The Mind Trick Top Athletes Swear By


Mental conditioner Trevor Moawad on driving the success of athletes like Russell Wilson

Trevor Moawad was once dubbed the “world’s best brain trainer” by Sports Illustrated. And he’s got the resume to back it up: — He has worked to mentally condition athletic powerhouses like longtime Alabama Football coach Nick Saban and the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson. With the Super Bowl less than a week away, Moawad told our associate writer Amanda Svachula about mental strategies he teaches athletes to maximize their success on the field. It’s advice everyone can use — from his new book: It Takes What It Takes: How To Think Neutrally and Gain Control of Your Life.

Amanda Svachula: You’ve established yourself as one of the top mental conditioners in football. Why is mental fitness as important as physical fitness?

Trevor Moawad: With human performance, everything is sort of connected to how we are able to maximize our bodies, our minds, and our spirits. When we think about how we train, we have a lot of different elements that drive performance. The mind is one piece of the bigger puzzle. I would say that it’s just as important as your body.

What exactly is mental conditioning?

So if you think of physical conditioning — which is walking, running, jumping — mental conditioning is the belief that there’s a way you can exercise your mind, so that you can understand basic fundamentals of how you think, how you work. In mental conditioning, we focus on our external language, internal self-talk, external self-talk and at just developing a good foundation for the fundamentals of thinking. And then we make sure we’re constantly conditioning our mind by doing simple, better. A great athlete is the sum total of doing simple really well — managing all of the different elements that drive their success and making sure they’re staying on top of it on a consistent level.

What are the main lessons and philosophies you’ve learned from working with these professional athletes, like Russell Wilson?

I was raised in the self-help industry. What I’ve learned is that positive thinking is not the game-changer; Meditation is not the game-changer. Those can be the most difficult parts of conditioning ourselves mentally. Learning how to minimize negative thinking is significantly more impactful for us than trying to be more positive.

Also, what’s really important and fundamental is that — our internal thoughts don’t have nearly as much power as our external language. So when we say something out loud, it has 10 times more power than when we think it does. And according to Georgetown University associate professor Christine Porath, negativity is a multiple of four to seven times more powerful than positivity. So if I say something out loud and it’s negative, it impacts me 40 to 70 times more powerfully. So we really focus on teaching the minimization of negative thinking.

You’ve named this technique “neutral thinking.” What’s the key to thinking neutrally?

It’s based upon the idea of a car — which can go backward, neutral or forward. The idea of neutral thinking is this idea that when something good or bad happens, we don’t pretend it’s not real. When we acknowledge that, when something good or bad in our past happens — that the past is real, but it’s not predictive — what happens next is based upon what I do.

Neutral thinking is behavior-based thinking. It means focusing on the next set of behaviors as opposed to any outcomes. If I’m going into the Super Bowl, will I do the things — will I stay engaged, will I be physically fit while I get good rest? Do you want to be a good husband, coworker, or a good parent? Your behavior is what precedes your success.

Going deeper, part of this is getting rid of all of the negativity. Why are people sometimes hardwired to think so negatively in the first place?

Basically 10,000 years ago, we had dinosaurs, and all sorts of very scary, dangerous things, and our bodies were hardwired to avoid making any negative mistakes. If we didn’t assume the worst, we could die. We are still genetically similar to how we were 10,000 years ago when our expectations were much more wired to fear the worst.

That’s why we have to really get at that controllable power. The power is in your language and in your consumption, so you’ve got to control your language and your consumption. You can’t always control your work environment and the negativity that sometimes is a part of that, but you always control what and who you associate with. And most importantly, you can control what you say out loud.

How does your strategy change when you’re working with a coach, like Alabama’s Nick Saban, rather than just one player?

Very few businesses employ mental conditioning because most of our general assumption is we can’t change the way we think. But the upside of working with a coach like Nick Saban or Kirby Smart is that they’re in charge. So you can have a lot of influence on the entire organization when you and the head coach are on the same page. While it might be hard to change the way we think, we can always change the way we speak. And in a great organization, a great household, listen to the language that people use. How employees talk about the environment they work in, or how a son or daughter talks about living at home and the family — that usually defines the success of the group.

With the Super Bowl coming up — how do you usually prepare someone differently for a big game, when the stakes are higher?

You can’t be afraid of a big moment. One of the things I think that’s sort of unique for some people is they want to downplay a big moment. They want to make it seem like, “ You know what? It’s just another game.” It’s not another game. It’s a big game. And it can be significantly more important if you’re able to be successful in this moment.

However, there are psychological truths and one is that you can only think about one thing at a time. So what are the dominating thoughts that are going to allow me to succeed in this moment? When Russell Wilson and I were preparing for that second Super Bowl, he was focusing on playing with great balance, great fundamentals, being engaged and focusing on simple thoughts. It’s no different than if you wrote down a grocery list and you walked into Safeway — you would focus on getting the things that you wrote down.

There’s a great quote from Billie Jean King: “Pressure is a privilege.” The more valuable the moment is, the more opportunity for you to succeed. And that’s what it’s all about — finding a way to drive that success.

What do you recommend for the average person trying to work on changing their thought-patterns?

Be mindful of your external language. How do you talk out loud about your current situations? Secondly, do I understand what it takes to be successful in the things I want to be successful at? I think it’s very important I have an awareness of what allows me to be good in my job, and then identify those behaviors and get in alignment with those behaviors and who I am up until today. I’m accountable for everything I’ve done up until today. But who I am going forward is based upon what I do from today on period. Who I am going forward is based upon what I do, not how I feel. And then the last thing is “do simple better.”. Success is always in simplicity.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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