We train our physical bodies to excel at physical tasks. Why not train our minds to excel at mental tasks?
Through the latest research in cognitive science and neuroscience, management and innovation expert David Silverstein explores how the brain’s systems interconnect and how you can commit to building your brain and improving your mental game.
In Become an Elite Mental Athlete, you’ll discover:
What you need to put into your body to build your brain
Ways to increase your stamina and cure mental fatigue
How to spot and avoid common decision-making traps
How to train your memory and tighten your attention.
=Targeted Age Group: 15+
Genre: Non-fiction, Business & Leadership
The Book Excerpt:
Become an Elite Mental Athlete
Commit to Building Your Brain and Improving Your Mental Game
Chapter 1: Elite Performance 5
To excel in competition, business professionals must develop their mental muscles.
Chapter 2: The Brain: Did You Know? 11
Learn how the brain’s systems interconnect to form a coordinated high-performance mental machine.
Chapter 3: Nutrition: Feeding Your Mental Machine 17
What to feed your brain to keep it functioning optimally.
Chapter 4: Exercise: Healthy Body, Healthy Brain 25
How aerobic exercise and strength training benefit the brain.
Chapter 5: Sleep: The Undervalued Resource 31
Why sleep is vital for elite mental performance—and how to ensure you’re getting enough.
Chapter 6: Stress: The Creativity Killer 41
Operating at the highest levels of performance means managing stress.
Chapter 7: Mental Stamina 47
Ways to build your stamina and cure mental fatigue.
Chapter 8: Pattern Recognition and Expertise 51
The key to expertise is making a task automatic.
Chapter 9: Decision-Making and Cognitive Traps 57
Learn to spot and avoid common traps that lead to “wrong decisions.”
Chapter 10: Brain Training Apps 61
An overview of software programs that improve memory or intelligence.
Chapter 11: Becoming an Elite Mental Athlete 65
What could you start doing today to prepare yourself to become an elite mental athlete?
This book is one I have looked forward to writing for several years. It represents the convergence of a number of observations, experiences, and lots of research. The concept is derived from my thinking about what it means for us to live in a “knowledge” economy or the “information” age.
Living in Boulder, Colo.—a prime Olympic training ground and home to many world-class athletes—I’ve become familiar with the kind of training elite athletes subject themselves to. So for some reason…I don’t really recall why…I asked myself one day, “Why is it that the best athletes in the world are always working at becoming even better athletes, yet the best thinkers in the world don’t work on becoming better thinkers?”
Now, to begin addressing that question, it’s important that I provide some context for what working to get better really means. Let’s take a world-class basketball player like LeBron James, who many argue is the best in the world and some even think the best that’s ever played the game. What does LeBron James do to get better at basketball? Presumably, some combination of many things including working on his vertical leap, his strength, his flexibility, his reflexes, his inside shooting, his outside shooting, his ball handling, his nutrition, his sleep, and his stress control. What LeBron James doesn’t do is simply head out and play some pickup basketball.
Next, we could ask ourselves, “What does LeBron James do to get ready for a big game?” Presumably he studies the players on the other team, discusses strategy for the game with his coach and teammates, eats a nutritious meal, perhaps carb loads for energy, gets a good night’s sleep, warms up before the game, and so on.
The question that struck me was, “If the best of the best—a player like LeBron James—does all that to prepare himself to be a winner at basketball, why don’t the best of the best thinkers in the world work just as hard at improving their mental abilities? Why don’t they exercise their brains, focus on their sleep and nutrition, and prepare for a big meeting or negotiation with the same kind of rigor and focus as LeBron James preparing for a big game?”
There are many people in all kinds of positions who rely on their brains to excel at their craft. And to win—whether an election debate, a business negotiation, or a new product design—they need to be better than their opponents. They need to ensure that their brains are kept in peak condition.
At BMGI, our work in the areas of innovation and strategy has frequently taken us somewhere we didn’t expect. While researching tools and methods that could be used by our clients in the context of facilitated workshops, we constantly found ourselves back in the same place—the brain. We came to understand that, for better or worse, most of the work of real innovative and strategic thinking didn’t happen in our workshops. Most of it happened at night, between about 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Some of it also happened in the shower or when out on a long run. Yet, despite realizing that most of what our clients needed didn’t happen in their meetings with us, we also realized that we could still help them in many, many ways. For example, as discussed in my prior book, One Dot, Two Dots, Get Some New Dots, we could help our clients fill their heads with lots of context so their brains would have more dots to connect during their dot connection time. We could also help them make sense of their dots and their dot connections. And, finally, we realized that we could help them learn how to maximize their brains’ own power through many of the things covered in this book.
To get the most out of this book, there’s one thing that I think is very important: Reading it cover to cover. Although you can jump to the things you are most interested in learning about, it’s very important that you read all the sections so you truly understand how to “prepare for the big game.” That’s the only way you will gain a holistic perspective on how to build your body and mind so you can become an elite mental athlete.
Another important point to get the most from this book: You must be in a position to believe the things you read. But once you take in some of the science—there’s a cursory coverage of research in each chapter—believing becomes something that you can’t avoid.
So, please enjoy the rest of the book, and most importantly, please take something away that helps you make change in your life.
Chapter 1: ELITE PERFORMANCE
What does it take to be truly great? How do the star professionals in any field rise to the top? Let’s start by looking at one of my personal favorite sports, basketball, to see what we can learn about elite performance.
Superstars of Professional Basketball
Think about the life of a professional basketball player. The players dash across the court, fire passes to teammates, jump vertical, dunk baskets. Sure, they’re born with some natural gifts—height, fast reflexes—but the ones that make it to the NBA do much more. They work hard to both enhance their game-playing skills and build their bodies to meet the demands of the game. They make a conscious choice to leave their comfort zone. They push further, and they push consistently—not just occasionally—to excel.
