow to take hold of us.
So you basically acknowledge what is going on because if you don’t acknowledge it, if you just try to squash it, research shows – and I tie this back to obsessive compulsive order and PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder. One of the hallmarks of those disorders is you have thoughts or flashbacks that are very disturbing that you don’t want to have, and the natural reaction is to squash those thoughts or pretend you’re not having them and do everything in your power to avoid having them. But the problem is we know the way the brain works. As soon as you try to squash a thought, it continually comes back. It will continually pop back into your mind. So you want to acknowledge it, allow the thoughts to be there, then the next rep is to turn your attention back to your breathing.
Basically it is hardcore brain training. It is not a relaxation technique. I tell people relaxation may be a side effect but that’s not the point. We’re training our brains to be able to basically increase our ability to stay focused and also to not get hooked by negative thoughts. It does a whole bunch of other things; it improves executive functioning and that kind of thing, but that’s really the way I describe it to people. It’s again not relaxation, it’s not religious; it’s basically a form of brain training that takes zero dollars and zero equipment. So that is my take on it.
Cain: Would it be possible time-wise for you to take us through a very short version of meditation so that our listeners would know exactly “hey, this is an example of a meditation that I learned from Dr. Chris Friesen that I want to share with my team”? Maybe like a 2-3 minute exercise they might be able to take and use?
Friesen: Yeah, I can sort of give you a quick walk-through.
Friesen: You want me to do it right now?
Cain: That would be fantastic. If anyone is listening to this podcast while they are driving, skip this section or pull yourself over so that you make sure you’re doing it safely.
Friesen: The way I do it is I’m actually usually generally against using any tapes for meditation because it’s like a cheat in a way. It’s helping you focus. The idea is when you are basically in a quiet environment – just imagine when you lie down and go to sleep and you’re not tired and you realize how much your mind is racing and thinking of random thoughts. That’s actually where you want to be. You don’t want to fall asleep so you don’t want to lie down. You don’t want a tape telling you to do something, but of course the first time to learn the strategy you do, or you want to hear me talking now.
So what you do is you sit down. You don’t slouch back, you don’t slouch forward. You sit in an erect position, not so much that it’s painful but enough that it’s not going to make you fall asleep. Remember this is not a relaxation exercise – it’s a brain training exercise.
The first thing you do now is you basically focus your attention on your breathing. Notice, for example, how the air is a bit cooler when it goes in through your nose and warmer when it comes out. You’re not controlling your breathing, you are simply focusing on your breathing.
Inevitably your mind is going to wander. You’re going to have a thought about something. You’re going to judge yourself. You’re going to think of something in the future. You may worry about something. Even if you have a positive thought, in this exercise you want to what we call “diffuse” from those thoughts. What that really means is notice when your thoughts have wandered and describe what is happening. Say “I’m having the thought that X or Y” or “having the feeling that X or Y.” That is going to put some space between you and your thoughts, and you want to train this because you do not want to be your thoughts, especially your negative thoughts.
So once your thoughts wander, describe what is happening really briefly. Allow them to be there. Don’t get upset. Having thoughts is what your brain does. It’s programmed to generate thoughts when there is nothing going on. You’re going to notice them, acknowledge them, and very gently return your attention back to your breathing. You’re just going to do this again and again. You’re not going to go very long before your thoughts wander and that is actually good.
The trick is to notice when your thoughts wander, acknowledge them, and return your attention back. That is all you’re trying to do. That is the only goal. A lot of people come to me and say, “look, it was so bad – the meditation, my thoughts were all over the place.” I say, “listen, that’s actually good.” It’s like working out with a weight pack. The more your thoughts are wandering the better. You’re getting a better brain workout.
That is basically it in a nutshell. It’s really a series of steps and just knowing what you’re doing. You may feel relaxed at the end. You may not. That’s not the goal. There are a lot of other ways you could relax. Take a hot bath. This is not training to relax.
The side effect, though, from this type of training is that you are going to be more relaxed generally. Not because of a physiological response or training, but because you’re no longer getting hooked by negative thoughts or feelings and you’re basically able to stay focused in the present moment, which is the key to the zone when it comes to playing sports (for example).
So this is the other thing I tell everyone. By doing this you are training your ability to stay in the present moment, which is where you want to be to perform at your peak. When you are in the present moment, that is when you are in the zone and it’s going to make it more likely you’re going to get in the zone and you can control now whether you go into the zone better than you did before.
