‘My Mental Toughness Manifesto’ Part 2: PRACTICE

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In MMTM Part 1, two-step cognitive appraisals were explained. This process dictates whether one enters a challenged or threatened mindset in the event where an immediate performance is required under acute stress.

Feeling challenged, of course, is one of the two chief components of a mentally tough individual.

“I am 100% committed”

“I feel challenged”

In this post, we will explore principles which must be incorporated in one’s ‘practice‘ (i.e. training) regime, to increase a sense of confidence in one’s skillset. The confident individual will always be more likely to appraise a scenario as challenging as opposed to threatening.

Paradigm shift alert: When practicing, specific skill development must be prioritised over knowledge-base widening. This, of course, sharply contrasts with the traditional approach to medical training. New theoretical concepts seem less abstract and will always be absorbed more rapidly when they fit into the mental scaffolding built by focusing on skill development.

In an ideal world, all clinicians, across the spectrum of specific role and geographic location, would get regular high-fidelity simulation training sessions, supervised by master educators. Of course, this isn’t feasible in even the richest healthcare systems; and the reality is that all types of supervised training (other than weekly death-by-PowerPoint didactic teaching) become increasingly rare the more senior you become.

Therefore, one must take ownership over one’s own practice, and be relentless in the pursuit of ultimate confidence in one’s skillset. This will be achieved through immersiondeliberate practice, and visualisation.

Immersion

“Discipline equals freedom”

Jocko Willink, Navy SEAL Commander

My definition of professional ‘immersion’ is regular engagement with one’s craft outside of working hours. The abundance of free online medical education (FOAMed) resources makes this process exceptionally easy and enjoyable. With availability/access to excellent content no longer an issue (unlike the olden days where you had to sift through dusty textbooks, and YouTube hadn’t yet been invented), the only obstacle standing in the way of adequate immersion is having the discipline to allocate time to it.

Too often, clinicians assume they are advancing their expertise, and fine-tuning performance standards, purely by attending work – clocking in and clocking out, going through the motions on the shop floor, and then completely disengaging during free time. This is occupational autopilot. And it is dangerous.

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 20.33.35Occupational autopilot predisposes clinicians to flounder during a crisis, because the mind stiffens when seldom fed new information. For example, the disengaged anaesthetist who rarely ventures far from uncomplicated elective orthopaedics will be flummoxed by the surprise grade 4 intubation. Despite being entirely competent enough to weather the storm, he/she will fall easily into the clutches of the threat mindset and spectacularly fail the patient in that rare moment, largely because of their lack of engagement with the broader landscape of their chosen pursuit.

The ability to think laterally, employ techniques that might be ‘rusty’ or never performed before (e.g. surgical cricothyroidotomy), and trust one’s own clinical judgement, can only occur seamlessly if you have adequately immersed yourself in the educational resources and evolving narrative of your vocation.

Of course, immersion in specific resources to improve an isolated skill is crucial if weakness is identified (a principle of ‘deliberate practice’ – see below). But it’s the habitual (daily) general immersion, with no specific agenda, that is a key characteristic of the dedicated professional whose identity is embedded in his or her craft. Immersion isn’t a training methodology – it is a lifestyle decision. It ensures currency is maintained, and nurtures a fertile cognitive environment, mandatory for yielding the acrobatics and improvisation required during a crisis.

Deliberate Practice

“Skill is only developed by hours and hours of beating on your craft.”

Will Smith, actor

Deliberate practice describes a common set of principles which should form the framework of every training session [1].

Every time you practice, your sole mission is to improve. You should constantly be asking yourself the question: “How can I do this better?”.

A specific component of a chosen skill is isolated – one that you are poor at or can’t do – and then subjected to specific training exercises and repetitions (‘drilling’).

The core principles of deliberate practice:

  1. specific, measurable goal must be established for the session. Vague overall performance targets like ‘succeed’ or ‘get better’ mean nothing.
  2. Be maximally focused on improvement during practice. It must be intense and uninterrupted. Put your electronic device away.
  3. Receive immediate feedback on your performance. Without it, you won’t be able to figure out what you need to modify or how close you are to achieving your goal.
  4. Exit your comfort zone. Push yourself to the edge of what you are capable of. Don’t be afraid of failure – it signposts the path to progression.

IdScreen Shot 2017-03-14 at 20.35.09eally, a supervisor should be present to guide training, and give immediate feedback. When this isn’t available (which will be most of the time for the majority of clinicians), video footage of the skill being performed/taught is a decent substitute. You can compare your own repetitions to the video subject, and ‘self-police’ your training progress. The plethora of FOAMed video content makes this comfortably achievable.

Human nature dictates that we gravitate towards training skills that we are already proficient at, and neglect areas outside our comfort zone. Why? It’s much more satisfying to feel like you are ‘nailing’ something. DO NOT be enticed into that trap – the significant gains exist where there is most discomfort and least enjoyment. What is enjoyable, is the feeling that you are moving forward and advancing your overall proficiency.

Regular re-visiting of skills that have laid dormant for a while (either in practice or in the field) is essential for avoiding skill fade. This habitual ‘spaced repetition’ deeply embeds a skillset into our mental scaffolding, and makes it far more likely to be retrievable under acute, severe stress.

Here is a previous blog which covers deliberate practice in a little more detail.

