How to practice mindfulness, self-awareness, and emotional regulation this holiday season


The holiday rush is here, practice mindfulness while driving and arrive at your destination revived and happy.

A few weeks ago, I was working with elite college athletes and the question came up about how to practice performance mindfulness in the real-world.  Before the workshop had started, I listened to several of the athletes and coaches lament about the terrible traffic in their region.  I realized that driving your car can be an excellent way to practice performance mindfulness, self-awareness, and emotional regulation in the real-world.  Each of these skills can improve performance (and happiness) in any domain and the hectic holiday traffic is a great training ground for skill development!

Mindfulness is the act of directing attention to and awareness on ongoing events and experience without judgement.  This definition of mindfulness includes awareness of internal and external events.  As you are driving your car around holiday traffic, you are aware (hopefully) of many traffic specific inputs; stop signs, traffic lights, merging cars, turn-signals (or lack of a turn-signal), bumper stickers, and the people driving the other cars.  Practice mindful driving by noticing these inputs of the road without judgement or attachment, just notice them.  You will likely get distracted by songs on the radio, thoughts about the holidays, or things happening at work or at home.  When you notice yourself being distracted by those thoughts, bring your attention back to driving.  Next, notice how your driving experience is making you feel.  Both physically and emotionally.  Notice if you are white-knuckling the steering wheel, notice if you are slumping, if your heart is beating faster than normal, and notice if you are getting angry or frustrated with your fellow drivers on the road.

This is the beginning of developing self-awareness, the foundational competency of emotional intelligence.  Mindfulness practice is a great way to develop this valuable competency.  In research I conducted with the Stanford University mindfulness program, I found that an 8-week mindfulness program significantly improved the self-awareness of business leaders compared to that of a control group.  Let’s look at how we can apply this research to your holiday driving performance.

Notice the emotions that are arising while driving in this busy, stop-and-go, hectic traffic.  Are you feeling anxious to get to the mall, work, or home?  Are you angry or frustrated by other drivers on the road or the time you seem to be wasting in traffic?  The next step, is to look at these emotions more closely.  Strong emotions are often a great window into self-exploration.  Why are you in such a hurry to get where you are going?  What self-talk is happening, why are you attached to these thoughts and how they define you?

Do you feel entitled to drive as fast as you want or to block others that are trying to change lanes because they will get in front of you?  If so, why are you entitled over others?  Are you entitled to that parking spot so you are going to wedge your car into the spot recklessly before someone else can take it.  If you let that car merge do you feel you are giving up power and are being taken advantage of, maybe like other areas of your life?  If you don’t get home immediately will you miss spending time with a loved one, time you feel guilty about because of your hectic busy schedule that you keep adding stuff to?

Now, think of the thoughts that arise when someone has offended you on the road.  Do you say things like, “that figures, they are (insert gender, race, religious, political, or economic stereotype here).”  When you catch yourself thinking these things, it is a great opportunity to observe your implicit bias and a chance to challenge those thoughts and grow.  It is also a great chance to notice how your behavior is driven by these thoughts and emotions.

The last part of this exercise is to practice emotional regulation.  Instead of cursing and honking and filling the car with shoulds (I should be there by now, I should be able to find parking, I should not have to slow down for you, you should merge behind me, there should not be this much traffic…you get the idea), try practicing radical acceptance (congested roads are a normal part of modern life) and letting these thoughts and charged emotions go.  The process is called cognitive defusion and your newly enhanced self-awareness can help you identify when negative self-talk is happening.  Once you recognize what is happening, you can challenge the noise in your head and let it go.  A funny thing happens when you let things go…you feel better and those charged emotions are no longer controlling your life – congratulations you have developed some emotional regulation!

One last experiment for you to try.  Once you have let those charged thoughts and feelings go, try smiling at the offending driver and motioning them in front of you.  Concede the contested parking spot to the other car.  Resist the conditioned urge to speed up at the traffic light and block the intersection.  In other words, practice driving with compassion.  The science is crystal clear on this, when you give to others, even on the road, YOU FEEL BETTER.  And, it is the holidays after all, is there a better time to practice compassion for your fellow road warriors?

I know this sounds like a lot, but you are stuck in holiday traffic, you have hours to practice!

If you want to learn more about how emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and emotional regulation can improve your performance…and life…contact dr. dutch franz and TierOne Performance Consulting.  Want to give the gift of high-performance?  Gift a course at the TierOne Performance Institute,  new classes will be starting in January 2018.

Remember – Put your mind on what matters!

Elite Athletic Performance – Cognitive Demands of a Modern Quarterback

athletic performance

Peyton Manning displayed the cognitive skills and emotional regulation to master the quarterback position and demonstrate elite athletic performance.

The job of a quarterback at the NCAA Div. I and the professional level is arguably the most demanding position in sport.  Quarterbacks in today’s game are expected to display elite athletic performance; agility, strength, speed, and pinpoint accuracy.  However, these athletic performance skills are just the price of admission to the elite level of play.  What makes a quarterback effective, or even great, at this level, is the cognitive capacity the quarterback develops.

Let’s forget for a moment the intelligence it takes to learn the playbook and vocabulary of modern football; those are more traditional intelligence (IQ) type skills.  What we will focus on is the cognitive demands and emotional regulation needed in the 40 seconds between plays that separate the effective, or even great, quarterback from the others that try to play the game.  Scott Hanson of the Seattle Times describes this period of elite athletic performance pretty effectively.