Kobe Bryant’s 666 Routine
Take a look at Kobe Bryant’s 666 workout plan—six hours a day six days a week for six months. And that’s just his personal body workout routine, which doesn’t include all the time he spends at team practices, studying game videos, team strategy sessions, or the actual games.
Kobe varies his runs from slower, long distance (3 to 5 miles) to high-interval intensity training (HIIT), which usually consists of rapid short sprints. On the HIIT days, he varies the workouts so that his body does not get used to one set of stimuli.
He also does a lot of weight lifting, again maintaining variety in the types of exercises and what muscles he’s targeting.
Kobe gears his workout to building the particular muscles and muscle exertion patterns needed for basketball. That’s why he does squats, calf raises, and power cleans, which build explosiveness for sprinting and jumping. The rest of his workout is tailored to improving his size and strength, which allow him to slash to the basket or post up on other players.1
Pushing the Limits, Mixing It Up
Others, like LeBron James and Chris Paul, push for additional workouts, not just individually and with their team, but with personal coaches like Idan Ravin.
Interestingly, Ravin never played basketball professionally. But because of the unique workouts he designs and the skills he helps players build, he’s been nicknamed “The Hoops Whisperer.”
Why do players opt for the extra training, if they’re already great? Ravin explains: “Guys like LeBron can cut all the corners and still get an A on the exam. Eighty percent of Chris Paul or LeBron is better than 99 percent of anyone else. But I ask them, ‘What if you maximized it? What if you were 99 percent? Isn’t that interesting?’ I try to intrigue them. I say, ‘What if?’ ”2
Ravin pushes LeBron not just through grueling conditioning and intricate ball-handling exercises, but beyond them. He literally throws anything at players to toughen their mental side as well. For example, Ravin sets up 13 cones within the key, to the top of the circle, and has players dribble among the cones without hitting them.3 Sounds easy enough. But Ravin adds twists: Players have to dribble two balls at once, bouncing one high and the other low, moving forward and backward. Other times he throws tennis balls at them that they must catch while dribbling one ball.
Notice that Kobe, LeBron, and other starts don’t just improve their game by practicing their game. They look deeper to improve their human machinery that enables them to achieve elite performance. They build their strength, explosive power, and agility to give them the core tools to excel on game day.
This preparation gets players ready to expect the unexpected and deal with whatever comes, all the while performing their best. I’ve been talking about basketball, but it’s the same in business, where executives have so many factors to manage at once. Luckily, in business you don’t have to react instantly, but you do have to juggle all the factors and make decisions under uncertainty and time-sensitive competitive conditions.
Superstars of Professional Business
There’s really not much difference between professional sports and professional business. They are both highly competitive human endeavors in which the best of the best rise to the top. Natural acumen is great, but the best of the best know they can’t just rely on natural talent; they need to develop their skills. In business, that means staying on top of current events, reading about new developments, being intellectually curious about what’s going to happen next, and responding to a dynamic economy in the best way possible. But none of the strategic insight, situational awareness, and fast response is possible without a brain that is developed and sharpened for business.
We train our physical bodies to excel at physical tasks, why not train our minds to excel at mental tasks? A finely tuned mind is today’s most important asset. Elite athletes know their bodies and train their bodies; elite mental athletes must know their brains and train their brains.
Just as athletes know they need to develop their physical muscles to excel in competition, so too, business professionals need to develop their mental muscles to excel in competition. There is solid evidence that the brain is in fact like a muscle—you can improve your brain’s performance.
Elite athletes commit serious time to intentional improvement programs, not just haphazard training. They work with a coach, diagnose skill levels, learn which muscles to work on, and how much. Likewise, this book will help you to improve your mental game. As business leaders, we all need to think about our mental goals and work toward them so that we don’t atrophy. CEOs especially need to be elite mental athletes. They are being paid to lead the company, but they often don’t think about training their minds the way athletes train their bodies.
This book will show you how you can improve your mental fitness, just like you can improve your physical fitness. Through exploring the latest research from cognitive science and neuroscience, we’ll see documented results of what can be done—and has been done—to improve individuals’ brain performance, even raising intelligence that was previously believed to be innate.
Why Do It?
You can train yourself to stretch your memory and tighten your attention. The reason to do this training, simply put, is that your competitors will be doing it, even if you aren’t. Not only is it important for you personally in your career, but as a leader, your mind is the value you are bringing to a company. Improving your mind raises the value of your company. Helping your team improve their minds improves everyone’s productivity and engagement. Finally, the benefits you gain also translate into personal well-being, such as reducing your chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease and experiencing cognitive decline as you age. In the following chapters, we’ll look more in-depth at the “why” and also the “how” of training your brain.
//David Silverstein is the CEO of BMGI, which he founded in 1999. Since then, he has grown the company to an internationally recognized and highly respected firm specializing in business performance, strategic planning and innovation. As CEO, David drives BMGI’s strategic direction with a focus on continuously improving existing offerings while constantly searching for the next generation of business excellence methods, tools and practices. Recently, David has turned his attention to innovation and business strategy and the identification of cutting edge solutions.
As a highly regarded public speaker and author, David shares his vision around the globe where he has shared the stage with notable figures such as Jack Welch, Larry Bossidy, Jim McNerney and Steven Covey. A sought-after thought leader, he has written on innovation, performance and business leadership for numerous publications including BusinessWeek, Inc. Magazine, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, American Executive, Worth Magazine and BP Trends. David has also authored several books on innovation and business leadership, most recently publishing additions to the Connect the Dots Series.