The Mental Set Triads

A. J. Jacob’s new book, “Drop Dead Healthy” begins with something that just made me happy. He asserts that his past adventures, reading the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica and living year by following (as best he could) the Bible, prepared his mind and soul. Now, he is preparing his body. I love the book, but I’m an easy sell.

My whole “being” revolves around threes. In practically everything I do, I slide my thought process into Triads, 1-2-3, or “Three Points.” I applaud Jacob’s books and I am looking forward to my review on Amazon as I don’t always do this kind of thing there, but when I do, I tend to write a few volumes.

When I look at most athletes, I try to break down their needs into three things. Almost universally, it is Strength, Technique and the Mental Set. Now, I want to really explore Mental Set in this offering here, but as I look at the first two, I remind myself that I have made my career based on three concepts:
1. Put heavy things overhead.
2. Pick heavy things off the ground
3. Carry things for time or distance

Yes, it’s that simple. And, a generation of people have learned “Stretch-One-Two-Three” at my camps, clinics, and training sessions in the discus. I also tend to have my magical workout around three days or three big movements. I am in love with Olympic lifting workouts that are:
Clean and Jerk
Front Squat (Lather, rinse, repeat!)

Now, with Easy Strength and the Quadrants, don’t get too mixed up here. Yes, “Mental Set” is another quality, true, but I think the strength coach is uniquely qualified to teach the three basic points. For most people in sport, it comes down to two things:
Technique (Make it better!)
Strength (Get Stronger!)
The mystical aspect of these two points is that you will find that if you have appropriate levels of strength matching your technique you will do best. What do I mean?

Well, you can get really, really strong. In fact, it is probably the easiest thing I know how to do and teach. If your technique is low level, perhaps you just do a standing throw in the discus or only run like a soccer player when you are trying to win the 100 meters (oh, how many times have I heard that Edna is the fastest girl on the field in soccer, then she runs at a track meet blazing back and forth in the lane, but not going straight ahead!), but you have jaw dropping strength, you won’t really compete at a high level.

I had the opposite issue as a thrower. I had beautiful technique. I’m not bragging here. Opposing coaches used to film me as an example for their athletes. For years, I got my technique more and more beautiful, but ignored my legs and back. Once I started O lifting with Dick Notmeyer, I shot past everyone who had the big engines with subpar technique.

So, one of the things a group of us have been working on for a few years is “appropriate” strength levels for Quadrant III athletes. Using what I know from football helped. Basically, a high school girl who deadlifts 275 can do just about anything at a high level in sports. Boys really can help at the Varsity level when they clean 205. There are lots of other numbers, but the point is simple: basic levels of strength will support the high school athlete. Now, this boy could get up to a 300 pound clean and not be able to wrestle well or play football because of other issues, but, by and large, a 205 pound clean indicates enough strength to play at this level. Tom Fahey’s famous numbers for discus thrower at the elite level (250 snatch, 300 clean, 400 bench press, and 450 squat) are all reasonable and, it could be argued, even low. But, we also expect this elite thrower to throw 10,000 times a year for about a decade or so.

There are three parts to what I call “Mental Set.” They are all continuums in my head and if you read my work, you will know that is how I tend to think about most things. As you begin to explore this concept, you will see that the Quadrant II person, collision sports and collision occupations, will need to be able to slide back and forth from the extremes in all of the qualities. That is just another reason why it is a rare person that can be an elite warrior or NFL player. It’s not just the genetic gifts of size and speed, but the abilities to change focus, for example, in an instant.

The important thing to remember about the triad in the Mental Set is that they interact with each other. Well, of course they do. It’s a rare sport or person who can afford to narrow beam into one quality. In my system, we call this Quadrant IV, the rear air occupied by 100 meter sprinters and single lift powerlifters. So, as I go through, just remember that there will be a bit of spillage in this basic concepts.

For no particular reason, let’s start with my little continuum I call “Etching and Reaction.” Etching is my favorite term in sports psychology. It is the way you get names and pictures on glass by etching the marks on the plate. It tends to stay in place and if it is done wrong, it’s probably best to throw it away. Everyone has been etched by life and learning. Commercials do a great job here. If you are of a certain age and I say: “Winston takes good,” you WILL respond “Like a cigarette should.” Our City Fathers have just added a stop sign and people shoot past it every day as they have etched their approach to the freeway for years and this new stop sign isn’t yet being seen. Oh, it’s there, but etching is etching.

My favorite etching story involves Eric Lindquist, 2003 3A State Champion in the discus. He was having a tough season as he was throwing well, but couldn’t break his personal record. On the morning of the state meet, he called and woke me up and told me he was state champ with a massive new personal record on his first throw. I asked him what he did and he responded:

“I was so nervous, I could only remember the very first thing you taught me. Stomp and pick up the right foot. Next thing I know, the discus is just flying way past anything I had ever done.”

That’s why early teaching is so important: under stress, you fall back into what you etched. Often, it’s the first lesson you learned. This is the problem, in my humble opinion, with these tackle youth football leagues. Nobody tackles! They wrestle, maul, grab, reach and lurch, but nobody tackles. Later, we have to etch in a new pattern but the youth league superstars never seem to pick up the correct way to do this.

Discus Throwing and probably lifetime adherence to clean eating would be on the far end of the Etching Continuum. The opposite end would be something that is pure Reaction. I read once about a professional football coach discussing coaching defensive backs: “It’s like working with seals…nothing but reactions.” He meant the kinds of seals who bark at me in the bay and enjoy baitfish. There are sports, I imagine, that are nothing but reactions. I swear, I know some people who live just reacting to everything and anything.

