BC154. Jonathan Bulkeley – Neuroscience, Mediation and Visualization

Brian sits down with Jonathan Bulkeley, a 25-year veteran of the internet industry, where he has displayed operation expertise in building and capitalizing digital businesses.  In that time, he has overseen the $1.5 billion of digital revenue growth in a variety of capacities.  He has served in executive management roles at AOL, Time Warner Cable, and Barnes & Noble.com.


You will learn…

  • How to achieve flow state and get into the zone more often.
  • The importance of visualization and how it works.
  • Why every athlete on the planet should meditate.


Follow Brett on Twitter @bashleadership




You can go 30 days without food, 3 days without water, and 3 minutes without oxygen.  Most people don’t breathe properly.  They don’t.  They don’t breathe properly in stressful situations; they don’t breathe properly when they’re on the sidelines trying to relax and de-stress.  First, athletes need to learn how to breathe.

Cain:  Hey, how are you doing?  Brian Cain, your Peak Performance coach, here with the Peak Performance Podcast.  Today our guest is Jonathan Bulkeley.  He’s a 25-year veteran of the internet industry, where he’s displayed operational expertise in building and capitalizing digital businesses.  In that time he has overseen the $1.5 billion of digital revenue growth in a variety of capacities.  He has served in an executive management role at AOL, Time Warner Cable, and www.BarnesandNoble.com.

Bulkeley also has focused his expertise in the world of neuroscience, where he feels that athletes and coaches have a tremendous opportunity for growth that is a very underexplored area, and I couldn’t agree more.  Most of the time and research has revolved around specific tangible ways to train the brain and how to achieve a flow state.

Jonathan is a graduate of Yale University and an alum of their lacrosse team.  We’ve had Andy Shay, the Yale lacrosse coach, here on our podcast.  I remember being on a bus going to Brown University in 2016 with the Yale lacrosse team, who were #1 in the country, going to play Brown, who was #2; and we stopped the bus, got off the bus, and Andy just had his guys get out and breathe.  I said, “Andy, what’s going on here?  Is this kind of like a pregame ritual superstition?”  He goes, “No, our guys are getting rid of bus brain.  They’ve got to oxygenate the brain for peak performance.”  At that moment I was intrigued.  Andy Shay is as cutting edge a coach in college athletics as there is and he connected me with Jonathan.

So, Jonathan, welcome to the Peak Performance Podcast.  I’m super excited to have you here and explore an area that we don’t always get to hear from.  Thanks for being with us.

Bulkeley:  Thanks, Brian.  Great to be here.

Cain:  If you could, would you kind of talk a little bit about your career as an athlete at Yale and then kind of your experience and how you kind of got turned on to the neuroscience and that connection with athletics.

Bulkeley:  Sure.  I’d love to.  I was a high school All-American at lacrosse.  I was one of those crazy guys that played goalie.  I went to Yale and played at Yale throughout my four years.  I had a great experience.  We didn’t have the best team so I didn’t get a lot of honors, but it was an amazing experience.

Then I went on to business and ran a bunch of internet companies.  I was the CEO of a number of public companies.  Then about four years ago I was running a hedge fund and I invested in a neuroscience company in Australia.  When I began reading about the research and actually training my brain using some of their tools, I saw huge changes in me personally.  As that happened I – I’m a huge sports fan, and being a college athlete I started to watch my kids, watch their sports, watch all my professional teams, and I realized wow, the mental mistakes are really determining success or failure on the field.  And what if you could train your brain to be more proficient and more – I mean 5-10% better at whatever your position or whatever your task?

So I started to really think about it, and I’ve spent the last 4-5 years thinking about it and coming up with strategies, including what I told Coach Shay about getting off the bus on a long trip and breathing because there is C02 residually on the bus and that clouds the brain.  The teams that get off the bus – I know coaches will know that if you go on a trip usually your team is a little logy getting off the bus and that’s because of C02, the lack of oxygen to the brain.

So that’s how I got started and I’ve been on a sort of 5-year odyssey going on this path.  I’m really excited to talk to you about it today.

Cain:  Yeah, we’re super excited to have you.  I think for a lot of our listeners, they’re going to be a little confused on what exactly is neuro and neuroscience.  Neuro is neurology and brain, and science is science, but how do they connect to athletics?  Could you kind of simplify neuroscience and what that is for our listeners?

