7 Ways to Avoid Mental Self-Destruction

In a past column on Cerebral Fitness, I wrote about using mental fitness to improve your training and racing. Additionally, in many of my past columns on the training process, I have included at least one tip on employing positive mental skills to boost performance.

However, while I prefer a positive outlook, sometimes it helps to drive home a point by having a negative example. I have worked with a few athletes that did not believe their thought process was getting in the way of their success. In addition to athletes, I have worked with a few people on lifestyle and health skills that felt the same.

The common thread in both groups of people is that they were convinced they were heading toward health problems or poor race performances, in spite of data showing no evidence of any negative health or performance issues. 

In the case of the lifestyle folks, they were convinced that they were doomed to negative health issues, even early death, due to family history even though medical tests did not support this belief.

In the case of the athletes, they were convinced that they were going to have a poor race performance. There was no proof that a bad effort was looming, rather it was each athlete's belief system that a good performance was not possible due to a self-designed list of training criteria. Some of these criteria included a specific amount of training volume, training pace for a certain amount of time, and a specific body weight, among others.

Though other athletes had been successful with less training volume, lower volumes of speed work and higher body weights, these athletes were not convinced it would work for them.

Because they were struggling with the concept of the Pygmalion effect—otherwise known as self-fulfilling prophecy—I decided to share a story with them. In all cases, the passage had a positive effect on the negative thinkers.

The following excerpt is taken directly from Empires of the Mind by Denis Waitley:

The Voodoo of Pessimism

I share with many audiences a true story about a man named Nick. Nick, a strong, healthy railroad yardman, got along well with his fellow workers and was consistently reliable on the job. However, he was a deep pessimist who invariably feared the worst. One summer day, the train crews were told they could quit an hour early in honor of the foreman's birthday. When the other workmen left the site, Nick, the notorious worrier, was accidentally locked in an isolated refrigerated boxcar that was in the yard for repairs.

He panicked. He shouted and banged until his voice went hoarse and his fists were bloody. The noises, if anyone heard them, were assumed to be coming from a nearby playground or from other trains backing in and out of the yard.

Nick reckoned the temperature in the car was zero degrees. "If I can't get out," he thought, "I'll freeze to death." He found a cardboard box. Shivering uncontrollably, he scrawled a message to his wife and family. "So cold, body's getting numb. If I could just go to sleep. These may be my last words."

The next morning, the crew slid open the boxcar's heavy doors and found Nick's body. An autopsy revealed that every physical sign indicated he had frozen to death. But the car's refrigeration unit was inoperative. The temperature inside was about 61 degrees and there was plenty of fresh air. Nick's fear has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Power of the Mind

Nick, the man in the story, had so forcefully imagined doom that his body exhibited the physical signs of freezing to death. If the mind can talk the body into dying, it is easy to see how negative self-talk can produce poor health, a bad training session, or a bad race. The power of mind is an extraordinarily strong force.

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