Want To Be As Mentally Tough As A Winter Olympian?

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We saw many exciting and demanding performances during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics and pretty much every competitor possessed the attribute of mental toughness.

Canadian Olympian Nicole W Forrester in The Conversation explains how an athlete develops mental toughness skills. The techniques described are equally applicable in everyday life and you can develop mental toughness skills today to improve your mental toughness and performance.

She begins by outlining research published in the Journal of Sports Sciences which found that successful Olympians have a high degree of self-confidence, are able to block out distractions, manage their arousal level, are goal-oriented and demonstrate a healthy form of perfectionism.

In a seminal study, researchers Graham Jones, Sheldon Hanton and Declan Connaughton determined mental toughness to be an athlete’s ability to outperform their competitors in managing demands and demonstrating consistency, drive, focus, confidence and control under pressure.

They also found mental toughness to be a characteristic that was both innate and developed over time, meaning an athlete who doesn't appear to be "born with it" can certainly cultivate it.

Mental toughness is essentially a constellation of various mental skills, including unshakeable self-belief, resiliency, motivation, focus and the ability to perform under pressure, as well as to manage physical and emotional pain.

In sport psychology, we use mental skills training to help athletes develop mental toughness. Mental skills training involves assessing athletes' areas of strengths and weaknesses and devising a program that builds key areas essential to their sport and their individual needs.

While the needs of each athlete will vary, there are common strategies used by many Olympians.


Olympians will engage in various goal-setting strategies to deliver a successful performance. While they may have an outcome goal of winning a medal or placing among the top finishers, they will also set performance goals and process goals.

Performance goals are self-referenced and may involve the goal of achieving a new personal best. Process goals direct athletes' attention to the execution of technical elements necessary to be successful. They are the "hows" and "ways" to achieving an outcome or performance goal.

For example, a figure skater who has a goal of winning a medal and successfully executing her quad jumps may shift her attention to the elements within the jump she knows she can do —and must do —to be successful in landing each jump. This will also elevate her confidence and minimize any distracting thoughts of failure or things she cannot control, such as her opponents. For some athletes, focusing on the outcome can actually distract them and cause them to become their own worst enemy.


Self-efficacy is the unshakeable belief of an athlete that they can meet the challenge they are facing. It is arguably the cornerstone for any great performance. Self-talk is a strategy that can positively influence self-efficacy and performance.

Self-talk is the internal dialogue we have with ourselves. In a given day we have over 50,000 thoughts. Thoughts are powerful and can affect an athlete’s confidence. While it's impossible for an athlete to keep track of all the thoughts they may have in a given day, athletes can engage in positive self-talk. Such talk can include affirmations of their strength, and cue words that pump them up or manage their nerves. It can include simple reminders of where their focus should be and what it is they need to execute.

Successful Olympians manage their thoughts effectively, ensuring they are their own best friend at the top of the slope or stepping out onto centre ice. Ultimately, this process has the incredible ability to make an athlete feel confident, in control and ready to face any challenge.


Imagery can be one of the more difficult skills to learn but, when well executed, it enables an Olympian to envision performing their discipline from start to finish as if they were doing it in real time.

Imagery involves visualizing the actual action an athlete would like to execute and engages all of their senses. What is most incredible is that when it is well practised, the muscles involved in the activity in real life will fire in the same sequence and rate —as if the activity was actually being performed.

As an Olympian, imagery was one of the mental skills I relied on the most.

In my preparation for competition, I would spend hours envisioning what I wanted to execute and how it should feel. I would even create bad scenarios that could occur, feeling the pressure and discomfort, and rehearse what my appropriate response would be. When it was time to compete, I felt ready for any and every situation. This was easily the hardest area of my preparation but something critical to perform well when it counted most.

Arousal Control

Olympians have a sweet spot for how they like to feel when performing their best. This is their optimal arousal level. Some athletes prefer being very pumped up while others may enjoy being so calm you wonder whether they know they are about to compete.

Like a thermostat that regulates the temperature of a house, successful Olympians are well dialed into their level of arousal. If they find they are outside of this zone, they will regulate it.

For example, an athlete can lower their arousal level by taking deep breaths from their diaphragm and engaging in self-talk to become calmer. Likewise, an athlete may elevate their arousal level with shorter breaths or by listening to music. The most important thing here is for the athlete to feel in control of how they feel.

When it comes to high performance, there is no question being mentally tough places any athlete at an advantage over their competitor. While it may be possible for some athletes to have this innate quality, it can certainly be harnessed and developed.

