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Key Takeaways

  • Valerie Alston highlights the impact of perception on performance. She suggests adopting a ‘challenge mindset’ to view high-pressure situations as opportunities for improvement.
  • Valerie sees emotions as valuable sources of information about experiences, and she encourages recognizing and harnessing emotions productively rather than letting them drive actions.
  • Mindfulness is emphasized as a starting point for self-awareness, allowing individuals to evaluate their emotions, thoughts, and physiological state and respond consciously rather than impulsively.
  • Alston stresses the power of vulnerability in normalizing emotions and the importance of creating safe spaces for discussions about feelings, emphasizing that suppressing emotions is counterproductive.
  • Valerie underscores the power of vulnerability in normalizing emotions as part of the human experience. She mentions that creating safe spaces to discuss feelings and emotions is essential and that suppressing emotions is counterproductive.

Executive Summary:

Good day, everyone! It’s with immense pleasure that we present to you another riveting episode of the NEGOTIATEx podcast. We are joined by Valerie Alston, a performance coach, and master resilience trainer for the U.S. Army. Alston has been providing resilience training to soldiers since 2008, equipping them with the mental toughness required to handle high-pressure situations.

She holds a Master’s Degree in Mental Health, Sports Psychology from Boston University and is a certified mental performance consultant. Valerie is also a trained health and wellness coach from the Functional Medicine Coaching Academy. 

Over the years, she has channeled her experiences and learnings into her coaching business, mental toughness programs, books, and an app. Her goal is to equip young athletes with the wisdom, tools, and mental strength needed to succeed in sports and life.

The speakers discuss Alston’s book Confident Calm and Clutch: How to Build Confidence and Mental Toughness for Young Athletes Using Sports Psychology’ Valerie has very generously made her book available for free for our listeners. Be sure to follow this link and get your copy, or if you’d like to support her work we’d encourage you to purchase it.

With that said, let’s jump right in!

Valerie’s Journey of Developing Mental Toughness

While talking about her journey, Alston shares a pivotal story from her high school softball days that catalyzed her journey from an athlete to a professional coach.

She recounts a high-pressure situation during a championship game where her high school team was in a very competitive position. She had the opportunity to significantly impact the game as a fourth hitter with bases loaded but struck out on account of being unable to calm her nerves. Valerie was mindful of the enormous pressure of the moment and felt she had blown the game. 

This experience was particularly devastating as her team ended up losing the game by one run. But on the other hand, this defeat allowed Valerie to take personal responsibility for her role in the loss and give it another shot in the next season. 

Valerie sought to shoulder the team’s performance, leading to a tense start to the season. Observing her struggle, her father connected her with a sports psychology professional who helped her work through her problematic beliefs and provided training on breath control and mental focus.

These interventions led to a turnaround in her performance, and Alston had a successful junior year, with game-winning hits in every playoff match. The team won the championship, which Alston vividly recalls as a triumph. This significant journey from player to coach forms a key narrative in her work, emphasizing the importance of mental toughness and resilience.

Valerie’s Transition from Kinesiology to Sports Psychology

Aram highlights Valerie’s resilience in overcoming her struggles and how this led to her seek professional help, a turning point in her career.

Alston responds saying that at the time, she didn’t realize that this was the path she was destined for. She initially pursued her undergraduate degree in Kinesiology with the intention of coaching. After becoming part of a Division 1 program, she realized the lifestyle was not compatible with her values, due to the heavy commitment required, including extensive time spent on the road playing or recruiting.

However, her interest in coaching and understanding the mental aspect of sports remained strong. Alston, though a good athlete, felt she wasn’t always the most physically talented on the field. She had to grasp the game’s mental elements to excel, which sparked her interest in sports psychology as a potential career.

Once she started taking sports psychology classes, she realized that this field was the best way to gain a competitive edge. This realization led her to pursue a master’s degree in the subject, setting her on her professional journey.

Valerie On Performance Psychology and Resilience Training in the Military

Moving on, Nolan expresses his appreciation for Valerie’s work as a mental skills coach in the military. He shares his own experience with a mental skills coach while serving in the Second Ranger Battalion and acknowledges the scarcity of such professionals in the military.