Cain: That is one of the most simple and clear definitions I think I’ve ever heard someone say about meditation, is that step one is you’re focusing on your breathing – in through your nose, out through your nose. Step two, acknowledge when your mind drifts to anything other than your breath. Step three, bring it back to your breathing. It’s not a relaxation exercise. I’ve never heard it said this way. It’s not a relaxation exercise – it’s an exercise in developing a present-moment focus and the result of that will be a feeling of relaxation, which is much more close to that flow state or to the zone where you’re in the present moment and you’re where your feet are and that is when you perform your best. That was fantastic.
Chris, if we can jump into your book here. One of the things with your subtitle is it says Find Out Who You Are, What You Really Want, and How to Make It Happen. Let’s get right into it.
What are some strategies that you use? I love how you talk about strategy because I think you often get two types of people who come from two types of the spectrum in the world of peak performance. You get those who talk about principle and just concepts like “be positive” – well, no shit. Okay, well, how do you do that? Focus on what you can control. No shit. The sun rises. Great. Well, how do I actually get back to that when the bullets start flying?
I think it’s important that people know themselves but I love that you’re going to share with us some strategies that people can use about how to better get to know themselves. What are some of the ways that – if you would, first, why is it important that people know themselves? Secondly, how is it that people listening to this podcast can better get to know themselves? What is something they can go and do?
Friesen: Great question. Throughout my career I’ve seen a lot of people who have gone very far – including in athletics and just in their lives. Basically barking up the wrong tree is maybe not the right word but you’re basically focusing on the wrong things for them. This often leads to a lot of psychological problems – some subtle, some clinical level – a lot of anxiety, depression, and dissatisfaction in today’s society. I think a lot of the over-prescription of antidepressants is partially due to the fact that people are not living a life congruent with who they are and what is really important to them.
What I mean by that is at the most basic level we all differ on five general personality dimensions. I call them “the basic personality tendencies.” This has been replicated in scientific research across it’s probably been 70 years now. It hasn’t really percolated well into the general public’s awareness. I can go over them but they’re basically five global dimensions.
We all differ. It’s our personality so we all differ on these. They are partially genetic, about 50%. So 50% percent is due to genes. We have twin studies where twins have been separated at birth and reared in different countries and different parts of countries and that sort of thing and this is how we figured these stats out. The other half of our personality is determined by our experiences, particularly experiences earlier on in life. I don’t mean in the first two years of life; I mean in the first 20 years of life because our brains are much more malleable – something called neuroplasticity is big – and our brains are still forming and molding. When we get older, it’s much more difficult to change that.
So long story short, the first dimension – I call it in my book “the susceptibility to negative emotions and stress.” It’s simply like it sounds. Basically some of us are very easily stressed, easily get nervous, they have a lot of pessimistic thoughts. Some of us are more in the middle, and some of us are more the opposite where we don’t experience a lot of stress. This is very important to know about yourself because, especially the people trying to achieve big goals, if you’re average to high on this (in other words, you do experience a lot of negative emotions and thoughts), you are at risk for failure unless you train yourself and do a number of strategies to make sure you can keep that in check.
Also, all these things are strengths as well. People who are artists, people who are high performers, sports as well, are often high on this but they capitalize on this. I’m sure you’ve talked a lot about this. One simple example is reinterpreting your physiological response to – let’s say right before a big event – like anxiety as “I’m pumped, I’m amped, I’m ready, let’s rock” as opposed to “oh shit, I’m scared, my legs are feeling wobbly, this means I’m going to totally choke.” So that is just a quick example.
The next one is extroversion versus introversion. We all know about that. People who are extroverted obviously like to be around people. This has more to do, though, with our brain’s ability to handle external stimulation. Extroverts – a very simplified way of looking at this (and there are some EEG studies that confirm this) is basically their brains are revving a little bit too low so they need to get a lot of external stimulation whether it’s social, whether it’s being in a high-paced, fast and exciting environment, to feel normal. Versus people who are introverted – their brains are kind of revving too fast and too much external stimulation puts them into overload and they start to feel overwhelmed and they can burn out easily. This is extremely important in terms of knowing what you can handle in your sports career or in your career in general. You have to match your job to your personality or you have to work around it.
Another one is called agreeableness. This is really our attitudes towards others. People who are really agreeable tend to be really honest, straightforward, very trusting, not very interpersonally competitive. People who are low on this (what we call slightly disagreeable) – they’re more skeptical, they’re less open with others, they are more interpersonally competitive. It’s extremely important to know this about yourself.
