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The Value of Visualization Skills

In a recent Men’s Fitness article Steph Curry of the Warriors was asked, “How do you mentally or emotionally prepare yourself for a game?” His response, “I take about five minutes before every game and I either try to be by the bench or somewhere near the court, where I can visualize what I want to accomplish that night…that way I can almost feel like I’ve been there before, even though I haven’t. It can calm your nerves, and give you a sense of comfort when you’re out there.”

Visualization is a skill that takes time to train. Athletes at any skill level can develop this skill by incorporating five to ten minutes of quality visualization four times a week into their athletic training program. Visualization is the process of seeing yourself performing or practicing a sport related skill in specific situations. Through repeatedly visualizing yourself perform a skill with correct form and effective energy level you can enhance your performance by programming the appropriate responses to specific situations. For example: A basketball player who in close games experiences nervousness before a free throw through visualization practice over time can change the experience of the free throw into an opportunity to step up to the line with confidence in various game situations.

Visualization is a skill that compliments physical practice. Another part of Curry’s routine is to take a lot of practice shots. He practices a wide array of shots and repeats them over and over again. Physical practice and visual imagery compliment each other as they use overlapping neural networks in your brain that create memory consolidation.

J.T. Holmes: experiencing flow

J.T. Holmes is a professional skier and extreme adventure sportsman. He has years of professional skiing experience competing world wide. This year J.T. combined three of his favorite sports, speed riding, skiing and base jumping to descend the Eiger Mountain in the Bernese Alps. His journey took about three minutes and 60 Minutes was on hand to document his epic adventure. A few of his previous extreme athlete jobs have included participating in action adventure films for Warren Miller Entertainment, filming footage for extreme sports videos, wingsuit flying in movies such as, Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon, helping stunt teams coordinate speed flying scenes for movies including, Fast & Furious and Godzilla. Back on the ground, J.T. is the Director of B.A.S.I.C.S., Being, Aware, Safe, In, Critical, Situations, a program service through the High Fives Foundation. The B.A.S.I.C.S. program promotes safety and awareness through world class coaching of action sport athletes and create videos that promote critical thinking to winter sport enthusiasts of all ages.

SZ: What’s the process for you that goes into preparing to descend the Eiger and some of your other big projects?

J.T. successfully speed winged, skied, and base jumped off the Eiger this year

J.T. Holmes: The Eiger is a great example because the check list was incredibly long and thorough. Even the safety checks on the top of the mountain were critical and extensive. In regards to physical preparation, my sports are gravity sports and they don’t require a lot of physical fitness-strength. It’s not like I am powering the mountain. I do yoga and a lot of hiking, cycling and swimming. I swim in Lake Tahoe in the summer. I will wake up and swim about 1.7 miles, a pier to pier training. I prefer exercising outside so what I choose is specific to the season. I’m the guy that needs to be in nature and when you’re dealing with nature you take the offerings that exist for any given day. Some days that might be a perfect single track trail for mountain biking, or perhaps it’s a group of friends that are going road cycling. I recently got a brand new Santa Cruz Bronson mountain bike which is just awesome. It’s amazing how balanced it is and the traction I get. It’s really rejuvenated my stoke for mountain biking.

SZ: I’ve been in that bike shop those bikes are beautiful. Do you go to the gym at all?

J.T.: Typically in the Fall I will do a bit of plyometric stuff but in general it’s more about working on my flexibility which is something I struggle with. I’ve had some injuries over the years. I also grew quite quickly so I’m naturally quite stiff. I combat that with stretching,  and yoga. Typically the first thing I do after waking up in the morning are hamstring stretches. I lie down with my feet up against the wall and my gluts up against the wall and stretch my hamstrings. Everything works a lot better once I’ve got loose hamstrings.

SZ Do you work with a physical trainer?

J.T.: I do not work with a physical trainer although I should and I may do that going forward. But at the moment I don’t.

SZ: Do you incorporate and meditation, visualization or other mental focusing skills into your preparation?

