Psychology » Self Help

The best books on High Performance Psychology

recommended by Michael Gervais

To reach your full potential you must put as much effort into building mental resilience as you do into work or training, advises high-performance psychologist Dr Michael Gervais. Here, he selects five titles to help you find the right mindset—whether you dream of sporting stardom, artistic achievement or business success.

Interview by Cal Flyn

You started out in sports psychology, but have expanded your focus to ‘high performance’ psychology more generally. So what do business leaders, Olympic athletes, and performance artists have in common—psychologically speaking?

The psychology of sport and performance is the investigation into how to be extraordinary: how to develop one’s inner world and organise one’s outer life. There isn’t one golden thread that binds together the best in the world, but there are some common ones.

Those common threads include the mental skills expressed through their craft, such as confidence, calmness, and being able to control one’s arousal states. Having a clear understanding of who they want to be, and what they want to do. Science has helped us to understand how to replicate those skills as a best practice. So, that’s the science of sport and performance psychology.

Your writing and podcast keep coming back to the terms ‘mindset’ and ‘mindset training.’ Could you tell me a little bit about what that entails?

Sure. As humans, there are three things we can train: our craft, our body, and our mind. The best in the world are so invested in exploring their potential that they don’t leave any one of those three up to chance. They spend very intense hours deliberately practicing their craft.

They are making sure that their body, or their vehicle, is able to deliver the thing that they want to be able to deliver—whether it’s through the arts, or through sport, or through business. Then, the third pillar is the mind, which is completely invisible. To explore one’s potential, the mind has to be fit, strong, and nimble.

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We—and when I say ‘we,’ I’m talking about my partnership with Coach Carroll, the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks—we’ve found that there are five core pillars in the psychology of excellence. They are: self-discovery, mental skills, psychological framework, recovery and mindfulness.

Psychological framework involves the ability to master what’s within one’s control; the ability to live with passion; to have clarity of purpose and subsequent goals; and be able to persevere during difficult times. The mental skills element is about developing—as I mentioned earlier—calm, confidence, deep focus, and the ability to trust oneself in any moment; to adjust to the unfolding unpredictable unknown, the present moment. That requires a self-discovery process of knowing who you are, and who you’re working on becoming, and aligning all of those to run to the edge of one’s capacity on a regular basis.

Mindfulness is the ability to be where your feet are through awareness training. It involves training our mind to deeply focus in the present moment. The present moment is where wisdom is revealed, performance is expressed, and relationships are formed. In general, it is investing in your interior life, and organising your external life towards great challenge. The last pillar is the science and art of recovery.

Perhaps we could talk about your recommendations. Which book would you like to discuss first?

Maybe I can start with a thought or statement, which is that we are so fortunate in modern times to be able to stand on the shoulders of intellectual and applied giants, who have spent their time in a disciplined way to articulate in written form what matters to them. To learn from those folks is an incredible opportunity.

There are three types of book I’ve been considering. First, those books with important philosophical ideas about nature and human potential. Then, books about those men and women, those courageous and daring and vulnerable men and women, that have explored the edges of human capacity. And then there’s a third bucket of books, which are how-to books. These are maybe not as philosophical as the demonstrations of extraordinary thinkers and do-ers living their life a certain way—they’re more technical.

Sure.

The philosophical ones are the ones that stand up best to the test of time, for the ages, if you will. And it’s been really tough to split between the Tao Te Ching, the Gita, and the Bible. Those three books have shaped more ideas than any other book combined.

For me, the Tao Te Ching is something that’s been monumental in understanding the nuances of human nature. It expresses in 81 principles very complicated beautiful zen prose about life and human nature. The interplay between what is true, and what is observed. And how we’re able to explore the difference between the source, and the reflections of the source.

That’s very interesting. Would you actually sit down with, say, American football players at the peak of their careers and read the Tao Te Ching (or the Daodejing, as it’s sometimes spelled) together?

A couple years ago, a handful of coaches and I would take a chapter at a time throughout the season. We’d read the chapter, make some notes about it, and then sit and talk about it. And the beauty about the 81 principles is that, as soon as you’re done, you read them again. You know? One at a time.

So we’d sit, athletes and coaches, and go through chapter by chapter, and just talk about it. It brings up ideas. Like, ‘Okay, that was cool 2,500 years ago, but what about now? How do we apply that now?’ It just begins to open us up to different ways of looking at the very concrete world of sport. What precedes that concrete expression is the invisible world of imagination and thought.

So this is taking people who work in a very fast-paced world, and asking them to look inwards, to think of their life as a whole?

Yeah. Those people who are able to decouple what they do and who they are have a radical advantage in life.

What ends up happening for many very talented people is that they’ve been on the doing path for a long time. And it’s easy to identify as the ‘do-er.’ Part of the exploratory self-discovery process behind becoming the man or woman that one wants to be is recognising that we are far deeper, and far greater, than just the acts that we do. That they are the expression of how we line up our thoughts, and our words.

