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Practical tips to develop athletic mental toughness, by Invictus' Heidi 'The Healer'

Practical tips to develop athletic mental toughness, by Invictus' Heidi 'The Healer'

By: Emily Beers

When I ran into Canada West athlete Brittany Brown in the concourse at regionals in Portland this year, one of the questions I asked her was:

“What do you do for mental training?”

Brown—who admittedly was having a tough regionals competition mentally—replied:

“Nothing,” before quickly adding, “I’m going to next year, though!”

“What are you going to do?” I asked.

She shrugged and said she wasn’t sure—just that she knew she needed to work on her mental game.

After Regionals, I started asking around and discovered many who could relate: They didn’t do as well as they knew they could have because anxiety, nerves, or a lack of confidence prevented them from excelling, they said.

Kristi Eramo at the 2016 CrossFit Games

Even Blonyx athlete Kristi Eramo (pictured right), who did qualify to her first CrossFit Games out of the Central regional competition, admitted she could have done more work on her mental game: “I believe the sport is just as mental as physical and that I do not spend enough time working on my mental state. A lot of time the mind is telling you no or wants to quit before the body is ready to give up. If you can train your mind to stay positive and keep pushing, who knows what you are capable of achieving.” - Eramo

Ahead of the Curve in San Diego

My search to discover what top CrossFit athletes are doing for mental training also led me to find Heidi the ‘Healer’ Barker from San Diego, California—a woman who devotes her life to helping others improve their lives emotionally and mentally by providing them with practical tools to help them in competition.

Many of Barker's clients are CrossFit Invictus athletes—including Games athletes Lauren Fisher, Josh Bridges and Blonyx athlete Regan Huckabyas well as with the entire CrossFit Invictus team.

Heidi the Healer has the mother's touch: A former world-class swimmer, a massage therapist and acupuncturist with her doctorate degree in Oriental medicine, Barker first got involved with the CrossFit scene in 2005 when Invictus head coach CJ Martin made an appointment with her for his back pain. Today, she is a crucial member of the Invictus team, Martin said.

Barker takes her role incredibly seriously, as the mental side of the sport is crucial for success, yet it often gets neglected, she explained.

“And it shouldn’t,” she said emphatically.

“When you get to Regionals, there are probably 10 or even 20 people in each region who have the physical capacity to go to the Games. If you’re bringing all these people to the start line that are all 100th of a second apart from each other, what’s left on the table is the mental piece,” she said. “Everyone is dialled in with their nutrition and programming. The only thing that will give them a leg up is that mental piece.”

This is where she comes in: Barker provides tools to help her athletes become more mentally resilient when it really matters: In competition!

She explained: “Mental resilience means being in an adversarial position and being able to rebound in a positive way."

“Why is it that one athlete might fail, or not perform well, and takes away a feeling of failure, or develops a lack of self-esteem. It’s because there’s something within that athlete doesn’t think they’re capable. Meanwhile, another athlete could take the same experience as a learning opportunity and can go back mid-competition and recalibrate and then come back and excel,” she said.

For Barker, much of developing mental resilience comes down to confidence. When someone is competing confidently, things fall into place, she explained.

“I don’t specifically do mental training, but I finally KNOW I belong here and that has helped so much. I think confidence has been huge for me this year." -Blonyx athlete  Carleen Matthews

So how do you get this confidence? This mental resilience? It starts with one simple question: WHY?

Step 1: The ‘Why’ Mission Statement

“Why do you compete?”

This is the first question Barker asks when she starts working with a new athlete. 

“Sometimes it takes a while to really develop an understanding of why they are competing, of why they are out on the floor” she said. 

Answering that one simple question often takes an athlete a while to figure out, Barker explained. To help him/her find an answer, she challenges the athlete to really ask himself what makes them feel joyful? What gives him that feeling of unlimited energy? Why does he go to the gym everyday and train his ass off? Why do he push himself? Why does he compete?

From there, Barker works with the athlete to determine a mission statement: The why.

