Dr. Zinsser is the director of the Performance Psychology Program at the West Point Military Academy. Dr. Zinsser helps soldiers, athletes, and business leaders win their “First Victory” before big performances.
He helped quarterback Eli Manning achieve his “First Victory” before Super Bowl 42 by getting him to believe he was as good as any player in his position.
Army Officers who trained under Zinsser achieved their “First Victory” before going into combat when they believed they could handle anything the enemy threw at them.
Before any important test, meeting, or competition, you can win your “First Victory” if you are confident enough in your ability to stop telling yourself what to do and trust your training to carry you through a performance.
Acquiring such confidence starts by building up your mental bank account.
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What’s in Your Mental Bank Account?
Your mind maintains a “bank account” of memories for the sport, craft, or profession you want to excel in.
Your mental bank account balance grows when you make E.S.P. deposits. E.S.Ps are energizing and encouraging memories of quality effort, success, or progress.
When your mental bank account is loaded with E.S.Ps, you feel confident and walk around with swagger. But when your mental bank account balance is low, you experience self‐doubt and panic when a performance is not going well.
Luckily, every day we have an opportunity to make E.S.P. deposits into your mental bank account and become “rich” with confidence.
A confident tennis player deposits E.S.Ps into her mental bank account by closing her eyes at night and asking herself: “Where did I put forth quality effort today?” She thinks back to when she dug deep to finish that extra bench‐press rep at the gym. She ponders on it for a while, trying to feel the same exhilaration she felt and make the moment as colorful as possible to sheer the memory in her mind.
Then she thinks, “What success did I have due to my effort?” and remembers completing the five‐set bench‐press exercise and revisits the pride she felt in that moment.
Finally, she thinks, “What progress did I make as a result of my effort?” She considers how she increased her strength and how her increased strength will improve her tennis serve.
If two competitors put in similar effort, have identical successes, and make the same progress, but one competitor chooses not to highlight their effort, success, or progress each day, their mental bank account will feel lower, and their performance will be plagued with self‐doubt.
Build up your mental bank account by getting into bed each night, reflecting on the time you spent in the field you want to excel in, and asking:
- “Where did I put forth quality effort today?”
- “What success did I have due to my effort?”
- “What progress did I make as a result of my effort?”
If you’re an aspiring leader working with a team, you might reflect on the effort you gave at work listening to an angry teammate, the success of finding a win‐win solution, and way in which you improved your conflict resolution skills.
If you don’t come up with anything, try to go minute‐by‐minute through your work or practice time until you find one little thing you did well or one thing you got a little better at. The more you reflect, the easier it becomes to recall energizing and encouraging E.S.P. moments.
Trigger Complete Confidence (C‐B‐A Routine)
As you approach a performance with the sense that your mental bank account is loaded with memories of quality effort, success, and progress, you are ready to deliver a confident performance. Now, you need the right pre‐performance routine to trigger “complete confidence” and kill any nervous mental chatter.
Dr. Nate Zinsser teaches his elite performers a simple three‐step pre‐performance routine called C‐B‐A: cue your conviction, breathe your body, attach your attention.
Cue your conviction
Come up with a phrase that helps you to fall in love with your performance butterflies and convert nervous energy into pure excitement.
Answer the following question: What would you think to yourself in the moments before a competition if you were eager to show the world how great you were?
In the book, a quarterback tells himself: “Do it like you know it!” A marathon runner tells herself: “Time to cruise!”
Breathe your body
Work your breathing muscles by pushing down and into your belly as you inhale, and then up and in through your rib cage as you exhale. As you work your breathing muscles, you’ll feel in control of your mental state.
And as Belisa Vranich writes in her book Breathing for Warriors, “Focusing on my breathing means that I can let my body tap into what it knows and has practiced without my brain interrupting.”
Attach your attention
Pick something inside your performance to be deeply curious about – like the pace and rhythm of the words coming out of your mouth as you give a presentation, how the guitar strings feel on your fingers as you play, or the movement of a tennis ball as your opponent tosses it in the air before serving to you.