The fourth one is openness to experience. This is big when you’re working with athletes to know where they stand on this. People who are really open to experiences are just open to different ways of looking at things. They’re interested in and open to people from different cultures, different values, different ideas. People who are low on this are obviously the opposite. They’re really closed to those things. If you’re working with someone who – let’s say you, Brian. You’re working with someone who is an athlete and you have a new technique (let’s say it’s a new meditation technique) and the person is really closed to the experience. You probably want to emphasize it being more as a traditional thing – they’ve been using this for years and years and all the big guys are using this. Whereas someone who is really open to experiences will be open to trying almost anything (they’ll use magnets) because they’re so open to different things and that sort of thing. That is really important to know.
The last one – literature calls it “conscientiousness.” I call it “motivation and self-control” because I think that describes it better. It’s exactly how it sounds. People who are high on this are highly motivated, highly organized, highly achievement oriented. People who are low on this are the opposite. People who are high on this have a gigantic advantage when it comes to success. People who are low have a big disadvantage in multiple areas of life (and research supports this) whether it’s income, whether it’s health outcomes, whatever it may be.
So long story short, the very first step in knowing yourself is knowing your core basic personality. These have neurological correlates in our brains so these are very difficult to change. For the most part people need to accept their personality and work with what they’ve got.
Of course, next we need to know what is important to us. I call it “knowing your values.” Living a life incongruent with your values and also your personality is a recipe for disaster. You need to know what is really important to you. In the book I go through different exercises to help you really get in touch with your values because, like I said, you have to live a life congruent with your values, with what is important to you, or you’re going to be basically constantly going against your own grain.
Knowing your strengths, knowing your interests, knowing your passions is extremely important. Only if you get all this information then can you really figure out what your mission – I say “missions” because I don’t think everyone has one single mission but you have multiple purposes or missions in life and only by knowing yourself really well can you get to know that part.
In the last two sections of the book is really about now you’re ready to set goals. It’s all these earlier steps to know yourself before you should be really setting goals. Most people and a lot of books go right into goal setting but without the groundwork – because what will happen is you may be focusing on goals for years (for example) that aren’t really right for you. That is a huge mistake.
Cain: That is fantastic in terms of talking about knowing your basic personality tendencies, knowing your core values, knowing your strengths, and then kind of getting clear on your why. Let’s talk about that concept of identifying your values.
For the person that is listening to this – which I believe most of our listeners are going to be listening to this as they’re driving in their car – is there a way that you can ask them the certain couple questions or an exercise that they can do to kind of come up with what their core values are, or is it ultimately just them kind of sitting down? I think often people think that they need to go get away from life for three weeks and climb a mountain, go to a lakeside retreat, and all of a sudden what their core values are and their mission in life is going to hit them. Whereas I’m much more of the school of thought in like you decide on what your core values are, you decide on what your mission is. Or your missions. I love the way you said that is, that people have more than one mission in life. I think that’s genius. You decide on what they [your core values] are and then kind of evolve over time. What is your take on how you go about creating a set of core values and identifying with what your mission is?
Friesen: That is great. One of the differences between personality and values is that personality – you don’t choose your personality but you choose your values. Often we’re not even aware of where our values came from.
What I usually do (one of the best exercises is really existential) is do what I call a “funeral exercise.” I didn’t invent this. The one I put in the book is more specific to what I think are the best strategies within that exercise. It’s simply this: You imagine your funeral. You imagine (for example) it’s five years from today (or whatever time frame you really want) and you imagine your funeral and you imagine the different people that are really important to you in your life getting up there and talking about you. You want to think of what you want them to say about you, not necessarily what you think they would say about you. Hopefully that makes sense.
Ideally, what would you like people to say about you? Would they say, “this guy was a total jerk – he was just focused on himself,” that kind of thing? No. You’re going to have thoughts of “this guy really went out of his way to help people and his family was super important, he was also about excellence, he was always trying to be as best as he could be so he could help others be their best.” You want to think ideally what do you want people to say about you.
Of course, when you do this, you want to start the exercise really using all your sense for imagery to imagine yourself being at the funeral, looking at the people, looking at the people crying. It can be an emotional situation. You want to really put yourself in that position in your mind. You want to really pretend it’s happening. You should write this out or at least say it out loud or say it in your head. What do you want an important coach or an important teammate or your wife or your children – what do you want them to say about you? What do you want them to say? That will tell you what your values are. Are they going to say, “this guy worked so hard he got sick, he spent so much time at the office, he didn’t give a shit about the family”? Is that what you want people to think? Is that what you really want? You’ll get in touch with what is really important to you.
Also, there is another exercise to where in the book it’s simply a list of values. Readers can download that as well. It just goes through a bunch of values and you basically read through them and you kind of rank order the top 5-10 that are really important to you. You’ve got to make sure that – and this is the biggest key to success in my opinion. The most successful people don’t make their day-to-day minute-to-minute decisions about what to do with their time or what to buy, who to spend time with; they don’t make it based on their immediate moods, their urges, their energy levels, that sort of thing. They make these decisions based on their values and what is really important to them.