So, on the far end, maybe, we put NFL defensive backs. I was taught that defensive backs also need very short and weak memories as they have to forget that they just got burned and just play and react. Most readers have probably already picked up the issue with reaction and etching: most sports demand that you react to something then do a movement or skill that must be etched. Right, exactly. That’s also why you hear great coaches discuss over and over the fundamentals. Fundamentals involve those few or dozens of skills that determine success in sports and battle. I sat with a warrior not long ago and he told me that he checks to make sure he is loaded with ammo literally every few seconds before getting off the helicopter. Once the firing starts, it’s too late to try to reload.

So, one could also argue that habits are etching. Jon Berardi’s “Precision Nutrition” is based on approaching diet and exercise from a habits base. I like it and I suggest that most people EITHER:
1. Have parents who insist on clean eating, exercise, no TV, and exposure to a variety of sports and games and you are forced to have excellent habits for a lifetime,
2. Or, try Berardi’s approach to slowly ratcheting up new and better habits.

An odd final point about etching and reacting before we move on: I’m not convinced I can increase your reactions very well. But, I think that mastering the fundamentals, become as etched as you can be, will speed up your reactions. The key is always fundamentals, true, but etching, as we saw in the case of Eric, has to be about the correct fundamentals, too. To quote a New York piano player, “Get it right the first time, that’s the main thing.” Oh yeah.

The next post in this Triad is the “Arousal” continuum. Of all the things I teach and preach, this is the most delicate. Now, I hadn’t put a name on this until recently, but my training certainly had the basics in it. Quick example: when in college, I had a meet against another school where it was painfully obvious that I was going to win and win big. I won’t mention the school because possibly my daughter goes there.

These guys were so bad, so poorly trained and coached, that it was hurting me as a thrower to watch them warm up and compete. These guys were not at the level of most high school kids I train. Coach Ralph Maughan came over to me and explained to me that I would spend the afternoon “Honoring them with my best performance.” As a thrower, it’s always about the individual, but I dialed up my intensity, my arousal, to somewhere around eight or nine on the scale. And, since a bunch of my readers are thinking this any way…the scale goes to “Eleven.”
Here…Nigel on “Eleven.”
Now, flip this to the Nationals or any other big event. Watch people get introduced and then walk around in a daze. Their arousal meter is on zero. To throw the discus far, or do whatever you do, you need to actively find the right place on the arousal scale. The Olympic trials might be as low as two or three for some. A massive deadlift is going to be all the way to eleven.

I use many tools to teach this. In “The Contrarian Book for the Discus Throw,” available free on my site, I have the “One Throw Competition.” The idea is to actually mess with the athlete’s head so that they learn to dial up and down the intensity needed to compete.

I hate that crap they do before NFL games where you get a guy yelling and woofing and screaming. Go to the games: it’s a set piece. Often, the guys yelling the most are not starters. Often? Probably always. Sure, sometimes you see a Quarterback there, but I would tell you that this is just either showboating or stupid. A QB needs to control his arousal. Any sport that demands “touch” is going to be important for arousal control. Sure, you can scream out as loud as you like before a 100 mile race, but I doubt it will do much for you at the 80 mile mark.

Glide Shot putters need more arousal than discus throwers. I know that when I played football, too much arousal made me lose my ability to focus on jobs I had to do. I usually had three tasks on defense and the opponent’s job is to get me off my task. Against El Camino, the wide receivers kept chopping me (legal at the time, but it was still considered poor play), so I went on a vengeful warpath. It didn’t help. My arousal to get revenge, played with my brain…I should have just lined up wider and took the angles away. So, you can get killed with poor arousal control.

It is possible to be too excited. In track, especially the throws and horizontal jumps, it is not uncommon to see the best marks happen in warm ups. But, long warm ups are poison as they tend to make the athlete just deflate like a balloon with a bad knot. PHHHHHHHHHHHHHH…and you are all done.

It’s been interesting to watch how some throwers always look for the new shiny penny when it comes to strength training. Their success or failure is rarely based on performance in the weight room. Of course, I always joke about strength coaches: “Last hired, first fired.”

A much better assessment for throwers is arousal levels. “I had nothing” indicates that we perhaps needed more meets where we actively worked on excitement or dullness up and down. I had an interesting experience a few weeks ago when a thrower told me the “I had nothing” story. It was the first meet of the year. The event started at eight in the morning. The athlete hadn’t had a bowel movement in a few days. Yes, that is a factor and if you think I am joking, it’s obvious you haven’t been around long enough.

My questions: How many times have you trained at eight? “Never.”

All further questions were worthless. If you have never trained in the morning, it’s really hard to compete. I like to get up on competition day really early to insure I take care of nature’s calls. I also preload myself with a lot of Sugar Free Orange Flavored Metamucil. If you think I am joking, go to a big track meet and compete. You will learn. You will learn.

So, how do you control arousal at eight in the morning? First, you have to practice then and see how much extra time you need to feel normal. I noticed this late in my career in the Stone Put at Highland Games. It is almost always the first event and some guys are barely out of bed, rubbing sleepies from their eyes, and looking for coffee. I felt that this was the reason my record at winning the Stone Put was so good: I got up early and spent a good amount of time drinking coffee, eating, relaxing and warming up. Folks, this stuff adds up!

The University of Hawaii has a wonderful home football field advantage called “Hawaii.” To get them back, so to speak, Air Force schedules their home games with Hawaii in cold and high Colorado at ten in the morning local time which is not the same as Hawaiian standard time in terms of sleep and warmth.

Strength coaches teach arousal every minute of every session. It’s so natural to rev the engine up a little more as we add load. A concentration curl is going to need less fierceness than a max deadlift. We all know this. My point is simple: carry it over into the technical and tactical work, too.

I tell you what: I will post this to get it out there, but more later, okay?

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