The importance of the mental toughness is well understood by successful Olympians. Most world-class athletes understand developing their mental skills is as important as working on their physical and technical skills.

Read Nicole's full article

To learn more about developing these mental toughness skills contact Bakjac Consulting.


Stressed? Try These Strategies To Manage Your Stress and Develop Mental Toughness.

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Everyone—adults, teens, and even children—experience stress at various times in their lives. Whether it be as a result of work pressures, studying for an exam, being bullied, work/life imbalance, difficulties with friendships or mental health issues – no one is immune to normal day to day pressure and stress.

Stressors can come from many sources, and we will in fact be the source of many of them in our own right. Others will come from our environment.

One important group of stressors that can be self-imposed is the requirement to do something well. It can be work performance, academic performance or sport and how we manage a stressor depends on many factors including our personality, age, gender, social support, fitness and our mental toughness.

Stress can in fact be beneficial. It can help us to develop the skills and resilience we need to manage these threatening situations throughout life. It is when we step outside our comfort zones that we experience the most growth, so experiencing stress and managing the consequences allow us to step into a growth mindset.

Stress is not helpful though when it prevents an individual’s self-care. However, we can put problems into perspective by finding healthy ways to cope and even thrive in the face of challenges. Having the right mindset, getting the right care and having support can help reduce stressful feelings and symptoms and give you an opportunity to feel back in control.

Stress is a reaction to a situation where a person feels threatened or anxious. Stress can be positive (e.g., preparing for a wedding) or negative (e.g., dealing with a natural disaster).  The symptoms may be physical (racing heart, rapid breathing, jittery, skin conditions, tension, headaches, lethargy, weight gain/loss), behavioural (withdrawal, aggression, crying, reduced interest in usual activities, substance abuse) and psychological/ emotional (short fuse, issues with short term memory and concentration, depression, anxiety, ruminative thinking, guilt, frustration).

Feeling emotional and nervous or having trouble sleeping and eating can all be normal reactions to stress. To be able to manage our symptoms and move though our stress responses, we can engage some strategies to develop our resilience and mental toughness and start to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

1)   Regular Exercise

Exercise releases endorphins that allow us to feel happier. Negative feelings often accompany stress and exercise can burn up the adrenalin you have produced in response to a threat, eliminate some negative feelings and give us more energy to tackle tasks, not to mention the fact that it helps us to sleep better too.

2)   Be Prepared for Stressful Events

If you know that a stressful event is looming; practice and prepare. If you have to give a presentation, but are afraid of public speaking, write your speech and practice in front of safe people well in advance. Manage your self-talk so that you can develop your presence.

3)   Recognise What You Can and Can’t Control

There is an old Chinese proverb that says – If you have a problem that you can control, then you don’t have a problem and if you have a problem that you can’t control, then you also don’t have a problem.

Try drawing two large circles, one inside the other. In the outer circle, write down all the things you can’t control about the problem you have and in the inner circle, write down all the things you can control. Then ask yourself – where are you spending your time worrying. Take control and develop action steps for the issues within your control.

4)   View Challenges as Opportunities.

If we are to embrace a Growth Mindset, then we can recognize that when we are faced with challenges, then we will often learn a lot about ourselves and come out stronger on the other side. Don’t let obstacles stand in your way. If you have a Growth Mindset, your self-image is not tied to your success and how you look to others, see failure as just another opportunity to learn.

5)   Ask for Help

It is not a sign of weakness to ask others for support. In fact, it is a sign of strength. Consider the resources that you have around you, your family, your work colleagues, parents, friends etc. Speak with someone you trust and recognize that as my Nana always used to say “a problem shared is a problem halved”. You never know where support and great strategies could come from.

6)   Be Kind To Yourself

Recognise that you are going through a tough spot and rather than dump on yourself with self-doubt, guilt or blame, congratulate and reward yourself for continuing to put one foot in front of the other and for the dedication to keep moving forward. Consider a hot bath, a relaxing swim, watching a favourite movie, lying on the lawn under a tree or just reading a magazine with a coffee.

7)   Practice Your Breathing

I know it sounds basic, but practicing your deep breathing (5-6 seconds to breathe in through your nose, hold the breath for 2 seconds, breathe out through your mouth for 5-6 seconds, hold for 2 seconds and repeat), can do absolute wonders, especially for your physical symptoms of anxiety and stress. Give it a go with your eyes closed for just 2-3 minutes and you will start to feel the benefits.

Want to know more about managing your stress and developing your Mental Toughness? If so, contact me at michelle@bakjacconsulting.com for more information.