Alston then provides a detailed description of her role as a mental skills coach and the concept of resilience training within the military context. Her work essentially encompasses two main elements: performance psychology and resilience training.

Performance psychology focuses on providing soldiers with the tools they need to perform well under pressure. This includes cultivating motivation, confidence, focus, and energy management, as well as teaching them how to train effectively so they can rely on their training in high-stress situations.

As far as resilience training is concerned, it helps equip soldiers with everyday life skills to manage stress and overcome setbacks and adversity. Given the demanding and often stressful nature of military life, including the toll of deployments, these skills are crucial. Resilience training focuses on teaching soldiers how to take calculated risks and recover from adversity and the unique demands military life imposes.

Valerie explains that this program operates on a preventative mental health model, teaching the cognitive skills often used in cognitive behavioral therapy. These skills help soldiers enhance their self-awareness, self-regulation, mental agility, optimism, and strength of character.

Overall, the aim is to help soldiers manage their mental health, recognize ineffective thinking patterns that might lead to anxiety or depression, and seek help from mental health professionals when necessary.

The Psychology of Performing Under Stress

Next, Nolan asks Valerie to explain what happens in our brains when we’re performing under pressure. Valerie highlights that pressure is, to a great extent, a mental construct. Depending on how we perceive pressure, it can significantly influence our outcomes. She cites research done by Kelly McGonigal on the stress response and how it impacts performance.

Furthermore, Valerie distinguishes between real life-threatening situations, such as being in a military combat situation, and perceived high-pressure situations, like sports competitions. In sports, the pressure isn’t life-threatening, but if an athlete perceives it as a ‘do-or-die’ situation, their performance can be adversely affected.

Additionally, Valerie emphasizes the power of a ‘challenge mindset,’ which perceives pressure situations as opportunities or challenges instead of threats. This mindset shift helps enhance performance. For instance, famous athletes like Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, and Steph Curry thrived under pressure because they wanted to be the ones to take the critical shots. They viewed these moments as challenges to rise to rather than threats to their success.

Alston concludes by advising that instead of spiraling into thoughts of what could go wrong, we should adopt a mindset that embraces the possibility of success: ‘What if it goes right?’ This mindset can influence our emotions, reactions, and, ultimately, our performance under pressure.

Harnessing Emotions for High Performance

When asked how to manage emotions, Valerie mentions the importance of seeing emotions as information or data about how we’re experiencing the world. She strongly believes it’s essential to approach emotions without judgment and to understand that emotions do not necessarily need to drive actions or reactions. 

However, she acknowledges that emotions can be very productive and serve important purposes, acting as fuel that can be directed in productive ways.

Valerie uses the example of anxiety or nervousness before a big event, noting that such emotions are normal and can indicate care or investment in the situation. She stresses that you can be nervous, confident, frustrated, and ready to make changes. 

According to her, asking whether the emotions one is experiencing and how one responds to them are productive. If the answer is no, stepping back and self-regulating may be necessary.

The Power of Vulnerability and Mindfulness

Finally, the speakers discuss the role of vulnerability and mindfulness in dealing with failure and managing emotions.

Aram feels that Valerie’s responses to managing failure and emotions require a degree of vulnerability. Valerie acknowledges that it is essential to create safe spaces for people to discuss their feelings and emotions. She emphasizes the importance of normalizing emotions as a human experience and explains that shutting off emotions is counterproductive.

Nolan then brings the conversation to mindfulness and its role in emotional management. Valerie sees mindfulness as the starting point and key to self-awareness, allowing one to slow down, pause, and evaluate what’s going on. 

She mentions the long-term benefits of regular mindfulness practice, as it can lead to a greater understanding of one’s thoughts, feelings, and physiological state. This understanding provides the space to decide how to respond to emotions rather than reacting impulsively.

Valerie, Aram, and Nolan discuss a lot more on this episode of the NEGOTIATEx Podcast. Write to us at team@negotiatex.com and share your thoughts on this very informational podcast episode.