J.T.: I don’t mediate but yes I visualize. I practice route sighting a lot with skiing and ski-gliding. What this involves is I take a photo of a mountain and I memorize it like it’s a trail map. When I get to the top of the mountain suddenly it’s inverted. All the landmarks are now opposite than how they are in the photo. For example, a landmark that was on the left side of the photo is going to be on my right as I look down the mountain. That’s a technique I’ve been using for years. As a professional skier for ski films like Warner Miller Entertainment when I go to Alaska or Squaw Valley and I am at the top of a mountain often I can’t see the whole thing. So I memorize it from the photo that I took. I also use really good binoculars with an image stabilizer. I survey the mountains I descend from all different angles available to me. I spent years looking at the Eiger through my binoculars. Sometimes I would just ski around and get different vantage points or ride different chair lifts. I took the Jungfrau railway to help me survey the landmarks on the Eiger from a different vantage point. When I do this I am not just surveying landmarks but I’m observing how the snow is sticking to the mountain. Prior to my Eiger run there was a storm that came from the southwest that worked well it was positive snow. I had a perfect understanding of what kind of storm cycle that I would need and then I was able to call in the production team to complete the Eiger objective.

I use a lot of visualization and use of landmarks. Then a lot of training is gear intensive. My gear needs to be like a second skin, a comfortable old glove. I need to be at one with my gear, not compromising comfort in order to gain performance. I prefer to use the same parachute that I’ve been using for twelve years rather than the new fancy one that has a little more performance. My logic is to decrease the amount of variables. There are certain variables I can’t control, but the one’s I can control are the one’s that I need to be as comfortable with as possible. That’s why I use tried and true equipment. I choose a piece of gear and stick with it. When I get a piece of gear and I don’t like it I get rid of it. Usually with a parachute, a speed wing or a pair of skis first impression is everything. I either bond with it or not.

SZ: When you near a big project date how do you keep your mind calm enough to sleep well in the days and nights before leading up to the event?

J.T.: That’s a very good question. I have a hard time with that and I can have a hard time with sleeping before a big event like the Eiger. What I make myself do is completely disconnect after dinner. I scratch looking at e-mails, phone and whatever. I disconnect. A good book helps me. If that’s not working sometimes I will use an over the counter drug like Ambien, or more frequently when performance is near I will take an Advil PM just as a sleep aid. I find that over the counter aids are a good choice nearer to when I will be doing technical performances because the over the counter aids are a little more mild. I will not plan any kind of high risk physical performance for days when I am going to be jet lagged. When I arrive in Europe and there’s a nine hour difference I have a hard time falling asleep and then have a hard time waking up in the morning. I arrived in Switzerland a month prior to the Eiger event.

SZ: You don’t utilize any natural skills to quiet down your nervous system such as rhythmic heart breathing?

J.T.: That’s something that I’m going to be doing more of. I was invited to the Red Bull High Performance Camp where they teach those skills. The athletes that attend are taught through effortless breathing they can slow their heart rate and it helps them fall asleep very effectively. I’m extremely curious about it. At the time of the Red Bull invitation the week prior to it Erik Roner had a fatal accident and my head wasn’t in the right space to go. I had witnessed Erik’s accident so I skipped camp. But I’ve picked up some ideas from other athletes who have attended. I have found them to be effective. Do I use them regularly? No, because I haven’t been properly trained in them. But I do experiment with them. I absolutely do believe that there’s a lot to be gained there to help my sleep.

SZ: Who are the folks that make up your team of experts that you consult with regarding weather conditions, terrain conditions, etc?

J.T.: Mountain guides, locals, helicopter pilots, skiers those are all the people that I source for information, even border line pester for information. After I finally completed the Eiger stunt I think that there were a certain few people who had been receiving my very regular phone calls that are probably pleased to not see my number on their caller i.d. anymore. (Laughing).

SZ: What have you done or currently study to understand weather conditions, types of snow and topography to formally empower your knowledge and increase safety awareness?

J.T.: It’s experience. As a skier I learned quite a bit about what the snow’s going to do, and layers of snow. When I become an airborne sportsman I’m very much in tune with the wind and altitude. Through paragliding and other paragliders’ I’ve learned a lot about weather, wind and how temperature affects the air and when turbulence occurs. I started paragliding a few months ago and since I’ve started that sport I’m blown away by how much I don’t know about weather and weather patterns. It’s a fascinating field that I’m enjoying learning more about.

"Fun is the goal and the redefining what's possible is the goal." J.T. Holmes

SZ: When you jump the rush of adrenaline that produces extreme clarity is frequently described as being in a flow state. Before taking off on the run or jumping from a platform do you feel a place of centeredness? Or is it after you take off the experience demands your full attention and brings your mind to this place of heightened awareness?