Michelle Bakjac is an experienced Psychologist, Organisational Consultant, Coach, Speaker and Facilitator. As Director of Bakjac Consulting, she is a credentialed Coach with the International Coach Federation (ICF) and a member of Mental Toughness Partners and an MTQ48 accredited Mental Toughness practitioner. Michelle assists individuals and organisations to develop their Mental Toughness to improve performance, leadership, behaviour and wellbeing.



6 Effects of Chronic Stress on Your Brain And How To Manage Them


So many of us have dynamic lives with a huge range of stressors impacting us daily. We all know that stress impacts us negatively, some experiencing more negative impacts than others. I was reading this article by Deane Alban which explores the impacts chronic stress can have on our brains, and it is quite startling.

Chronic stress increases the stress hormone cortisol and affects many brain functions, putting you at risk for many mood disorders and other mental issues.

Chronic stress, the kind most of us face every day, can in fact be very harmful.

90% of doctor visits are for stress-related health complaints.

Chronic stress can make you more vulnerable to everything from diseases to the common cold.

The non-stop elevation of stress hormones not only makes your body sick, it negatively impacts your brain as well.

The Dangers of Chronic Stress and Cortisol

There are two main kinds of stress — acute stress and chronic stress — and, despite what you might think, not all stress is bad for you.

Acute stress is the reaction to an immediate threat, commonly known as the “fight or flight” response.

Once the threat has passed, your levels of stress hormones return to normal with no long-lasting effects.

Some degree of acute stress is even considered desirable as it primes your brain for peak performance.

Epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) and norepinephrine are stress hormones produced on an as-needed basis in moments of extreme excitement.

They help you think and move fast in an emergency.

In the right situation, they can save your life.

They don’t linger in the body, dissipating as quickly as they were created.

Cortisol, on the other hand, streams through your system all day long, and this is what can make it so dangerous.

Excess cortisol leads to a host of physical health problems including weight gain, osteoporosis, digestive problems, hormone imbalances, heart disease, and diabetes. 

Chronic stress takes a toll on adrenal glands, leaving you feeling “wired but tired”.

Cortisol also takes an equally high toll on your brain.

The Effects Of Chronic Stress On Your Brain

Some of these brain-related stress symptoms will be obvious to you, like memory loss, brain fog, anxiety and worry.

But most of these effects of stress on your brain are behind the scenes.

When stress becomes chronic, it changes your brains function and even its structure down to the level of your DNA.

You don’t notice they’re happening but you will notice the side effects…. Eventually.

So here are 12 ways chronic stress impacts your brain health and mental well-being along with some simple steps you can take to counteract the damage.

1)   Chronic stress makes you forgetful and emotional

Memory problems may be one of the first signs of stress that you will notice.

Misplaced keys and forgotten appointments have you scrambling, further adding to your stress.

If you find all the stress is making you more emotional too, there is a physiological reason for this. Studies show that when you’re stressed, electrical signals in the brain associated with factual memories weaken while areas in the brain associated with emotions strengthen.

2)   Stress creates a vicious cycle of fear and anxiety

Stress builds up an area of your brain called the amygdala. This is your brain’s fear centre.

Stress increases the size, activity level and number of neural connections in this part of your brain. This makes you more fearful, causing a vicious cycle of even more fear and stress.

3)   Stress halts the production of new brain cells.

Every day you lose brain cells, but every day you have the opportunity to create new ones. Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) is a protein that’s integral in keeping existing brain cells healthy and stimulating new brain cell formation . It can be thought of as fertiliser for the brain. BDNF can offset the negative effects of stress on the brain. But cortisol halts the production of BDFN resulting in fewer new brain cells being formed.

4)   Stress can deplete critical brain chemicals causing depression

Your brain cells communicate via chemicals called neurotransmitters. Chronic stress reduces levels of critical neurotransmitters, especially serotonin and dopamine. Low levels of either of these neurotransmitters can leave you depressed and more prone to addictions.

Serotonin it is called the happy molecule. It plays a large role in mood, learning and appetite. Women low in serotonin are prone to depression, anxiety and binge eating. Men, on the other hand, are more prone to alcoholism, ADHD, and impulse control disorders.

Dopamine is the motivation molecule. It is in charge of your pleasure-reward system. Too little dopamine can leave you unfocused, unmotivated, lethargic and depressed. People low in this brain chemical can often use caffeine, sugar, alcohol and illicit drugs to temporarily boost their dopamine levels.

Serotonin-based depression is accompanied by anxiety and irritability, while dopamine-based depression expresses itself as lethargy and lack of enjoyment in life.