Nolan Martin : Hello and welcome to the NEGOTIATEx podcast. I am your co-host and co-founder Nolan Martin. With me today, as always, my good friend, co-host, co-founder Aram Donigian. Aram, how are you doing today?

Aram Donigian : I'm great, Nolan. Thanks. Thank you so much. Hope you're doing well.

NM : Absolutely. I'm hanging in there. It's a little warm down here in Tampa, but I can't complain. [laugh]

AD : That's why you need to move to the Northeast.

Hey folks. Today we have a guest on, to talk to us about how we elevate our performance regardless of where we find ourselves. And today we're going to be looking at that through the realm, in the lens of sports psychology. Valerie Alston is a performance coach and since 2008 has been a mental skills trainer for the United States Army. She works with soldiers on resilience training to help them build the mental toughness needed to remain calm under pressure, focus on what they can control and persevere in life and death situations. A former division 1 softball player, four year starter and full scholarship athlete at the University of Minnesota.

Valerie grew up in Southern California and was on national level softball teams between the ages of 8 to 18. She has personally experienced the stresses and demands of being an elite youth athlete who dreams of playing in college and all the pressures and sacrifices that entails.

She understands the hard work, blood, sweat, and tears that it takes to excel in sports and the pressure of the recruiting process with its emotional ups and downs, as well as what it takes to win at the collegiate level.

She has a Master's Degree in Mental Health, Sports Psychology from Boston University and is a certified mental performance consultant with the Association of Applied Sports Psychology, as well as a trained health and wellness coach from the Functional Medicine Coaching Academy. By creating her coaching business, mental toughness programs, her books and app, Valerie hopes to share the wisdom, guidance and tools that she learned through her experiences. Her goal is to help young athletes learn from those who've gone before them. So they do not have to make the same mistakes, empowering them to take charge of their mental toughness through the tools needed to succeed in both sports and life.

Thank you Valerie, for joining us today.

Valerie Alston : Oh, that's good. I'm glad to be here. That was such a wonderful intro. [laugh]

AD : [laugh]. It's everything you've done and everything you're doing.

VA : Yeah, that's true.

AD : And, we're really going to focus on some things from your book and in your book, which is entitled, ‘Confident Calm and Clutch: How to Build Confidence and Mental Toughness for Young Athletes Using Sports Psychology’. You start with a story from high school. And how this puts you on a path to the work that you're doing today. I was wondering if you could maybe share that story and just for our listeners, kind of what your journey, this path from player athlete to professional coach.

The Psychology Of Winning: Unlocking Athletic Potential Through Mindset (04:07)

VA : Yeah. Essentially my high school team, so I had played travel ball in addition to high school ball and this was my high school team, which was a little bit lower competition because we were small private school. But regardless, we were very competitive team in our division and we made it through the playoffs and we were in the championship game and at the time I was the number four hitter, and catching.

And we had, we were the visiting team, we had gotten bases loaded. So I show up to the plate, my first at bat bass is loaded, like getting ready to rock this, like blow open this game. And I struck out like, what I'm looking and what I would remember most from that experience was that I could not calm my body down. I was so, and I had been in pressure situations before in my travel teams and elite tournaments and national tournaments.

But for whatever reason this game, you know, I was thinking about all my entire school came, you know, they bust the school over to watch the game. I'm like, it's my chance, it's my opportunity. And I was thinking I blew the moment up so big that I literally physically, like I can remember like taking deep breaths and in my head I'm like, why isn't this working? This isn't working. Why isn't working ?

And I was tight. I was not swinging fluidly and there were several pitches I could have hit. I swung at them. I just didn't hit 'em, fouled 'em off, that kind of thing. And ended up striking out looking. And for me that moment was just so devastating because we ended up losing the game by one run.

AD : Oh man!

VA : Now, there were still two people that had at bats after me that also could have done something too, but I took that on myself like it was my fault, right? It was my fault that we lost the big game.

And really what happened is I carried that over into the next high school season because at that point we had lost a couple, one of our better pitchers. And it was just a situation where I was like, okay, well I'm not going to let that happen again. I'm going to take everything on my shoulders and just be the team.