If you just take one thing away from this podcast, it’s that you want to make your day-to-day decisions based on what is important to you. A simple example is personally I wake up at 6:00 AM to get up and work out before my four-year-old is up. When that alarm goes off, my immediate moods, energy levels, and everything is telling me “press snooze and just sleep in” but my values – one of my values is to be really healthy and also to have longevity. I want to be there when my daughter gets married. I want to be there when she has kids. And being healthy makes me feel good. It builds my self-efficacy, my self-esteem, it maintains it. So regardless of how I feel, I make the decision based on my values and my bigger goals, not based on how I feel in the moment. That is just a quick example.
Cain: I love that exercise. I remember that is one of the first things when I went to graduate school at Cal State Fullerton Dr. Ken Ravizza had us do. It comes right out of his book Heads-Up Baseball where he talks about imagine you’re in a banquet, you’re retiring from your career as a coach – what do you want all the people who are at that banquet to say about you? That kind of helps to formulate your vision statement or your core values in terms of who you are.
One of the things that you said that I love is that the most successful people don’t make minute-to-minute decisions based on moods. They make them based on their values. I know you’re a big MMA fan (as am I). One of my friends, Vitor Belfort, who is a former UFC World Champion, says that the difference between a man and a boy is that a man lives a life based off of principle and a boy lives a life based off of preference. I thought that was very similar to what you are saying.
Cain: The person who makes minute-to-minute decisions based off of preference, of what feels good in the moment, “what do I want right now,” instead of the person who makes the principle-based decision that says “okay, what do I do right now that aligns with my values and the best vision of who I want to be?” I think that’s what makes a champion and that’s what makes a man. I love how you said that.
Friesen: Yes. He said it very eloquently. That is exactly right. This is what champions know. This is what successful people [know]. It doesn’t mean how much money you make. People who are living the right life for them, they’re satisfied with their life, this is what they know.
Also, this is another thing that comes up (especially in today’s day and age) is that people think that they want to take the easy route. They want to be happy all the time because media feeds this idea that ideally you’re going through life always being happy and doing everything that is pleasurable. The reality is, anything that is important or anything that’s big, any goals, it’s going to take pain. I think it’s the Buddha or the Dalai Lama that said this: “There is a difference between pain and suffering. Pain is inevitable.” We go through pain. When you’re trying to do things that are important, you’re going to feel pain; but whether you suffer really depends on whether you’re going through pain to achieve something that is really important to you and that is part of your mission, part of your values, or whether you’re going against that. To achieve anything big there is a lot of pain.
Speaking of UFC, you see these training videos and it’s not like they’re just sitting around getting massages and drinking beers. You see these guys sweating their butts off going through ten times more intense training than they actually go through in the octagon. They go through hell on earth. They fight like 20 fresh guys in a row as opposed to one guy for 15-25 minutes. It’s because you’ve got to go through this pain and you’re not going to be a champion unless you go through this pain and you accept the pain and you say, “look, this pain is actually good because it’s bringing me closer to something that is really important to me, it’s part of my values, it’s part of my goal.” It’s no longer really suffering. It is painful but it’s not suffering. I think that’s huge.
Cain: Let’s talk about riding the pain train for a minute here. One of your first stories in chapter one about taking stock of who you are you shared a story I had never heard before about Britain’s Danny Williams, one of their boxers of all time. As I read that story – I mean I’ve underlined it. I’ve shared that story multiple times since reading that. I thought it was one of the best stories I have ever come across. Could you talk a little bit about that story of Danny Williams and the toughness that he had to have with that but understanding how the pain is inevitable and if he was going after what he really wanted he would be able to deal with the suffering.
Friesen: That’s right. Danny Williams is an amazing story. He was boxing a guy named Mark Potter. Mark Potter is actually in MMA now, I believe, and he is a monster. So Danny Williams is in a boxing match with Mark Potter and Danny Williams’ arm (I believe it’s his right shoulder) basically pops out of the socket. It gets dislocated. Essentially everyone watching (the announcers, everyone) is saying, “this is over, why isn’t the ref stopping the fight, this is ridiculous.” It keeps popping in and out.
But Danny Williams basically had an overarching goal. Most of us mere mortals like you and I and most people would say “look at this pain – how am I going to win a boxing match with one arm?” It’s impossible. It’s basically impossible. A lot of times when you’re drilling you don’t really feel the pain, but of course between rounds – and it wasn’t just like a two-minute thing. It was going on for a long time within the match. This guy obviously had pain and he just kept pushing forward and kept pushing forward.