Bulkeley:  Yeah.  I’m not a scientist so I’m not going to talk like one, but I’ll try to simplify it for everybody because I am fairly simple.  The first thing I learned about the brain is it weighs three pounds and the reality is it’s the most complex organism in the universe.  The math of the human brain is 100 billion neurons making a trillion connections at all times in each individual brain.  That is the most complex organism in the universe.

Each of us has a different connection pattern.  So mathematically there is no way that anybody on the planet has the same connections.  Ever.  So as a coach you have to realize that nobody thinks the same way.  Nobody sees the game the same way.  Nobody is seeing it the way you see it.  Everybody is experiencing it differently and everybody is performing at different levels all the time, which is really important to understand.

So neuroscience is the study of the brain and the mind and how it works.  And there are all sorts of different fields but for athletics we really get down to a few common areas, which is performance, focus, flow state, and how to achieve optimal performance by training that 3-pound computer system that you have inside your skull.

Cain:  There is a great book by a guy named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi about flow state.  The book is actually called Flow and he talks a lot about how, as an athlete, to achieve a flow state.  What could you teach our coaches that are listening to this or educate us on the importance of a flow state, what it is, and maybe how we can get there more often?

Bulkeley:  Yeah.  I think most coaches/most players have experienced flow at some point.  I’m sure you have, Brian, and I know I did.  For me, I remember those games where I just was performing at a different level.  Or even moments within games where I was just at a different level and everything was working.  That is commonly referred to as “flow.”  That book you are referring to is actually on my desk in front of me.

Flow for me is really a place where it’s a combination of three things:  Your body is in optimal shape to play the sport you need to play in, your mind is in an optimal state to be in the situation that you’re in right then, and your spirit.  So mind, body, spirit or energy or intent is optimally aligned for those moments.  When those three things are connected (mind, body, and spirit), you reach a place where you’re not really thinking very much – you’re just performing and you’re performing at a level where you don’t normally perform.

That’s because you’re not thinking, you’re not stressed, you’re not secreting chemicals into your brain that are impacting the way you are recognizing that moment.  Everything slows down and you achieve a lot more.  Maybe it’s only 10% or maybe it’s only 15%, but in some positions (like lacrosse goalie) the difference between a 10% increase in 00:07:32 percentage is the difference between being #1, a national champion, and being #5 and losing in the quarterfinals.

Cain:  Wow.  That’s fantastic.  I think for our coaches listening, they understand the body and that sort of conditioning and training.  I think they understand the mind and I think they’re fascinated with that mental game, and that’s why they listen to the podcast.  Talk a little bit more about the spirit.  I think sometimes coaches can get a little bit confused on that.  Can you talk a little bit about what’s different between spirit and (say) your mindset?

Bulkeley:  Yeah.  The spirit portion for me is really your intent, your confidence, which is all a creation of your mind.  Right?  So intent.  Are you visualizing?  I don’t know how much you talked about visualizing or have done any podcasts on that but it’s very important in sport.  Very important.  I was watching a game the other day (Dallas Cowboys vs. Packers game) and I was thinking about the sidelines.  All the players when the offense was off were watching the game.  They shouldn’t be watching the game.  They should be sitting down and visualizing the next three plays they’re going to run over and over and over again.

So the intent they bring on the field – they’ve already played that play a couple of times and they’re just going to execute against them.  They’re not thinking.  They’re just doing.  So spirit is intent.  It’s the energy you bring.  It’s your confidence.  It’s your aura that you’re bringing to the field and to your team.  And everything you exude impacts everyone around you, including the competition.  It impacts your teammates and it impacts the players that you’re facing.

Cain:  You mentioned visualization and watching the Cowboys and Green Bay Packer game.  Living near Dallas, it’s all people were talking about at this time of year, is how the Cowboys lost to the Packers.  Could you talk a little bit more about visualization and why visualization is so important?  What does it physically do inside of you that helps you to succeed and why is it so important?

Bulkeley:  It creates a pattern and a pathway.  If you visualize success and positive outcomes, positive outcomes will happen.  It’s proven time and time and time again.  My favorite story is about a guy named John Brooks.  John Brooks was the last guy picked for the World Cup in the last World Cup for the US Team.  He was unlikely to play.  But in the game against Ghana he got in in the 80th minute as a defender and he scored the winning goal on a header in the 86th minute.