In this time, a lot of ideas float around, Barker explained. She then works with the athlete to put ideas into words, and eventually to shorten and tighten the mission statement into something succinct.

Her own mission statement—which the former world-class swimmer and member of the United States Navy—said used to be convoluted is now as simple as:

“Being of service.”

In short, finding a mission statement helps the athlete gain clarity with his/her goals.

“Whenever there’s a broken moment, usually it means the athlete has lost sight of their goals, and then we need to go back to the mission statement and re-evaluate,” she said.


Blonyx athlete Emily Abbott

While not a 'mission statement,' per se, Blonyx athlete Emily Abbott is all about mantras: “I am always looking for maxims or mantra that pertain to my competitive life. I try to find connections with people that are meaningful and can impart wisdom to me." - Abbott

 Eramo, too, enjoys mantras: “I find a mantra and keep repeating it to myself to distract myself from letting negative thoughts in in during a hard workout." - Eramo, who placed an incredible 8th in the world at the recent CrossFit Games.

Step 2: Four Pillars

After the mission statement is determined, it’s time to get into the tools—the four pillars, Barker explained. These are the meat and potatoes—the tools that help her athletes become mentally resilient in competition.

They’re all very simple, Barker said, but they’re often forgotten, especially in the heat of the moment in competition.

Pillar #1: Goal Setting

The most important thing about goal setting, Barker explained, is that goals need to be in alignment with the athlete’s mission statement.

“They need to support the why—the mission statement,” she said.

She elaborated with a metaphor she uses with her athletes: “If I want to grow a beautiful garden and I look at the sun, the sun is like the why: It nourished the entire ecosystem. And every seed I plant in my garden needs to be in alignment. I don’t want to end up with a garden that I don’t want. I don’t want to end up growing fruits and vegetables I don’t like.”

“The other thing is people often look at the neighbour’s garden and criticize it. And then their own garden dies because they’re spending so much energy on someone else’s garden,” she added.

The latter is what happens to athletes when it comes to social media, Barker explained. Many athletes have expressed to her how devastating social media is for staying focused on their goals, and ultimately, devastating for the confidence as it gives you the false impression others are improving faster than you. The impression everyone else is getting personal bests every time they train. 

“It can eat away from you,” she said. “One negative thing can affect an athlete.”

“So then, we talk about how we can mitigate it. For someone like Lauren Fisher, it was, ‘Ok, you have an agent. Maybe your agent can manage your social media then,’” Barker said. “That allows her to have her garden without being out of alignment with her why.”

For those athletes without agents, it's important to find a way to stop social media from eating away at your confidence, Barker said. 

It’s not just the athlete’s goals that have to be in alignment with their why, Barker added. It’s their entire life.

“The way they’re eating, sleeping, speaking. Every action, every habit you’re doing throughout the day: You have to ask, ‘Is it in alignment with my why?’”

Barker added: “And the more you’re able to do that, the more you’re able to enjoy it and be happy.”

Pillar #2: Self-Talk

“How are you managing your self-talk? Barker asks her athletes.

Self-talk is one of the big concepts she discusses with the athletes during Invictus athlete camps, with one of the big ideas being establishing affirmations—meaning positive statements—the goal being to rid oneself of the negative self-talk, Barker explained.

For those who are really stuck in a negative thought pattern, Barker has had success getting through to them with a technique called EFT—emotional freedom technique (a type of counseling intervention that draws on alternative medicine techniques, such as acupuncture, energy medicine and Thought Field Therapy (TFT).

"EFT helps you acknowledge negative self-talk and then reaffirm that everything’s ok. It can be super powerful in helping people get through really powerful negative self-talk,” Barker said.

Acupuncture is one of Barker’s go-to EFT tools, which she finds has a huge emotional component to it.

“Once the needles are inserted into the body, your dopamine receptor sites become more open and you can get into a nice, relaxed state that helps you take off a layer of anxiety,” Barker said.  

She has also noticed acupuncture helps athletes become more in tune with their emotions.