J.T.: Certainly I feel a heightened awareness before going because one thing I really notice is how observant I am. I pick up pieces of knowledge, or rather pieces of information about what conditions are that I might not other wise have noticed. Whether it’s a pattern of the way a bird is flying around, I am aware of what’s happening with the bird. If the bird is flapping it’s wings it means that its working to fly. If the bird is soaring or coasting that means that the wind is coming up the mountain and it’s helping the bird achieve with ease. I notice are the birds playing? There are certain birds particularly in the alps that recreate. They will be doing barrel rolls, flying in formation or flying interesting little lines. If it’s a good time for them to be playing it may or may not be a good time for me to be playing. But there is information there to be had. I notice every little thing whether it’s the texture of the snow beneath my feet or noise.

The mountain guide on the Eiger project made a comment after we completed the project that I hadn’t really even noticed at the time but, when he was helping me put on my ski’s I clicked my ski in but didn’t like the sound that the binding made. So I took it off and cleaned my boots more and just clicked in again until I heard a very familiar sound that I am completely familiar with. Little things like that, noticing visual cues of the shimmer of the snow gives me information as to what the sun is doing to the snow.  There is a heightened awareness there, flow state absolutely. Before I drop in on a ski run or a wingsuit flight or anything that’s high speed and high risk I use my cognitive brain. I use everything that I have learned in all my best logic. I’m thinking about do I have the right equipment for the job? Do I have the ability to jump from point A to point B? Do I have the right amount of speed so I land the landing and clear the rocks but not land too far? I am thinking about all these things. Do I make two turns to check my skis or one? Or do I just go straight and tuck to get as much speed as possible? There are all these things I contemplate. It’s all this logical thinking and then 3-2-1-Go.

Once I take off I’m just doing it, yet I have a plan and I stick with that plan. I look for my landmarks and carry out the route as much as possible. I try to live the visualization that I have of the whole thing coming together beautifully. But what typically happens is my cognitive brain kind of gets pushed a little bit to the side and I just go with it. I stop thinking so much and I react to the situation. Some of the most beautiful skiing I’ve seen is when people are just slightly out of control. I love watching skiing that is slightly out of control. That doesn’t mean that I am watching a skier like Bode Miller although Bode is an amazing skier who skies on the edge of control that’s why his name comes to mind.
But you can see a child who’s going too fast and is just reacting. The child keeps finding ways to slow down and his jacket is flapping in the wind and his eyes are probably watering through his goggles. That’s beautiful skiing because the skier is kind of relaxing and pulling things off to stay balanced. I’ve been doing this now for twenty years and the best skiing I see out of myself is when things kind of went a little different than planned and I’m reacting.

SZ: It’s sensory spontaneity.

J.T.: It’s cool and I kind of have that moment of “holy smokes,” that gives me that kick in of adrenaline as I’m trying to pull things off. I am in a sensory spontaneous mode. But I look back and realize how capable I was in that mode. I’m able to perform better than I could have imagined. Certainly better than I could have planned for. But that’s fun stuff and that’s what I think Steven Kotler in his book, “The Rise of Superman” was writing about.

SZ When you prepare to zip down a mountain skiing or flying you spot previously determined alternate routes?

J.T.: That’s correct. Anytime I’m in the mountains I identify safe zones. If you look at my Eiger descent it looks totally radical but I incorporated three sports during those runs. I could have stopped at phase one or phase two, although not at phase three. Once I launched my glider off the top if I had missed my mark and hadn’t landed on the right landing site on the Eiger to cut away the speed wing and start skiing I could have just flown on down and gotten back in the helicopter and gone back to the top. If I had missed my landing I would of at least flown down and landed safely. In phase two, okay I’ve landed and cut away the glider, now I’m on my ski’s and I’m cruising along towards the edge of that cliff. There was enough time to stop. I could have slowed down and just stopped at phase two. If though I had reached the last 100 ft. because I was going so fast I would not have been able to stop before reaching the edge, at that point I am 100% committed, and I’m cognizant of passing that point.

SZ: What is the history of the wingsuit? Who thought it up and how was it tested?

J.T.: In general the pioneers of wingsuit flying were French. There was a guy named, Patrick de Gayardon that designed early day wingsuits. Then there were also friends of his who were all wizards and incredible sportsmen and pioneers.