The story about it is two nights before the game John Brooks has a dream.  The dream was that he went in after the 80th minute and scored a goal on a header.  He wasn’t supposed to be on the team, he wasn’t supposed to play, and guess what happened?  He had the dream and he scored the winning goal against Ghana.  So that’s visualization of the subconscious.  Real time.  The conscious mind should go through the same things.  Visualize positive outcomes continually.

In a lot of sports – and I don’t know, there are a lot of different coaches in a lot of different sports that may be listening to this, but during games when players have time on the sidelines or when they’re not actively playing in the game, they should be visualizing positive events and outcomes.  They shouldn’t just be daydreaming.  They shouldn’t just be watching the game.  They should be visualizing.

As a goalie, for me most of the time I’m not playing.  The ball is down at the other end or it’s in the middle and I’m not really playing.  For me as a goalie in lacrosse, I was really on probably 12-15 minutes of a 60-minute period, which means I had to snap into focus just occasionally and then I’d go out and then I’d snap back in.  You create patterns by visualizing that and by doing it over and over and over again.

Cain:  One of the techniques I’ve seen coaches use is when they’re watching film, for example – we’ll use Andy Shay with the Yale lacrosse program.  When they were watching film and they watched a couple plays, what he’ll often do is have the guys sit up straight, close their eyes, and see the play that they just watched on film but see it in their mind as if it was happening now and see them execute the way they want to.  So let’s say they ran an offensive set and missed a shot, they would run the offensive set and make the shot.  Or the same thing on defense.  Is that a beneficial form of visualization and tie that into film study?

Bulkeley:  Yeah.  Absolutely.  Absolutely.  I’ll tell you another one of my favorite stories.  And this for coaches may not seem like sport, but chess is the ultimate visualization.  Chess is highly mental, right?  So they did studies of guys and they took a chess Grandmaster, just a regular champion, a local guy who had won, and then a fairly novice guy, and they would flash full boards with the pieces that had moved around in front of people and they would test them.  They’d flash the board for three seconds.  The Grandmaster, after three seconds of seeing the board, could put all the pieces in the exact position they were in with just looking at it for three seconds and could do it four times in a row.  The master could do it twice in a row and the other guys couldn’t do it at all.

So that visualization, that ability to process information very quickly, is the difference between being a novice and being a Grandmaster.  And that goes for lacrosse, it goes for football, it goes for baseball, it goes for all the sports.  What they call it is chunking.  Taking pieces of information that your brain can use in that moment and being able to process them really quickly.

Cain:  I think you’ve talked about an example of Jennie Finch and one time she was pitching to Albert Pujols.  Could you tell that story and kind of how that fits into this chunking and brain pattern piece as well.

Bulkeley:  Yeah.  There is a great book, The Sports Gene by David Epstein, and the first chapter features a piece about Jennie Finch.  She was the Olympic fastball pitcher for the women’s team in 2004.  They won the gold medal.  After that they took her around and had her pitch to Major League Baseball players.  So it was a woman who throws a softball 60 miles an hour.  A softball, as you know, is pretty big so you’d think that Albert Pujols should be able to hit that big ball.  It’s only going 60 miles an hour.  Well, guess what?  He couldn’t even touch it.  Barry Bonds was all cocky and got up there.  I think he might have fouled 1-2 balls off eventually.  Alex Rodriguez wouldn’t even get at the plate.

So why are some of the best batters in baseball history unable to hit a bigger ball at a slower speed?  The reality is they don’t have the software to understand her arm angle, her delivery, and the trajectory of the ball.  They’ve always chunked information about 90-mile-an-hour/93-mile-an-hour pitches with a smaller ball.  That’s what they’re programmed for.  They can’t do it.  But if you programmed them differently, they’d be able to do it over time.

Albert Pujols is interesting because they tested him for reaction speed.  So you think it’s about reaction.  Well, no, it’s not.  They tested him in the 66th percentile for reaction speed.  But what he was able to do was look at the pitcher’s angle and arm motion and be able to predict, before the ball is actually thrown, the location and speed and curvature and trajectory of the ball based on other factors.  That is what everybody has to train for.  It’s not reacting to the ball most of the time.  It’s understanding where the ball may go before it’s gone there.