Like I said in the book, Stallone couldn’t have written a better ending. Danny Williams basically wins. He ends up knocking Mark Potter down repeatedly just because he wouldn’t give up. Even Mark Potter is punching his shoulder – listeners, you’ve got to YouTube this. It’s real. You can watch it. It’s totally real. It’s about heart. It’s about knowing what is important.
They say, “Is Danny Williams crazy? Who would do this?” He is not crazy. He is a guy who had an overarching mission, a purpose, a goal, and he had certain values and he was going to push through no matter what. In the circumstance it paid off. It’s really inspiring. You see guys like that and you’re thinking “I want to give up because of X Y or Z” and look at this guy. He was boxing at the top level and his arm was out of the socket (his shoulder came out of the socket) and he still won. It’s unreal.
Cain: I’ve used that story multiple times with college football teams already this season, just talking about that it’s not what you’re going through, it’s what you’re going to. You’re going to quit if what you’re going to isn’t big enough for you to withstand anything that you’re going to have to go through to get there. I think that video of Danny Williams – you see it where Potter is just attacking. He’s not even trying to hit him in the head; he’s just attacking his right shoulder. Eventually in the last round it looks like something right out of Rocky. The guy can barely move his arm and he ends up knocking out this guy who had been wearing him out for the entire fight. It was unbelievable watching that video. I had no idea that that story even existed.
I remembered him beating Mike Tyson at one point in his career but never knew about that fight with Potter that I think is probably one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen when it comes down to just toughness and sheer will and not being somebody who is going to quit.
I was doing my homework earlier on the treadmill this morning on a boat somewhere out here in the middle of the Caribbean listening to one of your podcasts. You talked about something that I hear a lot of people in the field of sports psychology or peak performance or positive psychology or whatever the hell you want to call it. They will say that “you’ve got to have great belief before you go into a competition.” In your podcast (the episode I listened to earlier) you talked about how that is not necessarily true.
I’ve worked with a lot of high-level MMA fighters – Georges St. Pierre from Canada – and one of the things that GSP used to say a lot about was that he didn’t even really talk about belief. For him it was about preparation and when he stepped into the octagon it was 50/50. There was one guy and him, and one was going to win and one was going to lose and if he had done what he needed to do to prepare, then he should be able to go out there and execute and win the fight. But we never even really talked about confidence or belief. It was about how are you going to act and how are you going to handle the adversity that is going to come your way. Never before the fight do you believe, because frankly I’m not sure that really even matters. What is your take on all that, coach?
Friesen: That is a great point. A lot of athletes come to me and say, “look, I see this athlete or this person – they don’t look like they’re nervous, it looks like they have unwavering belief in themselves – I want to be like that.” They say, “I want no anxiety, I want pure confidence.” I say, “first of all, that is impossible.” That is basically impossible because our human brains are wired to feel anxious and to not feel confident all the time, and that is a good thing.
I say: “Listen, think of it this way. Imagine you had unlimited confidence. The Olympic Games are coming up and it’s four months out and you’re convinced you’re the absolute best and you’re going to basically slaughter the competition.” I worked with one of the wrestlers, so let’s say it’s wrestling. “What do you think that is going to do for your training? Do you think you’re going to get up at 6:00 AM or 5:00 AM and push yourself that extra mile or do you think you’re going to kind of take it back a notch because you’ve already got this?” Obviously we know the answer. The answer is if you’re overly confident you are likely going to underprepare.
That is just the preparation. What happens when you actually get to the competition and you’re convinced that you’re the best and you’re going to destroy this person? What is going to happen? Your arousal level may actually come down too low because we know the Yerkes-Dodson Law where you have to have a moderate level of arousal, activation, or anxiety to perform at your best. It can’t be too high, it can’t be too low.
So if you go into a competition convinced that you’re just going to basically walk over this person, you’re going to kick ass, you’re going to probably get your ass kicked because you are underestimating your opponent, because your opponent is coming in there to basically (let’s say it’s MMA or wrestling) destroy you. You need to have that self-doubt because it’s going to prevent you from making mistakes.
Of course, you can’t go the opposite where you’re all self-doubt, you don’t think you can do it, “I don’t deserve to be there.” Those are pretty normal thoughts. We have them all the time. But you don’t want them to be dominating. You want what I call a realistic but slightly positive mindset. Realistic in a sense that “I can beat this guy.” It’s positive in a sense that you think you can beat them if you do the right things, “if I maintain my game plan.”