And as you can imagine, that did not work out well for me because I tried to take on a team sport by yourself does not particularly functional. What happened is that first part of the season I was really pressing, really trying to be perfect because I was under this impression that it had to be me. And I was awful. The first two weeks of the season.

The competition comparatively was not the same of what I faced in a regular basis in my travel season. And so it just didn't make sense why I was struggling so much. And essentially my dad noticed, he is like, okay. And got me some help from a sports psychology professional at the time and we worked through all these problematic beliefs that I had. Helped me with some breath training and some help me like turn my brain off when I was at the plate. And I was able to turn around pretty quickly and had an amazing season. That was my junior year. Had an amazing season. I think I ended up getting the game winning hit in every game in the playoffs that year. And we ended up winning the championship, The Southern Section Softball Championship, double off the wall.

AD : Like it just happened yesterday.

VA : I can Imagine jumping into the arms cause it was a walk off. We were the home team. So once I hit second base, I just beelined it to home plate and jumped on the file.

AD : I love that. I love the story because it just sets up, I mean your, again, your own experiences with both struggling and I feel like your response in that when you came back the next year and just trying to take it all on and right is just such a natural response and so grateful for, in this case, parental intervention right. To recognize that something wasn't right, get help. And at that time, once you started having the success with the help of this sports psychologist and coach, you knew at the time, it’s like, oh, this is what I'm going to going to do with my life.

Empowering Military Personnel: Resilience Training and Mental Skills Coaching (07:54)

VA : No, definitely not. It was the seed. It was an effective planting of the seed. I originally went to college, I got my undergrad in Kinesiology. I think I had visions of coaching I wanted to coach. But once I got to the D1 program and realized at the time the only way to really make money, for coaching was at that D1 Level and that lifestyle was just not congruent with the rest of my values. And when I didn't want to spend, you know, gosh, however many, days a year that they're on the road, either playing with their team or recruiting and doing all that. And I was just like, maybe I don't want to do this.

But I had a passion for coaching in some way and I had taken a couple of sports psychology classes as part of my Kinesiology degree. And just I was like, oh, this is interesting. I had always been really intrigued by the mental game. I mean, I was a good athlete, don't get me wrong, but I wasn't always the most elite like physically talented person on the field. And I had to really understand the game and like the gamesmanship piece to really excel. And so that sport psychology side was like, oh, this! This is what I can do to get the edge.

And so, you know, I started, I don’t know, for lack of a better term, experimenting on myself, in addition to what I had learned from, from the guy I was working with in high school. And I realized, you know what, this is what I want to do. So I went and got my master's. So it was.

AD : Very cool. We'll continue to dig more into the work you are doing.

NM : Yeah, absolutely. And thank you. I know that you spent basically the last 15 years working with soldiers and really appreciate it. I know that there's not enough of the mental skills coaches in the military. I first experienced the mental skills coach when I was in the second ranger battalion and some of the platoons got to experience actually working with the mental skills coach. So I know that it's something that's very valuable. So just kind of want to talk about, you know, if you could share a bit about the specific work that you do as a mental skills coach and what is resilience training within the military context?

The Resilient Warrior: Bridging the Gap Between Performance Psychology And Mental Health In The Military (09:58)

VA : Yeah, so the basic scope of the program that I work for is that we train kind of two main elements of mental toughness. The performance psychology side of the house that is focused on, in the moment under pressure, when I have to perform well, what are the tools that help me do that. So things like motivation, confidence, focus, managing your energy, learning how to train efficiently and effectively so that when you are under pressure, you can just let your training take over. And right. That you all know you were in the military. This idea of like the battle drills and everything that you don't want to have to think when stuff's going down. You just want to act on all that previous training that you've had. So the performance psychology side of the house is really helping people train more efficiently and effectively to unlock their performance when they need to under pressure, when it really matters.

And then the resilience side of the house is more about just the everyday life skills of managing stress, dealing with setbacks, adversity. As you are both familiar, the military life is not particularly easy while deployments are slowing down, you know, for the past 20 years we had soldiers in constant warfare going over, you know, that was, it's a big stressor that is not an everyday experience that people have. And sometimes I'm sure multiple deployments for a good majority of the folks, especially the years that I've been working for the Army between 2008 and now, you know, that's a constant.