Imagine you have just been thrown to the ground by a 300-pound man.  But you have no time to wallow in the pain.  You must get up, and fast, because the clock is ticking.  In the next 40 seconds you will assess the situation, receive the next play, communicate it to your team, make sure you are properly protected and everyone is aligned correctly….  And then maybe change it all up, depending on what you see from the defense.

Encapsulated in Hanson’s passage is a description of cognitive capacity at the elite athletic performance level.  The performance starts with self-awareness and the quarterback assessing his own physical and mental state dispassionately and without judgement.  “I got hit hard, am I okay? Yes. Move on.”  An emotional response to the hard hit will bog down the cognitive process and waste valuable seconds in either self-pity or acting out.

As the quarterback gets off the ground, he is assessing the situation; game situation (down, distance, time, and score) and the mental and emotional condition of his teammates.  He uses this data to build an initial predictive mental model or multiple models and begins to test environmental inputs against this model.  During this period of athletic performance, the quarterback gets the play either through a visual signal from the sideline, or in the NFL, through a microphone in the quarterback’s helmet.  During this critical transmission of game-time strategy, the QB has to eliminate noise (real and mental) and visual distraction from the crowd, sidelines, and other players.  And then he has to relay this message clearly while helping to minimize these distractions for his fellow offensive players.  Any distraction or break in focus degrades the optimal cognitive processing performance the QB will need to be successful.

At this point, the quarterback breaks the huddle with 15-20 seconds remaining – 20 seconds earlier, he was picking turf out of his helmet.  With the time remaining (think about it, roughly 17 heart-beats), the QB must assess the defense at the macro and micro level.  At the macro level, the QB assesses the defense set, coverage, personnel, and likely course of action.  This data gets fed into the QB’s mental predictive model and any adjustments to protection or the play is made (5-10 heart-beats remain before time runs out).  Next, the QB assesses micro level inputs.  Where is the safety in relation to the hash, what shoulder is the DB lined up on and where is he looking.  This information gets fed into the QB’s predictive model further building the analytic snapshot the quarterback will use to optimize decision making.  Times Up!

All of that must be done in a pressure cooker.  Besides the cognitive capacity to analytically process the situation, the QB must have the emotional regulation to minimize the mental distraction of fear, stress, destructive self-talk, and pain.  Emotional distress takes up a lot of precious cognitive processing capacity and can short-circuit elite athletic performance both at the physical and mental level.

The good news is, that scientific research (including my own studying a Stanford training program) shows that cognitive processes and emotional regulation like I have just described can be training and developed.  Cognitive processing speed can be improved at the neural level and reaction times and decision making can be improved.  The bad news is that no college or pro program (except maybe the Seahawks) have a formal cognitive training program and none of the big business quarterback factories have figured out how to train this yet…not in a real way and not with evidence-based methods.

If you look at the demeanor of Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, there’s always a calm about them no matter what’s going on and the chaos that’s going on around them.  Those are guys that you know are in control of what they’re doing.”  Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon

Develop your cognitive skills, decision making, and emotional regulation under pressure with the TierOne Performance Consulting team or at the TierOne Performance Institute.  We offer state-of-the-art individual and program-based training to optimize elite athletic performance.  Also, checkout this YouTube clip on improving poise and mental toughness through distress tolerance training.

Remember – Put your mind on what matters.

Sports Performance – Integrating Cognitive Mind Training into Practice

Russell WilsonCredit: Photograph by Peter Yang

Sports performance and elite athlete development can be optimized through cognitive mind training, but the challenge is integrating the training into limited practice time.  Photo from

The cognitive mind training revolution is changing how performance and sports psychologists think about developing elite athletes.  The problem is that practice time is limited, especially in the highly regulated NCAA sports environment.  But in order for athletes to optimize the performance value of mind training it has to be done regularly and integrated into sport specific activities.  So how does a time-limited stressed out coach do this?  Here are five ways you can integrate cognitive mind training into your daily routine and optimize the performance of your elite athletes.

  1. Focused Attention (FA) meditation is a powerful way to increase focus and strengthen the brain’s attentional network.  The object of meditation is not as important as the process of bring attention back to the object when the mind wanders.  Conduct FA meditation during regular weight training workouts and use the barbell or grip on the weight machine as the focal point of attention.  You can also use skill or position drills during practice as a time to practice FA.
  2. Body scan meditation improves an athlete’s awareness of physical states that can impact elite performance.  Practice body scanning during pre-practice stretches.
  3. Open Monitoring (OM) meditation helps develop the ability to recognize novel stimuli in the environment, a significant skill in elite performance.  Athletes can practice OM meditation while walking to class or during lunch breaks.
  4. Distress tolerance training increases poise and mental toughness.  Build cognitive mind training into skill and endurance workouts that stress the physical capacity of the athlete.  Interval or high-intensity strength training are great times to increase poise and mental toughness with cognitive mind training.
  5. Encourage your elite athletes to adopt a 24/7 performance mindset.  Your athletes are away from you more than they are with you; develop a shared vocabulary and philosophy of intentional behavior that supports elite performance.  This intentional behavior includes nutrition, sleep, emotional resilience, and commitment to build cognitive performance skills outside of practice.


For more information about integrating cognitive mind training into your practices or developing a customized cognitive mind training program for your organization, contact dr. dutch at TierOne Performance Consulting or consider taking courses at the TierOne Performance Institute.

Remember – Put your mind on what matters!