“Emotions often come to the surface during acupuncture, and then the athlete can acknowledge them and let them go,” Barker said. “It helps show them how much of a connection there is between their mind and body.”

Pillar #3: Arousal Control

Arousal control?

“It sounds sexual, but it’s not,” Barker said.

“It’s about managing levels of excitement.”

While some athletes perform better when you’re amped up, when they’re hyped up on coffee, other athletes need to be quieter and more withdrawn, Barker said.

“You need to understand where your optimal level of arousal is for performance,” she explained.

One of the biggest aspects of this comes down to breathing.

“If you’re experiencing anxiety, you need to learn to bring yourself back down,” Barker said.

As a multi-regional and Games athlete myself, the second Barker mentioned this one, my ears perked up: She was talking to me!

This is exactly my mental stumbling block that I had never been able to conquer. When Event #1 at Regionals has been a ‘huff and puff’ metabolic sprint-type event—namely “Jackie” in 2013 and “Randy” in 2015—I shit the bed because my pre-competition anxiety tends to lead to my heartrate beating at what feels like 200 beats a minute. And it’s pretty tough to perform your best when your heartrate is 40 percent higher than it was when you practiced the event. I need to figure out arousal control!

I explained this to Barker, and alas, she said I am not alone.

Barker has worked with Bridges on his breathing—diaphragmatic breathing techniques—to get him into the right space of breathing, she said.

One way she does this is through meditation. The goal through meditation is to detach yourself from your anxiety and emotions, Barker said.

“When you detach from your emotions, you can see things more logically,” she added.

The easiest way to do this is to return “over and over” to your breath, Barker explained, and to create some separation between your emotions and the task at hand.

Ultimately, when an athlete can learn to breathe properly and get his or her heartrate to the correct place, he is able to find his optimal state of arousal, remain connected, poised and grounded to compete his best, Barker said.

There’s hope for me, after all!

Pillar #4: Visualization

Visualization is one of the most common tools athletes use for mental preparation, Barker said. But often times athletes don’t get as much out of it as they can.

I know I am one athlete who has always struggled to visualize. This started back when I was a gymnast. At 8 years old, whenever I tried to do my bar routine, I would dismount and hit my feet on the bar as I rotated.

Again, Barker reassured me I’m not alone.

“Some people aren’t visual learners. When they close their eyes, they don't see things,” she said.

“Maybe you’re more tactile than visual,” she added. “Maybe you’re being too rigid in your visualizations, obsessing about the small things. It might help you to picture the general flow. So instead of imagining yourself snatching, imagine what you will feel like, what the day will sound like. Thing about the energy. Imagine yourself feeling calm. Come back to your breath and imagine what your breath will feel like with those loud sounds around you. For you, it might be more a visualization of confidence. Maybe you don’t need to visualize the lift at all.”

Going one step further, she even suggested a better visualization for me might be to take myself out of the competition venue completely, and imagine myself doing something like climbing to the top of a mountain instead.

This looks much easier than a snatch!

This blew my mind; after all these years of unsuccessful visual visualization sessions: Her advice was so simple, yet useful.

What is most powerful about visualization, though, is how it can train the brain and prepare it for competition, Barker explained.

“You can actually train the neurotransmitter receptors in your brain,” she said. “You can create a pattern by going through that pattern 200 times before Regionals.” And then by the time you get there, both your body and brain will be ready to handle the stress.

High Praise from Team Invictus

Gaje McDaniel was part of the Invictus team that qualified to the Games at the recent California regional competition. He has worked with Barker individually through body work, and with his entire team during team sessions.

“The best thing she did for us was giving us the opportunity to say things that we may not otherwise say (to each other) without her there,” McDaniel said.

GAJE MCDANIEL from Invictus

On top of helping the team develop cohesiveness and trust through open communication, as well as positive reinforcement talks that McDaniel said allows them to “get our inner thoughts straight,” another huge area of help for McDaniel has been the visualization processes Barker puts them through.

“Visualizing ourselves being successful through all of our hard work and preparation. Relying on that, and trusting that we are completely able,” he said.

“She is a miracle worker.”


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