Like GSP is saying, “if I focus on what I can control” – which is when he goes for a takedown, this is what I’m going to do and as soon as I see an opening I’m going to take him down, etc. – really focused on the present moment and focusing on what he has to do as opposed to trying to focus on “I’m just going to shit kick and walk through these people.” You need self-doubt. You need anxiety. Thinking that these are bad is the problem, not the anxiety and the self-doubt. You need them to improve. You need them to not underestimate your opponents.
This is big. This is big. It’s uncomfortable but again, remember like I said, to achieve anything big you’ve got to feel discomfort. You’ve got to feel discomfort in training. You’ve got to feel discomfort when you’re going to go to the Olympics. It’s totally normal to feel anxious. It’s totally normal to have thoughts that “maybe I don’t deserve to be here” but when you do that meditation that we talked about earlier, you are training your brain to be able to diffuse or not get hooked by negative thoughts. You say, “hey, there goes my brain, it does what it does, it’s telling me that I don’t deserve to be here.” So let’s motivate. I’m going to use that to motivate myself to “I’m going to watch a bit more tape of this next opponent” or “I’m going to train a bit harder” or I’m going to whatever. That’s my take on it.
Cain: I thought that was awesome. Very well said. Georges used to talk about it being a humble confidence. It’s the humility knowing that every day when the alarm goes off (like you say) at 5:00 in the morning that someone is coming to take what is mine and someone is coming to rip my head off, but it’s the confidence that when you walk and you step inside of the cage it’s the confidence knowing there is nothing else I could have done to prepare and I am ready to compete at a high level. Not “I’m ready to go in there and destroy this guy” because he would never say that. It’s always “I’m ready to go in there and compete at a high level and do what I’ve done in training and I believe what I’ve done in training has prepared me for victory.”
Friesen: Yes. You see guys like – this comes up a lot with the Yerkes-Dodson Law. Diego Sanchez, you see him getting pumped up before the fight. I think he is saying “yes” or something like that. He’s got this scowl on his face. It kind of depends on where you fall in that first-personality dimension of negative emotions.
GSP – I don’t know GSP but he could be a bit on the higher side and he knows that about himself (I would assume), and so he knows what he needs to do to keep that in check. But there are other people that are really low on the negative emotions. They don’t really get nervous in these big competitions. They get very little anxiety. But we know with the Yerkes-Dodson Law you need a moderate level of anxiety.
Someone like Diego Sanchez may need to get slapped in the face a few times right before he goes into the octagon to get himself – hopefully Diego is not listening to this but I feel like with Diego what is happening is that he’s so pumped, he is so pumping himself up that his activation or anxiety level or arousal level is going too high and you see it the first round; usually he looks like he is very stiff. He looks very stiff because, as you know, when you’re overly activated, your muscles contract and when your muscles contract you can’t move fluidly. You become stiff. Joe Rogan talks about that all the time: “This guy looks like it’s his first UFC fight. I can see he’s got a lot of nerves. He seems very stiff, his muscles are stiff.”
It kind of depends where you land or at least how you react under big stressful situations. It could be that you need a coach to basically start screaming in your face because your arousal level is so low. But that is actually pretty rare. I think most of the time it’s the opposite. You don’t need a coach screaming in your face, especially if your arousal is already high because then you are going to go over the edge and you’re going to be even more nervous. Your activation will be too high. It’s knowing that sweet spot and knowing what to do.
I see this a lot with high levels like the Olympic coaches and things like that. They treat all the athletes the same sometimes and they’ll start screaming and trying to get them pumped up. If the person is already anxious, you’re actually doing them a disservice. They are going to underperform now. They need to be calmed down. But there may be some athletes you work with who are basically not activated enough and they need that slap in the face. They need that screaming in the face to get themselves to the moderate level of arousal/activation/anxiety to perform at their peak.
Cain: I think that is really what the fundamental purpose of a routine is to, is the athlete comes back to… So in your first part we talked about knowing yourself and having a routine to help you get into that performance state of I don’t need to be dialed up, I don’t need to be calmed down because my routine gets me right where I need to be and I have the awareness and I have the strategy that if I need to pick myself up I might do some tuck-jumps or some more of like breath, like I would do if I was getting ready to rip a power clean or slap myself around a little bit or even go to the mirror and talk to myself in a certain way to get me a little bit more dialed in, or I used the right music where if I need to calm myself down I might slide more into a meditation technique.
I think it all comes down to the athlete being able to recognize where they’re at and then have the right strategy to either dial themselves up or dial themselves down to be in that optimal performance state. Is that accurate?
