How the Mind-Body Connection Affects Performance

A pararescueman works out while using technologies that track his physical and mental well-being.
A pararescueman from the 48th Rescue Squadron works out while using technologies to track their physical and mental well-being as part of the Human Performance Optimization program at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., Mar. 13, 2019. (Airman 1st Class Kristine Legate/U.S. Air Force photo)

There is a mind-body connection.

Don't believe me? Imagine saving your child from a burning house or a potential abduction. Notice your elevated heart rate, heavy breathing and sweat? A sudden burst of fight-or-flight adrenaline can occur with a simple thought. Be careful. It also can pull you from a deep sleep when dreaming or pop into your head while trying to sleep.

But there are ways to breathe through it and come back to the present and do what you need to do. Here are some ways to think your way to better physical performance -- whether it is in sports, a PT test or even just a normal workout you want to crush.

Performance Cues

There's no need for pre-workout supplements when you have a powerful song or performance cue that gets you in the zone. Tie your "walk-up music" to a moment of excellent performance and notice the difference in your ability. Performance cues can help you calm down by simply saying "breathe" when you need to lower your heart rate before an event and pep you up by saying words like "beast mode," "crush it," "strong," "fast" or "all you got."

These phrases are powerful by themselves, but they are even more powerful when tied to an emotion. For instance, when trying to relax, focus on your breathing but also think of a time when you are at your most relaxed -- maybe taking a nap with your puppy or sitting on a beach. Basically, go to your happy place.

If you're trying to do the opposite and want to engage some of the powerful performance energy you have, tie the words to events when you won a race; hit a personal-record lift, run time or walk-off home run; finished a long race; or graduated.

Pro tip: Something I like to say before speaking engagements is "pregame jitters." It is a cue and a "name it and tame it" skill that calms me down and, along with relaxed breathing, will help any pre-speech anxiety.

Powerful Images

Sometimes you don't need words; just think. I have a workout partner who picks up his pace at the end of a workout by imagining his grandson is being abducted.

If you are into working through contingencies and "what ifs," there are good scenarios to prepare yourself for as well. Typically, my friend's performance in running will drop 15-20 seconds off his mile pace at that moment when he thought he was done. He used a visual or imagined image to prevent himself from quitting and performed at a higher rate than he had all workout.

Turn Off the Negative and Engage the Positive

We all have that quit demon in our heads. You truly have to tell yourself; don't just listen to yourself. That has to be positive. "You got this. Keep going. Never quit. Keep pushing. Just up this hill. Just around the corner. Just get to the next meal."

Ignore Pain

Dissociation is a skill that is difficult to explain; it is a part of all the above. When you are in pain and completely uncomfortable, you can go to that happy place and distract yourself for significant amount of time, either by focusing on something else or thinking about the past or future.

I remember sitting in the surf zone at about 8 p.m. after a full day of SEAL training that started at 5 a.m. It was one of those days that was supposed to be done after dinner, but it continued -- like many days do -- with no apparent end in sight.

I knew it was going to end eventually, within the next hour perhaps, and it did. But during that time, I spent most of the time thinking about the warm shower I was going to take after the day was done. I imagined putting on warm, dry clothes fresh out of the dryer. And then the foods I was going to eat and big glass of milk before going to bed. I imagined getting under the comforter and getting comfortable. All the while, we were sitting in the surf zone singing songs as a class in the dark cold.

Good Pain

If you do not want to go to that happy place, you can get a little more masochistic with your pain and call it "good pain." Sometimes you cannot just doze off, and eventually you will need to ignore it and be in the moment. You have tactical decisions to make that are more important than your present level of discomfort.

With the next workout that you have on the schedule, get your mind and body right by putting on your favorite tune and saying, "Let's Do This!" and get it done.

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Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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