SZ: Were they doing the same type of combined stunts that you do shifting from skiing to flying?

J.T.: No they were just skydivers, sky surfers and base jumpers. Several of the guys had a pretty decent knowledge of several airborne sports including paragliding, skydiving or base jumping. It can be argued who was the inventor of the wingsuit but in all those conversations Patrick de Gayardon is going to come up.

SZ: I’m assuming there were some failures in this process?

J.T.: Patrick de Gayardon died but it didn’t have anything to do with the wingsuit. He made a rigging error and his parachute was unable to open. de Gayardon made one of the first wingsuits that was really easy to fly and was great for consumers. Before him there were two guys, Robert Pecnik of Croatia and his business partner, Jarl Kuosma of Finland who formed a company called Birdman, Inc. They developed a suit called the Birdman Classic that was the first wingsuit offered to the general public. There were failures along the way. There was an Austrian guy named Franz Reichelt who jumped off the Eiffel Tower in 1912 in something he thought was a wingsuit, he died. Humans trying to fly is nothing new. The design and materials have evolved a lot and wingsuits have become extremely easy to fly and get incredible performance out of. I first began flying wingsuits around 2002. When I started flying the wing suits weren’t that good. You had to be really skilled to get a lot of performance out of them. Now it’s different. It’s kind of like a sixteen year old being able to buy a Ferrari and that’s not always a good plan.

SZ: Is it a problem people buying the suits and not being experienced enough to fly them?

J.T.: I think so because people get into these wingsuits and they feel a great deal of confidence quite soon. It doesn’t take much and you’re ripping. There’s so much visibility now with wingsuit flying because people have Go Pro cameras and are able to share through YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and all these platforms. There is all this information out there and the ability to see all these different wingsuit pilots whether it’s at the local parachute center or the local base jumping destination. The norm has become rather high and it didn’t used to be that way. You get a lot of people feeling a lot of confidence without a lot of experience and they can get themselves into trouble.

SZ: Which is interesting in that extreme sports are built around a sense of free form and “Watch me, can you do this?” Yet it can be quite dangerous.

J.T.: That’s just it I’m not into regulating bodies. I’m not into limiting progression and having some kind of body establishing guide-lines and saying, “You can’t do this until you’ve completed a per-requisite skill evaluation.” That’s why I started my program with the High Fives Foundation. The B.A.S.I.C.S. program acronym stands for, Being, Aware, Safe, In, Critical, Situations. Frankly we just want to get people to use their heads at least just a little bit. To understand how much training happens behind the scenes. You can go on the news feeds on the internet and see amazing footage of a quadruple corked flip on ski’s now. Or people flying their wingsuits really low to the ground. In every single sport the bar is rising higher and higher and our mission at B.A.S.I.C.S. is to show people what the pre-requisite skills are. We show an Olympic gold medal freestyle skier doing simple flips into a swimming pool. Or a snowboarder talking about avalanches and helmets. We then go out to schools coast to coast and show the videos. We made one called, “Helmets Are Cool.” The latest video is called, “Choices.” It’s all about making smart decisions. We all unfortunately know it’s very important.

SZ: It’s great role modeling on your part. Some people in your position may have an attitude of each person needs to look out for themselves. You’ve taken the position of  making yourself available to engage with the next generation of extreme athletes and attempt to reach them with educational information that could save them from serious injury.

J.T.: It is my way of giving back and it’s in a way that’s not saying, “Don’t do this, don’t do that.” Because when you’ve got that adventure gene you’re going to do it anyways. We use our visibility to share a good message. “Please think of things in a step by step way. Please wear your helmet. Please take note of all this information that’s around you when you are out in the back country skiing.” It’s been fun and it’s been hard work but rewarding.

SZ: In the book, “The Rise of Superman,”  professional outdoors-man Jimmy Chin is quoted, “The greatest athletes aren’t interested in the greatest risks. I mean sometimes they’re taken, sometimes not, but those physical risks are a by-product of a much deeper desire to take creative risks.” Do you agree with him?

J.T.: I agree that the risk isn’t the goal. The fun is the goal and the redefining what’s possible is the goal. I love combing sports. Have you ever gone rock climbing with a base rig?

SZ: (Laughing) No.