Friesen: That is exactly accurate. That is totally it. We’re all a little bit different. We all have brains and the same lobes in our brains but our personalities are different. Obviously our physiques are different. We have differences. Knowing this about yourself is the key to success in athletics and in life in general.
Cain: Love that. In the end of your book you talk about the story of Viktor Frankl, which I think is maybe the story that can summarize what really mental toughness is. It’s the inability to give away that response to no matter what comes your way. Would you talk a little bit about Viktor Frankl and that story that is in the back of your book that I think is so powerful?
Friesen: So Viktor Frankl is a neurologist and psychiatrist by trade. He is passed away now. He was an older individual. His story is unbelievable. He is Jewish and was living in I believe Germany or Austria (I forget) when the Nazis took power. He is actually a big – well, a lot of his work is – he is a big fan of existential psychotherapy. His is called “logotherapy” which means “meaning therapy” which is very similar to what I am talking about is knowing your why. That is really important.
So he basically had to make a choice. He had an option to leave Austria or Germany to go to (I believe) England to flee the Nazis because he started to see what was happening with people that were Jewish, people who had disabilities, and people who had various illnesses, that they were obviously exterminating these people. He basically decided – I’m sure emotionally he was scared and he wanted to leave but he wanted to live a principled life and he wanted his life to have some meaning so he actually stayed.
Of course he went to the concentration camps. He did a number of things before he left. Because he was working as a physician, he falsified some documents (I believe) to allow certain individuals to basically skip the gas chambers who were disabled (for example, I believe). So he had risked his life for this. Of course he goes to the concentration camps. I forget the exact number. I know his wife was killed in the concentration camps. Pretty much his whole family were gassed and killed.
He noticed when he was in the concentration camps that people who were there who had an overall “why” to live or to survive tended to do better despite being in the same circumstances of being starving, having various disease, and basically your life being in danger. He had experiments done to him that were just disgusting. One of his books is called Man’s Search For Meaning. It describes some of this. It’s not an easy read in this sense. It’s an emotional read. But it’s an important read.
So long story short, he really found that he discovered that people who had this meaning or reason to go through the suffering tended to survive. That seemed to predict survival better than other variables. So when he got out, obviously he wanted to see his family and things like that. Of course, they had died and that put him through obviously depression when he first got out. But his mission and goal was to write about this and write about the importance of having meaning, having a purpose, having a “why” in terms of living a good life and living a life worth living. So he wrote a number of books and became very famous.
I’m not saying it as elegantly as I wrote it in the book but he is very inspirational. He is a very inspirational person. He really helped us to see the importance of knowing your “why.” Again just reading the story, it helps put things into perspective. We think we have problems; just think about what this guy went through and how he turned out and how he still – I’m sure he felt pain throughout his life from the memories of what happened to his family but he pushed forward and had a bigger mission to complete.
His work has been applied. He has done a lot of work (he did a lot of work) with people who were suicidal. People who want to kill themselves. Basically people who end up killing themselves often do not have a purpose, do not have a mission; life seems meaningless, and it’s those – if you can help them develop a sense of meaning, a sense of purpose, this usually will reverse any tendencies to want to kill yourself. He is a really important person in the history of peak performance (I believe) and just life in general.
Cain: Hands down one of my favorite books of all time, Man’s Search For Meaning, and it was one of the first books that Dr. Ken Ravizza had us read in our grad program at Cal State Fullerton. If you ever get a chance – I don’t know if you’ve been down to Washington D.C. and gone to the Holocaust Museum, but to go through that and having read Man’s Search For Meaning, it is an emotional experience when you go through there just to see the hell on earth that those people went through. And the fact that he was able to go then write about that and kind of share his story that is impacting so many people in such a positive way goes to show that even out of the deepest and darkest most hellacious times in the history of man, there is still some good that comes out of that even with his book and the power of choosing your response in every situation. It’s amazing what that whole experience was. Unbelievable.
Cain: Chris, talking about, you said identifying your mission statement. We know Frankl had a mission and Danny Williams had a mission. I’d like to know what is your mission? As someone who is leading the field of performance psychology and has the clinical background and the academic background and is now getting after it within the trenches, the blue-collar psychologist (I love that term), what is your reason why or what is your mission?
Friesen: Missions, I think, take development. I’ve always been trying to figure out my mission. I do know my mission now but my mission really is I really want to help as many people as I can. I really want to – like we said earlier I want to be able to first of all, because of my background, read the research and really figure out what here is useful for people to use to basically live a better life, to perform at their peak in sports and whether they’re entrepreneurs or executives because I work with a lot of those individuals as well – and really take that research and apply it to myself to make sure I can buy into it. I can read research but until I try things myself – I have to experience it to really buy into it. Just really translate that to help other people.