And so the resilience side of the house is really helping them focus on; one, how do I take calculated risks in my life to make sure that I'm growing and thriving, but also how do I bounce back from the adversities and the very unique demands that the military life places on you..

So we train essentially, it's a preventative mental health model in that we're teaching people the skills that are often used in, for instance, cognitive behavioral therapy, helping them assess their thinking, self-regulation, their self-awareness, learning how to be mentally agile, how to build their optimism, their strength of character so that when they're faced with the inevitable in the military life, either, whether that's a move, right, a PCS (permanent change of station) or if they're going on a deployment, any of those things. And of course anything they have to deal with on a deployment, you know, they need those tools. They need to be able to be self-aware, what's going on with me? How's it working, what's not working, what's going on with my emotions? Is that helping me right now? Is that causing adverse effects?

And so the preventative mental health model's goal is to teach them the tools they need so that they can hopefully be proactive in their mental health that you can not fall into some of the ineffective thinking patterns that lead to anxiety, depression, etc. But even if you do, you can recognize it quicker before it gets severe and hopefully go get more specialized help from, you know, mental health professional, that type of thing.

AD : Yeah, You know, Val, do you see, just within the military context, like a reduction in maybe a stigma towards getting, you know, going and seeing a mental skills coach and getting this help, you know, around resilience is, is there less of a stigma? Is it more positive today in 2023 than say you know, 15 years ago? I mean, what's the response like, as you interact with soldiers?

The Lens Of Success: Understanding The Impact Of Mindset On Performance (13:30)

VA : I would say yes and it's certainly better than it was in 2008 when I first started with this program. Yeah, I had to do a lot more selling of why mental skills matter, why you should focus energy and effort on it, why you should train it just as much as the physical, technical, tactical. I have to do less of that selling now, as with all things in the military, everything's a priority, so nothing's a priority.

So, it's really hard, especially with the people first initiative. I think soldiers and leaders are more aware of the value and the importance of mental health and mental toughness in general. And they're trying, but there's just so many demands, so many different competing priorities. It's tough. So I would say it's lessening, especially using behavioral health services. Granted, I am not a mental health professional, so I would say the reason I say the stigma is less is that in, at least in my knowledge of my posts and installation that I work at, the mental health providers are constantly, they have no free time. They're constantly scheduled out. They're are booked through, you know, three months out often. So people are using them, people are using the services.

So that at least tells me that hopefully that stigma is going down. Do you still encounter a couple leaders out there that treat it poorly? Of course. There's toxic leaders everywhere in any organization, but it's certainly getting better.

AD : Yeah, that's nice to hear. You know, the value, having that value add, that you provide. You know, going to your book, and one of the things that caught my attention, and we're going to a number of things here, but you wrote this, there's a statement, which is ‘All the physical skills in the world don't guarantee success. Less talented athletes can beat more talented athletes because they are mentally tougher. Athletes who can't get out of their heads will struggle.’

And given what you were just sharing about your work with the military, I mean, it applies in that context certainly as well. And Nolan and I would say, hey, this applies in, you know, our realm of negotiation and influence and persuasion too anytime we're trying to perform. So I think that statement may surprise some people. And yet I think that's a key premise for the work you do and what you've been sharing. So why is mindset so critical in both sport and life?

VA : I mean, it's the view, it's the lens through which you're viewing your world. And so if you have a mindset that is optimistic, that is, you know, and by optimism, I know we get a lot of pushback in the military, specifically when you ask, hey, are you a pessimist or optimist? They always say, well, I'm a realist. And usually the pushback is because they have a flawed perception of what optimism is. They see it as positivity and they're truly not the same thing. Optimism is more about being able to hunt for what's good, recognizing that there is good, in your experience, fighting the natural negative bias that exists in our life, but not trying to get rid of it. We don't want you to pretend, Pollyanna type thing. You need to be realistic. If you're in a crummy situation, seeing it accurately is productive and so that you can take the steps you need to take control, what you can control to move forward productively, etc.