That was the skill that I think I had that made me a good lacrosse goalie.  I knew before the shooter shot the probability of where the ball was going because a 100-mile-an-hour shot coming from 36 feet away is much too fast for the human brain to react to.  So you’ve got to be in front of it.  Sorry, I wandered around a little bit.  There is a lot there.

Cain:  No, I think that makes sense.  A lot of our listeners are going to be baseball/softball coaches and I’m sure they can relate to that example.  Jonathan, could you share any practical ways, any tools, any resources that maybe you offer or you know are on the market that coaches or athletes could invest in to help them be able to get more on top of this neuroscience and when it comes to applying it with athletics.

Bulkeley:  Yeah, of course.  First thing (my standard rap), you can go 30 days without food, 3 days without water, and 3 minutes without oxygen.  So optimal brain function is about oxygen flowing to the brain.  You have to have that or you’re not going to perform all the other circumstances.  Most people don’t breathe properly.  They don’t.  They don’t breathe properly in stressful situations, they don’t breathe properly when they’re on the sidelines trying to relax and de-stress.  First, athletes need to learn how to breathe.

The proper way to breathe is belly breathing, where your belly goes out and your chest stays in, and that’s a deep breath which fully oxygenates the body.  That doesn’t work when you’re running down a field, but when you’re on the sidelines or you’re prepping for a game, that’s how you relax and de-stress.  Every athlete needs to know how to breathe properly to de-stress.

So that’s #1 – just learn how to breathe.  If you don’t know how to do it (coaches), find your local vocal coach and they’ll teach you how singers breathe and how they diaphragm breathe and how they control their diaphragm.  So that’s one.

#2 is there are some good tools online.  There is a company with a site called www.MyBrainSolutions.com and it’s one of the companies I’m actually invested in.  It’s excellent.  All the tools are there.  Lumosity also has some tools but I find they’re less assessment based than the My Brain Solutions tools.  I recommend that.  There’s a positive psychology site that I’m also an investor in called www.Happify.com and that’s all about positive psychology and energy, and that’s excellent as well.

Then reading.  There is no substitute.  The books that we’ve mentioned – Flow, The Sports Gene – are all excellent.  They’re not about – they’re not highly scientific so they’re very accessible for laymen like me.  I’m not a science guy.  So I’ve just been able to learn, read, and watch along the way.

Cain:  Jonathan, are there any other books or other maybe routines or habits – well, let me ask a better question here.  I’m all excited trying to take notes here and my brain is getting ahead of me, so I’ve gone to do some brain solutions and happify to get me back in control here.  But are there any other books like Flow or The Sports Gene that have had a big impact on you that you think would be beneficial for other coaches or athletes to read?

Bulkeley:  Yeah, there is one that I think is excellent.  It’s called The Invisible Gorilla.  I don’t know if you show this in your work.

Cain:  Sure do.  Absolutely.

Bulkeley:  Yeah.  Exactly.  So you know that nobody – or 50% of the people – goes through the gorilla.  And understanding some of the science behind that from a quarterback standpoint, looking out with all the linemen in front of you and trying to pick up the defenses and throw a pass, a lot of times they just miss the defenders, right?  Why?  Well, for a lot of reasons, but you can train around it.  You can train around selective inattention by improving focus.

So the other ones – I don’t want to seem too far out there but the other key here is getting all athletes (every single one) to start meditating.  That may sound a little out there.

Cain:  No.  We talk a lot about meditation.  There is an app that I use every day and I ask our coaches to use always either Headspace or the Calm app.  So yeah, hit that meditation pathway.  Keep going.

Bulkeley:  Yeah.  So meditation is proven – what it really does – you can think of it as out there at least in spirituality, but what it really does is it allows someone to see how their mind works and to recognize it, to understand it, and then to begin to control it.  Once you start controlling that little voice in your head and you start realizing that your thoughts bounce around a lot and you begin to control them, that gives you the ability to do it in stressful situations and at game speed.  And mastering that allows you to stay much calmer in situations, breathe much better, and therefore spend more time in flow state.  It comes from a combination of breathing and meditation.  Those meditations can be as simple as just listening to sounds or as simple as visualizing positive outcomes, events, or things you want to have happen.

So meditation is a catch-all for a variety of ways to execute understanding your brain or create pathways in your brain, but it’s crucial for every athlete and it’s probably the single easiest thing to do and the most impactful for coaches.  The problem is, most coaches these days didn’t grow up with that, right?  So they weren’t trained and it’s hard to train when you weren’t trained in the first place.  So I understand the hurdles that we have to go through.