J.T.: Have you ever gone skiing? That’s fun, but have you gone skiing with a base rig?

SZ: (Laughing) No.

J.T.: That’s really fun. Maybe it’s not a base rig but a parachute, the speed riding wing now that’s a hoot. Actually that makes things safer because if there is an avalanche and I have that parachute I can most likely just hold on with my two hands and lift up and fly away and avoid it. Just in a sense of mountain transportation I can ski powder on the North face of the Aiguille du Midi in Chamonix and I’m only exposed to the dangerous zones for a minute or two. Whereas if I were to ski the same place without a parachute I would have to get out the rope and set an anchor and repel. During the whole process of rigging or repelling I would be prone to avalanche, rock fall, all these things.
Sometimes the creative process of pioneering something new can work out a way for things to be safer. So it’s very true we’re not there seeking risk.

SZ: Is there a new generation of base jumpers coming up?

J.T.: There is a new generation of base jumpers coming up. Base jumpers come from all walks of life. I see base jumpers that are new and doing everything right. They are taking a considered approach. They are thinking about each step of the process. They are developing their skills, jumping out of airplanes, learning the parachute landing techniques. And I see the other kind that are just flying by the seat of their pants.

SZ: The lower percentage, wing and a prayer group?

J.T.: I think in general most base jumpers coming up are good smart kids, young adults or even older adults. It’s not necessarily a young athletes sport. That’s the other thing about my High Fives Foundation program, I’m out-lining by example. I’m showing what learning curves can look like and these things can transfer to any sport. When I was learning to base jump people pointed their finger at me like I was kind of some absolute nut that was doing things way too fast. But I had a risk evaluation process and criteria developed through fourteen years of professional skiing. I was able to learn fast. So when I see people getting into the sport doing very advanced flights very quickly at an extremely accelerated learning curve I’m the guy that says, “Hey take a look at this and let me help you with that. This is my e-mail address if you have questions.”

SZ: J.T. thank you for taking the time for this interview. It’s been fun and informative.

*Featured guests are not current nor former clients of Susan Zaro

*This article can be read @ Examiner

Mitchell Hall, Trident Focus Consulting

Mitchell Hall was born and raised outside Chicago, and joined the Navy in 1990. At eighteen years old he succeeded in training to become an elite US Navy SEAL. Over the span of twenty-one years, his career included nine deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, and other locations. He is the veteran of four national campaigns, was a Navy Special Warfare SEAL instructor, a Platoon Chief and was the research and development/acquisitions department head for the west coast SEAL teams. Hall is a highly decorated SEAL and Silver Star recipient. Through-out his time serving in the Navy Hall pursued his passion for triathlon and competitive cycling. After twenty-one years of service and retired from the Navy he quickly transferred his enjoyment of competing in endurance sports into the longstanding, yet fledgling Superfrog Triathlon. He has competed several times in the Hawaii Ironman World Championships and is a nationally ranked triathlete and top masters cyclist. Currently Hall resides in San Diego and concentrates on consulting in the entertainment industry. He has worked on three major films. A personal story was used in the 2012 film, Act of Valor. He was the technical advisor for the film, Zero Dark Thirty and worked with the director to help with set design and story/script concept. Hall was a technical and stunt advisor on the set of Lone Survivor where he collaborated with the director to authenticate everything from using the correct gear to using the correct military language. Hall is a member of SAG and the recipient of the Best Stunt Ensemble SAG Award in 2012.

Hall served for 21 years as a Navy Seal, and is a nationally ranked triathlete and top master's cyclist

SZ: How old were you when you realized your destiny was to become a Navy SEAL? What events inspired you to take your life in this direction?

Mitchell Hall: I was sixteen and wanted to be a fighter pilot. But due to some family circumstances and my grades weren’t great, college was not on my radar screen. My cousin mentioned the Navy SEAL’s to me. If you could rewind the tape, now everyone knows about the SEAL’s but at the time it was in it’s infancy and not well known. More well known were the Green Berets and Delta Force. The Navy SEAL’s were more of a mystery because the internet wasn’t around to look up what they did. It tested my imagination. They were supposed to be the best and at sixteen I decided that’s what I wanted to be. My entire goal in joining the Navy was to become a SEAL.Today it’s quite different in that there is more of a pipeline for guys that want to become SEAL’s. When I joined the Navy I had to raise my hand and try out for it. I had to go through a physical fitness test to get entered into that pipeline. If at any point I were to fail or be spun out of it I would still have had a four year contract in the Navy and would have become a sailor. Quite honestly that was a horrible thought for me. Not to take anything away from sailors but it wasn’t my goal. I only wanted to be a SEAL.