And so your lens, whether it's optimism, having a growth mindset, being able to perceive your experiences in a way that is productive for you is essential to functioning, right? Our thoughts and our perceptions drive our emotions, our physiological responses, and our actions. And so if you have a belief going into, let's say you've got a young athlete who's wildly talented, but now they're facing, they've moved up through the ranks, now they're at a higher talent level, competition, you know, travel organization, something along those lines.

Now they've got kids that are pretty equal to them in talent. And that's the first time they've pushed or had to compete for a spot. You know, if their mindset is, well, if I have to try, this is the first time I've ever had to try, I must not be good enough. Well, that mindset is going to plateau their growth and development. Whereas a kid who's always had to be like, yeah, I gotta fight. Absolutely. You know, yeah, I gotta try real hard, I gotta work harder, I gotta put in the effort. If they've always had that mindset, that effort is just part of the game. It doesn't scare them when they have to then put in effort and make and work hard to get good.

And so just in my experience, and there's many specific mindsets that people can have around pressure moments, competition specifically. You know, being a good teammate, whatever that is. But the general lens through how you're viewing something is going to influence your actions, your behavior, your emotions. And so it's for me, the linchpin or succeeding.

AD : Well, it's such a big part of the work we do too. I just, the connection between our thoughts, our beliefs, the assumptions we have, how that drives, as you were saying, the emotions and the actions and that ultimately leads to whatever sort of results or outcome we get. Unless we're willing to go back and challenge that mindset that's got us maybe in a fixed place, we're going to have a hard time, you know, growing and learning and improving

VA : Specifically for negotiation. I know that if, for instance, mindset wise, if you go in with the perception, this is scary.

AD : Yeah.

VA : That's going to influence the entire interaction you have with somebody that you're negotiating. You're making positions, this is scary, or you're going to be more fearful, you're going to have more of a fight or flight response. You're probably going to be less fluid, less focused on what is that person saying to me? Am I hearing what they're saying? And more focused on your internal like, oh my God, this sucks scary.

NM : I love to keep digging into this. Because I know that you refer to the human brain as an amazing device. So I was hoping you could describe what is going on inside our brains when we're trying to perform under pressure and how it affects what we do in those situations.

Failure As Fuel: Harnessing Setbacks For Growth And Mental Toughness (19:22)

VA : Yeah, It's interesting because again, pressure is just another circumstance. And again, depending on how you're choosing to view it, it's going to drastically change your outcomes. There's a lot of wonderful research about this. A couple different researchers, Kelly McGonigal about the stress response, a couple other folks. But this idea of pressure is essentially a mental construct, especially in sports when there are in fact no life or death circumstances. Certainly in the military there might be some you know, if you're getting shot at, that's, that pressure's very real. But in sport, right? There's not, very rarely a life and death circumstance. And so, but if you're treating it that bad or you're treating a quarterback, a pressure down, you know, third down in short situation whatever. If you're treating it as, oh my gosh, if I don't succeed in this moment, my life is over, we lose the game. So your perception of the event itself is going to change your experience of it.

And if you can move towards a challenge mindset, which is, this is a challenge or an opportunity instead of a threat or this is scary. You're going to be more successful. And you can, at least, you can see this in a lot of the athletes basketball comes to mind because Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Steph Curry, right? In pressure situations, they want the ball. They want to be the person who's like, yeah, give it to me. I'll take that shot, I'll see if I'm up to the task.

And so a pressure moment is like anything else, it's just a moment and how you're choosing to perceive it is going to influence, you know, your emotions and your reactions related to that. And so if you can see it as, hey, this is an opportunity, this is a challenge. Yes, it's hard, but it doesn't mean I can't do it, or kind of a what if circumstance in the other direction. Most people are thinking, what if, and then what if it goes wrong? And then they start spiraling on those consequences. But if you can take it from a what if it goes right [laugh].