Zinsser says you want to “become fascinated by what is before you, what is around you, and the action you are performing so that your senses become utterly absorbed by it all. If you’ve ever paused for even the slightest second to take in the colors of a beautiful sunset, then you know what I mean by letting yourself become fascinated by something.”
When Tiger Woods played his best golf between 2000‐2003, he told a documentary filmmaker that he often became so “entrenched” and so “engrossed” on a shot that all background noise and self‐conscious thought disappeared. He said, “It’s almost as if I get out of the way…and my subconscious takes over.”
Protect Your Mental Bank Account
After attaching your attention to a target inside your performance, let your subconscious drive your performance and accept all results.
Dwelling on mistakes and berating yourself for poor results depletes your mental bank account and erases the confidence you built up with quality effort, success, and progress reflection.
Therefore, thrive for perfection but quickly accept imperfections because you’re an imperfect human and beating yourself up is counterproductive.
“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Win the war against pre‐performance doubt by depositing memories of quality effort, success, or progress into your mental bank account every day. Then execute your C‐B‐A routine to quiet nervous mental chatter and perform with confidence.
Dr. Zinsser says, “Confidence is that feeling that you can do something (or that you know something) so well you don’t have to think about how to do it when you’re doing it. That skill or knowledge is in you, it’s part of you, and it will come out when needed if you let it.”
“A performer has no choice but to be totally confident in him‐ or herself if the true goal is to perform at their top level.”
“You perform more consistently at the top of your ability when you are so certain about yourself, so confident in yourself, that your stream‐of‐conscious thoughts slow down to the barest minimum.”
“Human beings are hardwired to execute any well‐learned skill—be it a tennis backhand, a violin solo, the solving of an algebra problem, or the cross‐examination of a witness—unconsciously.”
“If you’re analyzing your every step, judging your every move, and talking to yourself about how you’re doing what you’re doing, you’ll always compromise your real ability.”
“If we were shuffling quickly down a flight of stairs and I asked you to think about exactly what both your knees were doing as you were moving, there’s a good chance you’d end up in a pile at the bottom of the stairs.” – Sian Beilock, Psychology Professor
“Real confidence (the kind you’ll need to be at your best when the heat’s on and the consequences matter), is the absence of all that mental chatter and discursive analytical thought.”
“My operating definition of confidence (one that will actually help you perform well), is this: a sense of certainty about your ability, which allows you to bypass conscious thought and execute unconsciously.”
”Confidence has relatively little to do with what actually happens to you, and pretty much everything to do with how you think about what happens to you.”
“Your conscious thoughts have a huge influence on your performance by the way they shape your mood and in turn affect your physical state.”
“Attack each task, each point, play, heat, stroke, and each meeting with a ‘Let’s see how great I can do this’ attitude.”
“Be curious about your imperfections. They are valuable sources of information.”
“I feel the delicious onset of race day adrenaline ‐ I feel it in my stomach, in my heart and in my legs, the signals that my body is going into a whole new biochemical gear…
I smile… all that power flowing through my body right on cue, getting me ready to take it to another level.” Alessandra Ross, Track & Field Athlete
Your Top 10 Poster
When you dig up old memories of past success and display those “gems of thought” back to yourself, you will feel surprisingly rich with confidence.
But don’t take my word for it. Try the following exercise – open a new document on your computer and write down the field you want to excel in (sport, profession, etc.) at the top of the page. Now, answer the following questions:
- What initial successes made this activity more interesting for me? Describe those early wins.
- What performances proved I was proficient in this field? Describe those performances.
- When did I feel at the top of my game? Describe the results from that time.
Perform a stream of consciousness by continuously typing out every memory that comes to mind for 10 minutes.
I recently performed this exercise three times for three fields I want to excel in: entrepreneurship, amateur golf, and being a father.
When capturing my entrepreneurship memories, I recalled the second‐ever YouTube book summary video I made, which the author shared with her massive Facebook and Twitter audience, and the first eBook sale I made. Those memories provided a jolt of energy and confidence.
After you generate at least 10 memories of past success you’re proud of, copy and paste your 10 favorites into a new document titled “My Top 10,” and include an image at the top (icon or a photo of yourself doing the activity). Put this “Top 10” poster on your wall where you will see it often and be reminded of your accomplishments.