Visualisation

“In my view, the answer is to use the highest fidelity simulator in the universe – the human brain”

Cliff Reid, Emergency Physician, Sydney HEMS

Despite it being our most powerful and adaptive weapon, we routinely fail to utilise our brain as a training gadget. When physically practicing, our minds are engaged, but (naturally) we conceptualise the process as being entirely external. Our conscious focus is largely zoned in on body positioning or equipment handling, making it easy to forget our brain is the anatomical structure in the driving seat.

tigerwoodsvisualization

Visualisation (or ‘mental practice’/’mental rehearsal’/’imagery’) is the process of consciously playing a mental ‘video’ of a task or scenario from the perspective of one’s own eyes. In other words, one thinks about doing something, step by step. Despite no physical engagement, one is activating the very same neural circuitry as when performing the skill for real, and if done effectively, it reinforces skill-related mental scaffolding, just like deliberate practice [2, 3]. It enhances clarity and speed of thought during the moment of truth.

Much like the concept of mental toughness itself, visualisation can get routinely dismissed as a vague, abstract, somewhat hippyish concept, with little scientific credibility. If that is your opinion, you are sorely mistaken and missing a huge opportunity. The evidence-base is abundant across a wide spectrum of human endeavour, with perhaps the most high profile examples found in the results-driven world of elite sport [4, 5, 6]. Desperate for the edge over equally motivated competition, you would be hard pushed to find an upper echelon-worthy individual or team not dedicating a considerable portion of their training schedule to mental practice. Put simply, it is considered pivotal to producing the goods by folk who earn their living making us say ‘WOW’. When the Federers, Mcilroys, and Bradys of this world consider it indispensable, then frontline healthcare, an equally performance-centric game, should be paying attention.

Vivid realism is crucial for the process to be effective. You need to feel it as well as see it. The PETLEPP mnemonic is a useful guide [7]:

Physical – What are you holding? What are you wearing? What are you smelling?
Environment – What are your surroundings? It is essential to imagine yourself in the environment where you will be performing (i.e. your usual workplace).
Type –Imagery must be specific to your role and responsibility.
Timing – Given the time critical nature of acute care, imagery must take place in ‘real time’.
Learning – Content should evolve with learning. The cognitions and feelings experienced will change as the individual improves.
Emotion – Imagine yourself acutely stressed, but in the challenge mindset. Total ‘calm’ is not realistic and, therefore, not useful.
Perspective – Feel and see from your own perspective (i.e through your own ‘eyes’).

The unique selling point of visualisation when compared to other practice modalities is its malleability. Using your imagination to conjure up potential curveballs and banana skins is a very effective method for finely sharpening routine skills and processes where there may be a tendency to get complacent. Play the ‘what if’ game:

“What if I had to perform an RSI on a 300kg patient with a receding chin? What extra precautions should I take?”

“What if whilst I was putting in a right IJV central line, the patient became hypotensive and the oxygen saturations dropped to 70%? What should my next steps be?”

“What if I was the trauma team leader for a penetrating chest trauma case and suddenly the patient lost output?”

It’s also a perfect strategy for shoring up one’s procedural routine for exceptionally rare events, such as the emergency thoracotomy or perimortem Caesarian section. Procedures like that would be uneconomical, and logistically impossible, to repetitively practice on mannikins/cadavers. Regular and structured mental practice is therefore a must for emergency providers who genuinely want to be able to tackle everything thrown at them. It is impossible to predict what is coming through the resus doors, but when you have seen it all in the simulation lab between your ears, you will be ready.

This technique isn’t limited to skills training; it can be applied on a broader, more personal level as well. It can galvanise the spirit, and ignite the passion for positively affecting the world through your job – a trait abundant in all of us deep down. Regularly visualise yourself returning home at the end of a shift, mission, or deployment with that beautiful sense of victory and euphoria that washes over when you know you’ve performed well. See yourself overcoming every obstacle thrown at you on duty, and always able to access clarity of thought, and the best of your ability, when it really counts.

Capture yourself in the career trajectory exactly as you have always dreamed it, regardless of how far away you currently feel. If you have the imagination to dream, and the courage to believe that your vision is possible, it will make you hungrier to strive for it. Every training session will be laced with boundless intent, and in time, your mental movie will become a reality.

Summary

Effective practice is about building confidence, so that when a performance is required, the challenge mindset is achieved.

Immersion in your craft safeguards against occupational autopilot, and fosters a healthy cognitive environment for high performance.

When training specifics, fully embracing the principles of deliberate practice is the only gateway to expert-level skills.

Visualisation, when maximally vivid and performed in a structured fashion, can prepare you for anything. Never underestimate the training-tool that is your mind.

Building mental toughness isn’t easy, but your patients deserve it. No-one will do it for you. Get after it.

References

  1. Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise. Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.
  2. Weisinger H, Pawliw-Fry JP. Performance Under Pressure. New York, NY: Crown Business.
  3. Mike Lauria. EHPR Part 5: Using Mental Practice and Visualization Exercises by Mike Lauria. EMCrit Blog. Published on February 21, 2017. Accessed on March 13th 2017. Available at [https://emcrit.org/blogpost/ehpr-part-5-using-mental-practice-visualization-exercises-mike-lauria/].
  4. Feltz DL, Landers The effects of mental practice on motor skill learning and performance: A meta- analysis. Journal of Sport Psychology. 1983;5(1):25-57.
  5. Mental Training for Peak Performance. Steven Ungerleider and Nick Bollettieri.
  6. Sports visualisation: how to imagine your way to success. Mark Bailey, The Telegraph.
  7. Holmes PS, Collins DJ. The PETTLEP Approach to Motor Imagery: A Functional Equivalence Model for Sport Psychologists. J Appl Sport Psychol. 2001; 13(1): 60-83.

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