Cain:  Are there any – how do you do your meditation?  Do you do it on your own or do you use an app like Headspace or Calm where someone kind of takes you through it guided?  How do you do it?

Bulkeley:  I’m a little out there on this.  I found a tree in Central Park and I go to a tree in Central Park and meditate there.

Cain:  And when you’re doing your meditation, are you just sitting there and focusing on your breathing?  Talk a little bit about though, kind of the how-to of what you’re doing.

Bulkeley:  Yeah, I sort of taught myself.  The first meditation that I taught myself was to close my eyes.  And I always thought, “Well, what do I do with my eyes?  Do I visualize things?”  And what I did was just focus on the light behind my eyelids.  You can see these speckled bits if you close your eyes and different colors and stuff, so that’s going on.  Then you just listen to sound.  Listen to all the sounds.  Don’t visualize the sounds, just listen to the sounds.  What that does for you is, it’s some pretty simple things.  All you can focus on is what’s present right now, what’s happening right now.  There is no past, there is no future; it’s just focus.

It’s hard.  Really hard.  The first couple of times I did it I could do it for a minute or two.  Now I can go for probably 45 minutes.  I’ll get distracted in drifts but I can sit and just listen to sounds for 45 minutes.  The great thing is there are always sounds and the quieter it is, the more detailed the sounds actually become and the more interesting.  So that’s one technique that I use constantly.

The other is to visualize positive outcomes, things that I want to happen, people I want to see.  And be surprised what starts happening when you do that.  Those outcomes start coming true.  Like John Brooks’ dream about scoring the goal in the World Cup.  Good things start to happen.  And goals that you have thought about – you hit the corner on the shot because you thought about it two days before.

Cain:  Jonathan, are you familiar with the book The Secret by Rhonda Byrne?

Bulkeley:  I am familiar with it but I’ve never read it, so I can’t comment on it.  But I will say after studying my brain training and starting some meditation, I read 85 books in 6 months.

Cain:  Wow.

Bulkeley:  So.  It sounds a little geeky but it was pretty cool, I’ve got to say.

Cain:  I wouldn’t say it was geeky.  I would say it’s a commitment to excellence and that’s exactly what the listeners to this podcast are all about as well.  They are people who want more, they are people that are hungry, and I know they’re going to be hungry and want more of you.  Is there a way that they can kind of connect with you via social media or a website or e-mail in case they wanted you to come in and work with their team or they wanted to talk and learn more about what you’ve got going with either www.MyBrainSolutions.com or www.Happify.com?  Is there any way that people can contact you?

Bulkeley:  Yeah.  The best is social media.  So Facebook is good.  Or LinkedIn.  LinkedIn is sort of my professional.  It’s got many of my neuroscience investments listed there.  Facebook is personal but I’m happy to take questions.  I love this space and I’m really passionate about sharing it with anybody who wants to listen.  It’s a growing field but still it’s considered a little out there sometimes because it’s not old school.  It’s sort of new school.  But this is really the future (I think) of sports and that 5-10% improvement in an athlete’s performance and a team’s performance can really be the difference between coming in second and winning the state championship in a lot of cases.  So I encourage at least the coaches looking into it a little deeper and trying to figure out how to integrate portions of this into what they do and how they approach their athletes.

Cain:  Well, I know the work that you’ve done with Yale lacrosse has been tremendous.  And Andy Shay speaks the world of you and I think the world of Andy Shay, so anybody who he recommends I recommend for the listeners to our podcast, and I recommend they go get some more.  The way to find your Facebook?  Is it just under your name?  Jonathan Bulkeley?

Bulkeley:  Yeah.  My last name is a little tough so we’ll spell it.  It’s b-u-l-k-e-l-e-y.

Cain:  Fantastic.  So they can find you on Facebook.  They can find you on LinkedIn.  And who knows, hopefully we’ll try to get you over to one of the coaching clinics and seminars that we do around the country and maybe have you come in and invest some time with the coaches and take them through some meditation and take them through some visualization and educate them a little bit more about neuroscience.  I appreciate you being on the podcast, Jonathan.  You were outstanding.

Bulkeley:  Okay.  Thanks, Brian.  I really appreciate it.


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