AD : Yeah, that. What if it goes wrong, mindset is, to me it's the fear of failure, right? And, maybe it's failure in the moment. Maybe it's continued failure over a season. Things aren't going well, but you know, failure is something that comes up in your book, I would assume. It's the opposite of maybe that challenge mindset, is a failure fixated mindset. Failure can feel so final and it's a, you know, this freezing sort of response. We just want to run away from it. We see this in negotiation, right? The fear of rejection, the fear of a no, it causes people to negotiate less effectively. So how do you approach failure directly? I mean, do you talk life to that word? And I mean, with athletes, how do you transform it from fear into mental toughness?

AD : Yeah, that. What if it goes wrong, mindset is, to me it's the fear of failure, right? And, maybe it's failure in the moment. Maybe it's continued failure over a season. Things aren't going well, but you know, failure is something that comes up in your book, I would assume. It's the opposite of maybe that challenge mindset, is a failure fixated mindset. Failure can feel so final and it's a, you know, this freezing sort of response. We just want to run away from it. We see this in negotiation, right? The fear of rejection, the fear of a no, it causes people to negotiate less effectively. So how do you approach failure directly? I mean, do you talk life to that word? And I mean, with athletes, how do you transform it from fear into mental toughness?

Embracing Unsuccessful Attempts as Opportunities for Growth and Learning (22:10)

VA : Yeah, I think for me, the biggest thing is to recognize, to help normalize what failure actually is. And having a different definition of failure. So in my book, trying something and being unsuccessful is not a failure because you tried, you put, you took that calculated risk, you put an effort to do something, and it, you learned. And because of that learning experience, you're going to be even better.

Failure, for me, is just the moments where you were not successful and then choose to do nothing differently or choose to not evaluate what happened or take it as an opportunity to learn and develop and grow. And so, especially, you know, in the sport of softball or baseball for, I do work with athletes from every walk of life, but it's easier to talk about with softball or baseball. But you literally, failure is built into the game. The best in the world, the people being paid the, you know, millions and millions of dollars to play the game still fail six out of 10 times.

So, and “statistically fail”, doesn't mean they had it bad at bat. And so unfortunately a lot of the youth specifically today have really been protected from the everyday normal failures. Okay, you fell and scraped your knee. Wow, okay, well I'm going to learn how to do that thing differently so that I don't fall again. Whereas now we've got 'em all padded up and you know, or we don't let 'em, you know, I know when I was a kid, if I forgot my lunch, a failure moment, guess what? I had to bum food off my friends for that day. Mom didn't go get it, their parents were working, right? They couldn't go get my lunch and bring it back.

Or if I failed an assignment or something, I was held accountable for that. And I had to deal with the real world consequences of that. And I learned it's very normal. Like, oh, okay, this is just normal thing. It's just life. and I think for a lot of our youth today, we are doing them a disservice by protecting them from those everyday normal failures. And so now they don't realize it's normal. They don't realize that's a very common experience. And now when they do experience their first failure in maybe a big game or their first bad grade, they crumble because they haven't built the tools and the over, you know, a lifetime of childhood of the everyday normal fall on your face failures.

So they've got a really skewed perception of what failure actually is. And so I do a lot of work trying to help them reassess what that means. And that a failure, how they're defining it is usually I wasn't perfect Yeah, Nobody is. I don't even know this. Nobody is. So I try to help them really broaden their definition of what success is so that less things feel like a failure.

NM : I know Aram’s over there taking notes because he's the one with the seven kids, so…

AD : Only six.

NM : Maybe 7, 8, 9. Just kidding.

VA : Is there dogs there?

NM : No. But, definitely, you know, something helpful, I know that we've actually had quite a few guests that come on here that echo those same things that, hey, maybe we're just not allowing our children to succeed and fail. Or sorry, allowing them to fail, obviously allowing them to succeed.

AD : And normalizing it.

NM : Yeah. So I know that another thing that we cover or that you cover is kind of talking about emotions and emotions are another one of those sticky things that we often try and avoid. I know that I am, you know, the most guilty of them all, just give 'em that good old Heisman stiff arm. But yet emotions I know can be good things, informative source of power. So what can we learn from your work with soldiers and athletes to better manage our emotions and potentially the emotions of others?