I really think that people are living below their potential. I knew it sounds almost cliché but we are. I’m a perfect example. When I was a teenager, when I was in school, I was probably one of the bottom 1%-2% of the students in terms of my academic performance. I was more interested in sports, of course; that was part of the issue. My self-esteem or my self-efficacy or my belief in my academic abilities was really low. It’s kind of a running joke within my family that I went so far, I got my PhD and I did all these things. I worked for the highest graduating average – how I turned that around and how it seems almost impossible. Even sometimes I think of it myself. I’m like, “that does seem impossible” when I look back.
I remember what I thought about my capabilities academically but it was only until I really figured out what was important to me. I thought I really love the idea – I love human psychology. I love the idea of you can take information from people who do research or who are wiser than me and that can better my life. I did that.
Actually, when I was 15 or 16, I read Tony Robbins’ Awaken the Giant Within and Unlimited Power and also The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. That was the biggest eye-opener for me. I was using that and I read some autobiographies and that really changed things around for me. I discovered a reason. I didn’t realize it. I just thought it was stupid. The reality is I now had a reason to do well in school – because I wanted to learn this stuff. It’s so fascinating. Anyone who is willing to listen or is willing to accept my help, that is just the best thing ever for me and I can give that to people. I’ve sort of learned that about myself and that is my mission – is really to translate really useful information about peak performance, about high achievement, and just about how to live a happy life and really give it to people in any way I can.
That is where the motivation came from to write this book and this series of books, is because I can only affect so many people one-on-one or in small groups. I really feel like I want to get this information out to the masses.
Cain: Well, you’re doing it, my friend. I hope that this podcast is able to expose you more to the people that have been following us here. For the people that are listening to this, please go get more of Dr. Chris Friesen at www.FriesenPerformance.com and on Twitter at @FriesenPerform. Chris, is there any way that our listeners can connect with you via maybe an e-mail? Do you have maybe a newsletter on your website or something where they can hear from you on a consistent basis? What you’re putting out is not only very applicable, it’s also all backed with hardcore science – and to find that combination, my friend, is very rare and very valuable, so thank you for making time for our listeners on the Peak Performance Podcast.
Friesen: Thank you. Thanks for having me. On www.FriesenPerformance.com there is a sign-up newsletter. Every couple of weeks I’ll send articles that I’ve written. I’ve written a couple for Success magazine, www.Success.com. I’ve been interviewed for a couple of things like The Washington Post, Exercise in Personality, that kind of thing, and the various podcasts I’ve been on and some of the blogs I’ve written. What I do is every couple of weeks I send an e-mail that basically talks about – one of them is about this exact thing (confidence) that we talked about today. One of the www.Success.com articles is about how to write your personal missions statement. So that is the best way is to get on that mailing list and you’ll get access.
You also get news in terms of when the second book – it’s not completed yet, the second book in The High Achievement Handbook – when that is going to come out and that sort of thing. So definitely sign up for the newsletter. You can follow me on Twitter and Facebook, for example, but that I mostly repost what I think are really interesting articles about peak performance and neuroscience (that kind of thing) – but to really get the more personal stuff, the stuff that I’m talking about, is really my newsletter that you get on my website. That is the best way.
Cain: And to pick up a copy of book one in The High Achievement Handbook series, ACHIEVE: Find Out Who You Are, What You Really Want, How to Make It Happen – is the best place for them to go to Amazon and search your name or go to your website?
Friesen: You can go either place. It’s all sold through Amazon so on Amazon there is the paperback, there is the Kindle version, and I relatively recently got the Audible version. I have a really good narrator named Chris A. Bell. I had about 70 people apply to be the narrator (to audition for it) and it was a really cool process. I love Chris A. Bell’s voice and style. You can listen to a quick clip.
So it’s in every format now. You can get it on iTunes as well, of course, and www.Audible.com, of course, and Amazon. On my website I have links to those as well. So that is the place. Just search “achieve” and “Friesen” and it should be the first one that pops up on Amazon.
Cain: Awesome. Chris, thanks for making the time to sit down and join us on the Peak Performance Podcast. One of my favorite episodes that we’ve done. It was truly an honor to have you and I can’t wait for book two to come out. Hopefully we can get a copy and go through and get another episode.
Friesen: Definitely. I really appreciate you having me on the show. You have an awesome show and like I was saying earlier, you are definitely kicking a lot of ass. I’m proud of you, man. This is awesome. You are doing an excellent job. You are really making a difference. Keep it up.