SZ: How many guys went through the training with you?

MH: We started out with just over one hundred guys and finished with thirty something. Historically there’s a seventy-five percent attrition rate. I was a fairly conservative kid from the midwest and from day one was a deer in the headlights. I knew I would have to swim because the Navy SEAL’s operate in the maritime environment. But no-one ever told me I would need to swim with fins. The first morning I was trying to impress all the instructors and my potential classmates and after an hour of swimming hard with fins on every tendon in my foot was sore and achey. That afternoon we did a run that was in soft sand. I was a pretty good runner but no-one told me that we would be running in soft sand. At the end of my first day I remember thinking “What have I got myself into?” But like a lot of teenagers I was resilient. I adopted quickly and was not sore after a couple of days.

SZ: I assume other guys were in the same situation as you. Did the guys talk amongst themselves about their experience?

MH: Yeah, there is a constant stream of dialogue between classmates but at the same time you’re trying not to show a kind of weakness. That mentality is forwarded into the actual SEAL teams where occasionally you confide in people but you never want to show too much weakness because it reveals a crack.

SZ: If someone shows weakness it makes an impression on the rest of the group like there is a weak link on our team?

MH: You hear all this talk about the brotherhood and willingness to fight next to each other and all that is true. But at the same time we are very hard on each other. It is part of the culture and that’s part of what makes us good. If you feel a bit of weakness guys are going to prod and get in there and see if they can bother you just because it’s the nature of who we are. It’s a bunch of alpha males.

SZ: You were a Navy SEAL for twenty-one years. What are some of the biggest shifts in training that you experienced during those years?

MH: The training cycle is endless. It’s built into the calendar year. Training rotates around deployments and then you return from the mission and rest. Then you gear up for the next one which involves a lot of training and pushing the envelope, trying new things, new tactics that you learned from the battle field during the previous experience.

SZ: So regardless of whether you have an opportunity to put your training into action there’s still another training cycle.

MH: Yes, but we were fortunate over the last fifteen years to actually put our training into action. The ten years prior to that there wasn’t much going on. While we had all these ideas, concepts and tactics, not all of them were proven. Some of them we learned early on weren’t working and we needed to adapt and evolve them. Some of them were already written in blood and they are the fundamentals of what we base our tactics and existence on. There is a funny cartoon floating around that is a comparison of a SEAL from Vietnam and a SEAL of the mid 90’s. The Vietnam SEAL had the bare minimum, a gun, some ammunition, a canteen, a camouflage uniform and that was about it. Next to him was the SEAL of the mid 90’s. He had the gigantic backpack on, radios everywhere, guns, sunglasses, all sorts of stuff. It was pretty funny and true. The technology in the mid to late 90’s was good but it hadn’t evolved. An i-phone does as much or more than any radio we had before then. It’s a tenth of the size of the radio’s of the 90’s. The GPS’s equipment was gigantic but we had to carry it all because it became somewhat mission critical. In 2001 we carried ten or eleven magazines of ammunition. But what we realized when we were in Afghanistan especially in the mountainous terrain, with all that weight we weren’t able to be very catlike. You can barely get out of your own way carrying all that equipment. So we had to really take a hard look at what we were carrying. We paired that 100 lbs. of equipment down to forty or sixty depending on the mission. Some of our equipment evolved because the companies or manufacturers made it smaller and lighter but other times we just decided we didn’t need certain things any more.

SZ: The standards of excellence, preparation and efficiency are high for Navy SEAL’s. What was it like to retire? Was it a difficult adjustment after that many years of service to leave?

MH: When I retired I was very fortunate. I have some very interesting projects that I am involved with and because of that I think I turned the page rather gracefully. I made a decision at the twenty-one year mark when I acknowledged the fact that I’ll never be satisfied. I’ll always want to do another mission. That realization helped me say, “You know what it’s time.” Because if I’m waiting for that one mission that’s going to seem like, “This is it that was awesome.” It’s just never going to happen, because I’ll always want more.