“What makes the most powerful people in the world is that they are able to line up their thoughts, their words, and their actions in any environment”

Some of what makes the most powerful people in the world—whether they are political leaders or philosophers or artists or activists or athletes—is their ability to line up their thoughts, their words, and their actions—in any environment.

That’s really fascinating, thank you. Next, let’s discuss Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci.

What he’s done is really captured the complex brilliance of one of the most extraordinary humans in the world. It’s a favourite of mine.

What, from the life of da Vinci, do you think can be applied into our present day existence?

When people think of da Vinci, it’s as this extraordinary person who is almost untouchable in genius. And of course he had incredible capacity. However, he refined his craft. He was incredibly intentional. He was incredibly curious, insatiable even. And he dedicated his life’s efforts to understanding the things he was curious about.

The man did not have an easy life, but he was passionate and purposeful in how he spent his time. And I think that many of us in modern times sometimes have it backwards. We work really hard, but we struggle with purpose and meaning. Da Vinci is a reminder to flip those around, and first orientate: spend deep time thinking about what matters most. And then, by trying to structure one’s inner life and outer world so they align, amazing things can take place.

To me, he puts a flag squarely in ground zero about aligning passion and purpose, relentless hard work, and creative exploration of what is. What he’s achieved speaks for itself.

Absolutely. Was he a person who was greatly motivated by the idea of success?

Great question. I don’t know. I have to go away and think about that, really. However, extraordinary thinkers and doers have a blend of internal and external drive. It’s not as simple as saying that somebody is 100% internally driven to unlock, find, explore, and learn. There are external drives and needs that we all have. There’s a balance between the two.

And my investigation has led me to the insight that there’s no one right combination. But when our internal drive is higher than the external, it helps us play the long game of discovery and curiosity. So if we have it on a one to ten scale, we might have an eight out of ten on internal, and a seven out of ten on external, and it ends up working out just fine.

Thank you. Next we have Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. This has to be one of the most recommended titles on our site.

I think he’s one of the most significant thinkers of our era. Again he helps put a stake in ground zero: that the inner life is what determines the quality of life.

To be forced to live in the Nazi concentration camps. To have his wife and family members ripped from his arms. To see and live in those conditions . . . He realised that when people in the most frail conditions had something taken away from them—something that mattered to them, like a cigarette or a shirt—they literally would die. They were that fatigued, that depleted.

But the moment of insight for him was: ‘Hold on a minute. They can’t take away my ability to think a certain way, and to feel a certain way.’ So he had this incredible awareness about the power of purpose, of orientating life in a meaningful way. No matter what the conditions are, even the most deplorable conditions that we’ve seen in modern times, we still have the basic right to organise our inner world.

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Then he goes on to suggest ways to do that. And his insights about youth, some 40 years ago, are still exactly applicable to youth today. The millennial generation has a bad rap for a lot of reasons, but they are reminding us to organise our life more purposefully. To live with greater intent. And the way they’re going about it is stirring up the older generations.

They are going to be the most important generation we have for survival of the planet, because they’re in touch with it in a deeper way. When I think about what’s happening now, I snap back to Victor Frankl’s insights—that’s it not about money and fame and recognition. Those are fine and wonderful in themselves, but they’re fleeting; they are temporary, not enduring.

Our children are now saying, ‘Hey, listen. We’ve got to take care of our planet. We’ve got to organise our lives to have a deeper meaning rather than just working hard.’ So there’s great similarity between what Frankl saw for a purposeful life then and what’s considered a purposeful life now.

I’m really interested in how this translates to high performance psychology. I assumed that top sportspeople, business leaders and the like need to stay utterly focused on what leads to success—perhaps at the detriment of a work/life balance, and finding purpose through, say, family life.

I think Frankl’s book is a reminder of the fragility of life, and the limited time we have to explore our potential. If we don’t organise our life in a purposeful way to explore what we are capable of, we become some version that is less than. And the trade winds of the world will push us away from our potential.

Our world is not designed for flourishing. It is hard, and challenging, and difficult. We’ve got real environmental pressures and social pressures to be something special, but at the surface—not at the core. So no, I don’t think it’s about work/life balance. I think that that is a mythical ridgeline that does not exist. We have a limited time to explore purpose and meaning. And we have to do it now.

“The work/life balance is a mythical ridgeline that does not exist”

In an artificial way, it sometimes helps people to say: ‘If you only had a handful of years or months, what would you do? How would you live?’ Because we’ve got this body of life behind us—say 20 or 30 or 40 years, whatever it is. We then think that we’re going to get another 30, 40 years, and build on it.