It may seem silly to have a “My Top 10” poster on your wall, but Dr. Zinsser says, “(if you don’t put up a top 10 poster, you miss out on a) real source of strength and comfort.”
Action Plan #1
Recall your 10 most encouraging and energizing memories and put them on a “Top 10 Poster” so that you are likely to remember them before your next performance.
Your Doorway Affirmation
In the nine months before the 2000 US Olympic Trials, runner Alessandra Ross repeated the following statement to herself every time she walked through a doorway: “I run a 1:56.80.”
Alessandra Ross was trying to qualify for the Olympic 800m race but had never run the 800m in 1:56.80. Her best time was 2:02.82. So why was Ross lying to herself?
Ross knew if she had any hope of qualifying for the Olympic games, she had to elevate her self‐image to match her desired ability. Finishing an 800m race in 1:56.80 wasn’t impossible, it was a stretch. If her body was going to stretch its running ability, she had to convince her mind it was possible first.
Dr. Zinsser says, “The opinions and beliefs we hold of our talents, skills, and abilities either serve as walls that constrain us or doorways that open us up to new achievements.”
There is no better way to form a new and empowering opinion of yourself and convince your mind it is capable of more, than to confidently repeat positive, present, and personal statements (i.e., affirmations) about yourself, to yourself. When you repeat an “affirmation” to yourself, your mind stops pushing back and starts looking for ways to transform into the person you want to be. What initially seems like a lie becomes a self‐fulfilling prophecy.
Identify one thing you want to do exceptionally well (sport, profession, hobby, etc.) and then craft a personal, present tense, and positive statement.
- When your affirmation is personal, you feel as though you own it. If you want to be a better speaker, tell yourself, “I deliver entertaining and informative presentations,” not “Give better presentations.”
- When your affirmation uses the present tense, you eliminate doubt. If you want to be a better leader, say, “I communicate my team’s vision well,” not “I will communicate my team’s vision well.”
- When your affirmation is positive, you avoid confusing your brain with images of things you want to avoid. I’ve learned to tell myself, “I hit 300‐yard drives down the fairway,” instead of “I don’t hit my driver out of bounds.”
Action Plan #2
Repeat a personal, present tense, positive affirmation statement about an ability you most desire every time you walk through a doorway.
Sift Through Your Performance
There are only two emotions you should take with you after a poor performance:
- Pride in the things you did well.
- Gratitude for discovering the things you need to work on.
All other emotions risk taking you down a self‐destructive thought spiral that could destroy the confidence you need for your next performance.
After each performance, imagine taking out a large mesh metal strainer and pouring the poor performance through it. Imagine the frustration you feel is like a liquid that flows through the small openings in the mesh strainer and down a drain in the floor, never to be seen again.
What remains inside the mesh strainer are solid gems ‐ clear diamonds and dark red rubies. The diamonds represent the tiny things you did well – hold onto these and remember them for your next performance. The red rubies represent what you discovered about yourself that you did not know before the performance – poor form and minor weaknesses amplified under pressure.
Dr. Zinsser routinely asks his clients, “What are the lessons that this last performance is trying to teach you?”
Bring your rubies to someone knowledgeable, like a coach or a mentor, and see if you can exchange them for something more valuable: concrete actions you can take before your next performance to get better.
Action Plan #3
After a performance, replay three well‐executed behaviors in your mind and then identify
three lessons you can convert into concrete actions.
About the author
Dr. Nate Zinsseris a renowned performance psychology expert who has taught three generations of soldiers, athletes, and executives to master the art of confidence and mental toughness. Dr. Zinsser is the director of the Performance Psychology Program at the United States Military Academy at West Point, the most comprehensive mental-training program in the country, where, since 1992, he has helped prepare cadets for leadership in the U.S. Army. He also has been the sport-psychology mentor for numerous elite athletes, including two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning and the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers, as well as many Olympians and NCAA champions. He has been a consultant for the FBI Academy, U.S. Army Recruiting Command, and the New York City Fire Department. He earned his PhD in sport psychology from the University of Virginia.