SZ: Is it the adrenaline rush of preparation then the actual….

MH: It’s everything. It’s the process, it’s hanging out with the guys, it’s doing the actual mission. I was smart enough to realize that there wasn’t going to be that one mission to satiate me. I said, “This is it. I am alive.” I’d just received a very prestigious award and it just seemed like the right time to leave. I also had other ambitions. I was never truly, totally, completely defined by being a Navy SEAL. Although most people around me view me as that. My self perspective is not that. So at thirty-eight years old I said it’s better to start this new chapter in my life in my late thirty’s as opposed to just continuing on, chasing something that will never be caught.

SZ: Did you have opportunities prior to leaving the Navy or did you just know there were opportunities that would be available to you after leaving?

MH: Because I am an endurance athlete my goal at the time was to go into event production which I did. My new motto is that I will always have a conversation even if I don’t initially see where it goes unless it’s obvious that’s it’s not something that aligns with my code. But I’ll usually have a conversation with just about anyone and that was the case of the first movie I did. My initial thoughts were I had absolutely zero interest in working in entertainment. Now it’s kind of funny because they are my friends. Working on the first film was an incredible experience. The people were amazing and they are the best in that business. I can appreciate the best in any line of work. It takes that extra dedication, extra motivation, extra passion to be the best at what you do regardless of the field you are in.

SZ: You are a nationally ranked triathlete and top masters cyclist. Fear of failure is not uncommon in sports, what mental skills do you use if any from your Navy SEAL’s days to help you focus on what you want to accomplish in training and races?

MH: I think it’s a question of nature vs. nurture. I think that some people just have something naturally. It can be rather undefined at the beginning but I think I just had this drive. Trust me no-one from my high school class would have thought that I had this inner drive but it was down there deep. I think my friends were rather shocked when they found out what I ended up doing.

SZ: Did joining the SEAL’s give you the discipline to discover that inner drive in a way the structure of school couldn’t do?

MH: The opportunity to take a swing at becoming a SEAL made me flip a switch. I wasn’t super disciplined but I was a hard worker. I’ve had four jobs in my life and early on one of them was moving furniture. Even though I was smaller than some of the guys on the job I worked circles around them. The triathlon or endurance side of me feeds off of the SEAL side of me and the two activities help each other. When I am running a marathon and at mile sixteen everything is falling apart I can stay in there because of my SEAL training. There is a quote, something to the effect that, “Not failing out weights the joy of winning.” That totally resonates with me. When I did well at a triathlon or on a SEAL mission I wouldn’t take a lot of satisfaction from the success. It’s more like that was cool, but I don’t revel in the satisfaction that all the work came together. It’s more like I wonder if I could have gone even faster if I had just done this, this or this a bit differently. If I fail at something I can still remember all those failure points.

SZ: When you win a race your preparation and process during the race met the needs of that situation. You were able to accomplish what you needed better than everyone else you were competing against that day. If you finish a race third and still accomplished your pre-race goals does coming in third still feel like failing?

MH: As I’ve matured I’ve been able to be more comfortable with this. But before if I’d come in fourth or fifth, I would beat myself up a bit. I’d say to myself, “Dude if you’d just done this or this differently during the event it could have put you up a couple of places.” As I look back on this now with more clarity it seems like fear of failure is a bit of fuel for victory.

SZ: I read a segment of “8 Secrets to Grit and Resilience, Courtesy of the Navy SEAL’s” by Eric Barker.

Time management is a balancing act.

  1. Make it a game. It’s the best way to stay in a competitive mindset without stressing yourself out.
  2. Be confident – but realistic. See the challenges honestly but believe in your own ability to take them on.
  3. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Grit comes a lot easier when you’ve done the work to make sure you are ready.
  4. Focus on improvement. Every SEAL mission ends with a debrief focusing on what went wrong so they can improve.
  5. Give help and get help. Support from others helps keep you going, and giving others support does the same.
  6. Celebrate the small wins. You can’t wait to catch the big fish. Take joy where you can find it when good times are scarce.
  7. Find a way to laugh. Rangers, SEAL’s and scientists agree: a chuckle a day can help you cope with stress and keep you going.
  8. Purpose and meaning. It’s easier to be persistent when what you’ve doing is tied to something personally meaningful.

This is a useful formula for any sports training. Is this an actual rating scale used in the military?