Leveraging The Power Of Emotional Energy In Sports and Life (25:48)

VA : Yeah, I think the biggest thing that you gotta just constantly be asking yourself is, one is what I'm feeling working for me. There is no, the best way to approach it, is without judgment. It's okay that you're feeling whatever it is you're feeling angry, mad, happy, glad, you know, sad, whatever you're feeling is just information. It's just data of how you're experiencing the world. And it doesn't mean that you have to act on it. It doesn't mean that it has to drive your next reaction or response. It just is. And I think too many people assume that what they're feeling needs to be used or utilized.

Now, there are many times where your emotions at, as you mentioned, Nolan, are very productive if you're talking about like getting motivated for a big interaction. You know, thinking about, okay, here's what I want. I'm excited, I'm going to get in there, I'm going to negotiate and advocate for my whatever my pay, my hours, whatever it is. Emotion is fuel in any direction, it's fuel. And so if you can direct it in the right way, it's often very powerful. And most emotions serve a very important purpose, in particular anxiety, right? I know I teach the nervousness or anxiety. I have to often teach this to my young athletes and my soldiers that I would be concerned if you were going into an evaluative event and you weren't nervous, because that means to me that you don't care, right?

And if you have no nerves about a big moment, like I am concerned. Now, your nerves are not directly tied to your preparation and your confidence. Like you can be nervous and confident, you can be frustrated and ready to make change, right?

And so I think the more that people can just ask that question, what is this doing to me? And the way I'm responding from this emotion, is it productive? Is it helping me, you know, stay in the conversation? Is it helping me act in a way that's appropriate for the situation? Is it helping me perform, execute, you know, a particular skillset? If the answer is no, then you gotta step back and do some self-regulation and readjust, right? And for a lot of people sometimes that's just acknowledging what you're feeling and naming it and saying, yep, I'm frustrated.

NM : That's such an awesome way that you framed that because you know, the, what you are feeling is just data. I've never really thought about it in that sense. And then what do you do with that data? No, I think that, that's awesome and, and something I plan to steal from you moving forward, so.

AD : I would say your responses on both how you deal with failure and how you engage with emotions, both are, both lead to some vulnerability on our part to engage with. That's gotta be hard to do that work.

Present-Moment Performance: Harnessing The Benefits Of Mindfulness In Emotional Management (28:46)

VA : It's not easy. and I know the way I offer my coaching is typically one-on-one, but I do some group coaching too. And it's one of those circumstances, you do have to create some safe space for people that they're willing to talk about what they're feeling and how they're dealing with it. But I think the more we can normalize that emotions are human, it is literally what makes us different from any other thinking creature out there. So we have emotions, we feel, it's also how we connect with other people is through our emotion and empathy and all those things. And so to try to just shut it off and pretend you're not experiencing those emotions, it's just wildly counterproductive. So…

NM : And it sounds like what we're talking about here is being mindfulness, understanding your emotions. So what's the role of mindfulness practice and kind of this emotional management?

VA : For me, it's the starting point. it's that key self-awareness piece of I have to be able to slow down and hit the pause button and ask myself like, what's going on? And then obviously mindfulness, there's long-term benefits for having a regular practice of being mindful. You do become more attuned to what you're thinking and feeling and your physiology and what's going on for you. And with that, the more understanding you have, it's a lot easier to make those decisions to gain distance from the emotion that you're actually in the moment experiencing and saying, okay, yep, I'm angry right now, or I'm really sad right now, or I am bumped, right? It's like, okay, all of that is wonderful that it's what I'm experiencing. Am I going to choose to act on that? Yes. No. Right?

So, it gives you that space to decide instead of react, to respond instead of react. And I think what's so vital for having a regular mindfulness practice is that it brings you back to the present moment. Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the foremost, mindfulness folks, he defines it as being in the present moment without judgment. like just being where you are. And that's where performance is. It's in the moment. it's not in the future, right? And it's not in the past. It's right here, right now. And so the more you can train your brain and your body to be in that present moment, the easier it is to act right to stay present and deal with what's happening in that moment.

NM : Hey everyone, Nolan here. I have to jump in and end today's podcast for part A of this show. Be sure to rate, review and subscribe to the NEGOTIATEx podcast if you haven't already. And also join us next week for part B of this awesome interview.

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