But we don’t know that. The unpredictable, unfolding unknown is exactly that. The framework of our past is not a great predictor of our future. Victor Frankl reminds us of that. He says, let me tell you and show you how I and my friends lived in the concentration camps. And if I can do it there, and suffer at that level, so you can you.

That’s very moving. I hesitate to move on from that. But what would you recommend next?

Let’s see. This was a toss-up between Over the Edge of the World, a book highlighting Magellan’s discoveries. And one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s 92 books. I don’t know if you’re familiar? They’re incredible. And Jon Kabat-Zinn. But why don’t we go with Bruce Lee?

This is Bruce Lee’s Artist of Life.

One of Bruce Lee’s primary missions in life was to authentically express himself. He also had a high need to publicly express his excellence. And he found it in the arts—martial arts, as well as the moving arts, TV and film. He was a very deep thinker and an extraordinary doer; he really had the combination of the two. He practiced mindfulness and inner investigation, as well as his external craft. He was one of the archetypes of the balance between those two, the deep commitment to exploring potential.

He changed the industry of martial arts, and created a new form. In a deeply-steeped tradition, that’s not easy to do. He was able to disrupt and shift the game. They were not manufactured disruptions; they were authentic disruptions that came through insight and suffering. The combination of those two are very important.

He just holds up the flag for the balance again between a deep internal investigation, and a relentless commitment to an external craft.

We have returned to the concept of authenticity several times. I know people often feel, as you mentioned before, that they are ambitious and work very hard, but feel they are lacking in direction, in authenticity of purpose. How can they go about finding this purpose?

It’s really hard. You know, there are no hacks, no seven steps, no tricks or tips. It is an internal investigation. That discovery process is yours alone. To be able to cultivate the ability to be internally quiet enough to listen is the work. That’s where mindfulness becomes such an accelerant to potential.

It’s not about not having thoughts. It’s about being able to observe, and listen, and watch, and feel what happens internally with different thoughts and different emotions. To be able to understand why that is, and what that means, and how to eloquently work with both toward your mission in life.

One of the fundamental questions is: Who am I? That’s an ancient meditation that’s been around for thousands and thousands of years. What is my purpose? That’s also been around for thousands and thousands of years. I can’t say what somebody else’s purpose is. But I can say that one of the mechanisms to help get closer to understanding it is to listen.

There are at least three ways to listen. One is through a mindfulness or meditation practice. Another is through writing. As we write, we have to force ourselves to choose words, and as we choose those words, there’s a connection, you know? A feeling that goes with that, oftentimes. And then, there is talking with wise men and women. Those three functions can help gather a deeper insight about the person that somebody is working on becoming.

“A mark of somebody who has developed their inner capacity is their ability to move freely in the world”

Bruce Lee’s investigation here was about authentic expression. Every moment, we have the opportunity to choose thoughts, to choose silence, and to combine those with emotions. There are millions of opportunities every nanosecond. For many people, what happens is that in favourable environments, it is easier to have thoughts, words, and actions that make sense and feel authentic. But when the conditions change and there are stakes on the line—or if there’s real or perceived danger involved, and a high-stress environment—then it’s harder to line up thoughts, words, and actions. We become less authentic in our expression, and more mechanistic or survivalist.

So, a mark of somebody who has developed their inner capacity, as well as an external skill, is their ability to move freely in the world around them in any condition, any environment.

When we think of the most significant shapers of our world, some died because they were so authentic. Some suffered greatly. And some, in doing both of those, changed the world. I’m thinking here about Dr. King. I’m thinking about some of the greatest influencers in modern times as well.

As a final choice, would you consider recommending one of the practical how-to books you mentioned at the beginning? Something that might help us put these values into practice?

Okay. One of the books I often give away is Mind Gym by Gary Mack. It’s a very mechanical, easy, lots-of-white-space-on-the-page book. And it’s one of my favourites, a very applied synopsis of mental skills from a sport and performance psychology standpoint. It’s a super-applied practical book that I enjoy handing out. It’s not very thick, you know? It’s quite a simple read, but there’s some really good stuff.

People hesitate from recommending self-help titles on our site, partly, I think, because most of their power is in the thoughts they produce within their readers’ heads, rather than in the majesty of the words on the page. But though they are slim, they can often have a huge impact on people’s lives.

Yeah, for sure. You know what else I’m reading right now? Oriah Mountain Dreamer. She’s a poet that I’ve loved and been following for a long time. One of her most significant contributions is a book called The Invitation. It’s wonderful. I think her insights are a significant contribution to the arts.

Interview by Cal Flyn

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Michael Gervais

Dr Michael Gervais is a high-performance psychologist and host of the Finding Mastery podcast. He has counted Super Bowl winners, Olympic gold medalists and the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies among his clients.

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Michael Gervais

Dr Michael Gervais is a high-performance psychologist and host of the Finding Mastery podcast. He has counted Super Bowl winners, Olympic gold medalists and the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies among his clients.