MH: No, there is no system in place in our process, but I’ve heard of these things. There is something I will say going back a bit. It took me fifteen years, three-fourths of the way through my military career to actually realize why I wanted to become a SEAL. Most of the guys will answer by saying, “I love my country.” Or, “I needed a challenge.” You will hear all the answers you would expect but the truth of it for me was that joining was all about me. This was a lot more of a selfish move than most people realize. I needed this to satisfy myself and prove to myself and the people who doubted me that I could do this. I love my country and I doesn’t mean I wouldn’t die for this country. It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t die for a team-mate but it just means that this decision was more mainly about me.

SZ: Mental/physical recovery from trainings and competitive events is a very important topic to avoid burn-out. What have you learned and find useful for mental/physical recovery? Does the military actively teach recovery skills?

MH: In my experience the person in the breach or the eye of the storm is the last to know that they are burnt out. Everyone around them, their spouse, teammates, people that work with them probably start to see it first. People that are good at what they do and take pride in what they do just don’t want to believe that they are slipping a little bit and they need a little rest. That rest can be a week, a month or a year. What we call, “Op temp” or operational temp is something that needs to be closely managed. In fifteen years of war there were times that guys were just maxed out and fatigued. In the SEAL’s line of work that is very risky. In football there is an off season. But in war it’s not a sixteen game season. There is no off season it just keeps going. There’s no trophy at stake, there are lives at stake, so in that sense it needs to be managed even more closely. Everyone needs a break, an off season, even if they are forced to take it. Even if they are told, “Hey dude I am benching you for a bit I’m putting you in the training department. I’m going to put you in as a SEAL instructor and off of the battle field, because whether you believe it or not it’s the best thing for you.” That’s what a good leader will do even if the soldier or athlete is kicking and screaming all the way.

SZ: There are many mental training devices, biofeedback/neurofeedback on the market to add athletes in relaxation, focusing, stress reduction what’s your thought on these? When a person has been identified as not quite ready to be put back into action because of mental or physical fatigue is there a specific protocol for recovery? Or is it just take time out, change the environment and do things that are less stressful?

MH: I think everyone is trying to figure that out. As far as the wearables the reality is that they are in their infancy. I simply don’t think that we have all the answers right now and we are a ways away from it. I mean of course we need to rest, we know that six hours of sleep is better than four, and eight is better than six. But in the SEAL teams we don’t have this formula that measures whether a guy is ready or not. I have a feeling if there was a magical device there would be push back on it. Like I can imagine a solider thinking, “I don’t want to wear that device because what if it tells me I need to take a break?”

SZProfessional sports teams are beginning to experiment with useful ways to monitor a player’s work/training load and mental/physical recovery by the use of biomarkers. They can monitor an athletes level of hydration, stress levels, how much sleep the athlete is getting etc.

MH: I think they are trying to do it but again you’re only going to get as much feedback as the user will allow. You need buy in from the athletes and soldiers themselves first. Some athletes are fascinated by that stuff and some athletes don’t want to track that information. When I am coaching some people want to know specially why they are doing something and can talk for thirty minutes about it and some people just want to be told the workout. Some people want to know why this device or methodology is going to work and others will just say they don’t care and they perform just as well.

SZ: What are your biggest challenges as an endurance athlete?

MH: Balance. In the endurance world time management is very time consuming. With a compulsive personality it’s very easy to want to do more and more and more. You think you’re just going to get better and better and better. Sometimes less is more. Sometimes you dive into this thing head first and other things in your life start to fall by the wayside whether it’s your family or whether it’s your profession. Balance is the key. That’s why a coach provides objective feedback, because the athlete themselves are the last to know and don’t have a clear picture of what’s going on.

SZ: What are you doing professionally these days?

MH: I’m doing a lot of consulting. I was a technical advisor for some movies, Zero Dark Thirty was one of them. I am a product consultant for Under Armour, and most recently I’ve been doing technical consulting for the Call of Duty video game franchise which is surprisingly fascinating. My athletic goals have been side-lined temporarily while I work but I need to get back at it pretty soon. I have goals to participate in the Superfrog Triathlon again and I’d like to get back to the Hawaiian Ironman World Championship. But I am taking a more balanced approach to my athletic and professional endeavors these days.

SZ: Mitchell thank you so much for taking time out of your very busy schedule for this interview.

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