How to break through your mental barriers?

In the early phase of my career as an active runner I was lucky enough to have the possibility to work with a well known sports psychologist, Willi Railo. He taught me a lot, and I know that I can thank him for my many of my performances and top achievements in running. I learnt from him to dare to think big and without limitations. He did not work only with athletes, but also with artists, musicians and with people within business. He had a model for “safety zones” and mental barriers that fits to all people, whatever they are doing, when it comes to performance. You can have a look at the model in this article, and see if it fits in your case as well.

Mental barriers – inner resistance

In this article, we shall take a closer look into two forms of inner resistance that we have as human beings: “Ambition” and “Performance Anxiety”. All of us have a maximum performance level that we can reach. This we can do if we are able to minimise the mentioned resistance, and by that dare to reach our maximum performance. Many do not even dare to try, because they are afraid of failure. In the same way we also have a minimum level of performance, which we easily end up with if everything goes wrong.

This means that we have a “scale of possibilities”. How high or low we are at that scale depends on our basic resources, previous learning and competence. (I had a good training background, so my competence was good on what I wanted to be good at.)

It is interesting to study the mental barriers – the limits we are setting for ourselves. Where are we setting our upper limits – the “roof”, and where do we set our lower limits. The lower limit is the lowest performance we can have, and at the same time be reasonably satisfied. Performance below the lower limit means that we become very dissatisfied. This limit may be connected to measurable factors, such as it was for me in my time:

1.Silver is defeat
2.Slower than 31 min on a 10 km is a bad result
3.Slower than 2.23 hours on a marathon is a bad result

Most of us, when thinking about it, are familiar with our own “lower mental limit”. It is however not so obvious for us to realise that we also have an “upper mental limit” as a part of our mental barriers. We have resources to go over this limit, but we rarely use those resources. This is because we don’t realise that we possess these resources, or because we are afraid of failure.

These things were what Willi taught me about. “Move on, do your best and realise your potential”, he told me. “Don’t think about what happens if you don’t reach your goal. We will discuss this “worry” later, after first having tried”. That was some really wise words, that turned out to be right.

Why are so many people influenced negatively by mental barriers?

Willi had a reasonable explanation for why mental barriers are stopping many people from success:

1.Habit thinking, not able to think new, “great” thoughts
2.Low targets, lack of breakthrough targets
3.Low ”mental height”
4.Low self esteem

If you look at the figure on the top of this article, the area between the mental limits is called the “safety zone”. Within this area we feel secure. If we get outside, either above or below the limits, we tend to get unsure on ourselves and feel unsafe.

My advice to all of you is to try to move your limits – in order to expand your safety zone. I can promise you that if you get good to do this, most things will become possible for you. But then you must not be afraid to fail. You will fail from time to time, but so what? Because you will succeed much more than you fail, and you will improve a lot.

Where is the upper limit for your safety zone?

This is an important issue for everybody who wants to succed, whichever arena in the life we are talking about. After having read this article, think about how you think and work. maybe you can do some of this?

Mental barriersThe upper limit stops us from realising our maximal potential. One of the main reasons that we have these blockages, is a resistance inside ourselves when we are getting closer to the upper limit. We often get blocked by the way we are thinking. If we want to do a daring act, we need first to think daring thoughts. Vice versa, if we are not able to think daring, we will not dare in front of the challenge. I learnt this from Willi Railo. He made me think daring thoughts, like thinking about setting world records for long runs. By thinking, working with and believing in these thoughts, I actually managed to break through and to set a number of world records!

We have repeatedly seen how our thoughts are setting an upper limit for our performance. The feelings that are behind this, are working like breaks that even can lower our upper limit. The background for these feelings can be split into two main reasons:

  1. Fear of progress, leading to fear of winning. The further reasons behind this inner resistance can be several.
  2. Lack of emotional accept of high levels. Many people can not emotionally accept a high level for themselves. It is equally important to accept a high level both intellectually and emotionally.

The upper limit is not objective, it is very personal. We can easily see that in sports. After the first time a person achieved to run an english mile below 4 min. (which was called the “dream limit”), many followed and achieved this later on. This means that it was helpful that one person went in the front, in order to help others to dare to think that it was possible.

What can you do to improve your mental standard?

  1. Remember: It is difficult to perform better than your mental standard.
  2. When you have raised your mental standard, you will meet resistance within yourself. You shall win over this resistance.
  3. Your thought culture is important.
  4. Remember: It is possible to break through borders.
  5. Don’t be afraid of failure.

Where is the lower limit for your safety zone?

Mental barriers performance cageWhen it comes to the lower limit of the safety zone, it is too high for many people. These people are afraid of not performing, or are afraid of failure. It is common that they have set the limit high because they are afraid about what other people will say if they fail. A high lower limit will often lead to performance that are lower than it should be for the person. The consequence of having a high lower limit will normally also lead to setting a low upper limit. The result is a very narrow safety zone – which means a “small performance cage”. The fear of doing mistakes leads to not being able to use the resources that you actually have. I had this problem myself in my early career as an athlete, but after meeting and working with Willi Railo, I got this changed. Then, after a while, the good performance came, and I was able to achieve results like setting world records on all long run distances from 5000m up to and including marathon.

How narrow your safety zone is depends on two things:
1. Your personality. This is being built gradually, as a result of getting experience from the different arenas of life.
2. The social environment you are living in. This will have a large impact on how narrow or wide your safety zone becomes.

To feel safe is one of the most basic feelings for human beings. When safety is threatened, we will use all our energy to secure it. This tells us that our behaviour is directed more towards safeguarding ourselves than towards making good performance. This is one of the reasons why human beings have a built in resistance towards changes. A change is a threat towards our safety.

To dare to lose can make you a winner

One of the first things Willi started with, when we started to work together, was to decrease make my lower limit. I thought this was a little bit weard, since it was already low, in my opinion. Well, it was exactly what he meant. In order to raise your upper limit, you need to set the lower limit even lower. It does not mean that you shall have a lower goal. You shall just increase your safety zone, both upwards and downwards.

One example demonstrating that the lower limit influences the upper limit:

Put a beam on the floor and ask people to balance on it and and walk along. Everybody can do that. Use the same beam, but now firmly fastened between platforms 10 meters above the ground. Ask everybody again to do the same thing. No, don’t do it, because most people will fall down. The task is in principle exactly the same. The beam is just as wide and firm as when on the ground, but the fear of falling raises the lower limit and lowers the upper limit. One gets so afraid of falling that one will fall. Put up a safety net below the beam and you will see that the fear will be reduced, and the performance will increase.

This tells us that you need to dare to fail if you want to perform really well. In other words: Influence your mental barriers by expanding your safety zone. Then you will also dare to win.

Source: Willi Railo

Read more details about mental training here:

Author: Ingrid Kristiansen

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