5)   Stress can make you feel stupid.

Stress can cause your brain to seize up at the worst possible times - exams, job interviews and public speaking come to mind.

This is actually a survival mechanism.

If you’re faced with a life-and-death situation, instinct and training overwhelm rational thought and reasoning. This might keep you from being eaten by a tiger, but in modern life this is rarely helpful.

Stress impairs your memory and makes you bad at making decisions.

It negatively impacts every cognitive function.

6)   Chronic stress shrinks your brain.

Stress can measurably shrink your brain. Cortisol can kill, shrink and stop the generation of new neurones in the hippocampus, the part of your brain that stores memories.

The hippocampus is critical for learning, memory and emotional regulation, as well as shutting off the stress response after a stressful event is over.

Stress also shrinks the prefrontal cortex. This negatively affects decision making, working memory and control of impulsive behaviours.

On top of all that, chronic stress destroys your happiness and your peace of mind. It wears you down mentally and emotionally.

Some side effects of stress that impact your mental well-being include:

·        excessive worry and fear

·        anger and frustration

·        impatience with self and others

·        mood swings

·        suicidal thoughts

·        insomnia, nightmares and disturbing dreams

·        trouble concentrating or learning new information

·        racing thoughts

·        nervousness

·        forgetfulness and mental confusion

·        difficulty in making decisions

·        feeling overwhelmed

·        irritability and overreaction to petty annoyances

·        excessive defensiveness or suspicion

·        increased smoking, alcohol, drug use, gambling or impulse buying.

It’s no fun experiencing the stress related symptoms. And it’s no picnic for those around us either.

So here are 6 Simple Steps To Help A Chronically Stressed Brain

Minimising stress and protecting your brain against its effects is easier than you might think.

Here are 6 simple steps to stop stress in its tracks and overcome its harmful effects on your brain.

1)   Stop free radical damage by eating a diet high in antioxidant rich foods like fruit, vegetables, dark chocolate and green tea.

2)   Increase levels of brain boosting BDNF by getting daily physical exercise. It doesn’t have to be strenuous. Walking is excellent. So are exercises with strong-mind body orientations like yoga, tai chi and qi gong.

3)   Start a daily meditation or mindfulness practice. Meditation not only reduces stress, it is a proven way to keep your brain young by keeping telomeres long. Meditation is also the best tool for learning how to master your thoughts. Chronic stress does not come from events in your life as much as it comes from your thoughts – your automatic negative reactions and cognitive distortions – about these events.

4)   Try one of the many mind–body relaxation techniques such as self-hypnosis, biofeedback or autogenic training.

5)   Look into taking an adaptogenic herbal remedy. Adaptogens increase your resilience to stress while supporting overall health. They promote balance between feeling energetic and feeling calm. Examples of adaptogens include ginseng, holy basil, artic root and bacoba.

6)   Get plenty of sleep. It is during sleep that the brain consolidates memories, repairs itself and grows new brain cells.

Chronic stress may seem to be an unavoidable part of life, but these proactive steps will definitely reduce its wear and tear on your brain.

Chronic stress takes a high toll on our mental health. It affects your brain structure and function in very real ways. It hastens brain ageing, depletes beneficial brain chemicals, enlarges your brain sphere centre and holds the production of new brain cells. It increases your risk of psychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases. And frustratingly it causes mental functioning to jam at the worst possible time, leaving you less able to cope with the stress of daily life. Fortunately some lifestyle changes, managing your responses and increasing your resilience and mental toughness can help you stop the damaging effects of stress.

Want to know more techniques to manage your stress levels, and build your resilience and mental toughness, contact Michelle on 0412047590 or via email michelle@bakjacconsulting.com

Michelle Bakjac is an experienced Psychologist, Organisational Consultant, Coach, Speaker and Facilitator. As Director of Bakjac Consulting, she is a credentialed Coach with the International Coach Federation (ICF) and a member of Mental Toughness Partners and an MTQ48 accredited Mental Toughness practitioner. Michelle assists individuals and organisations to develop their Mental Toughness to improve performance, leadership, behaviour and wellbeing.


5 Ways You Can Fly Like An Eagle

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After a fairly hectic week with some late work day training sessions, and a busy weekend to boot, I was looking for a way to wind down on my Sunday night to give myself a bit of R&R. One of my favourite past times is to watch a great movie. None of my regulars were grabbing me, so I decided to scroll through and pick out a new movie to watch that I hadn’t seen before. My Pick – Eddie The Eagle. I thought it looked inspirational and was also relevant given the current Winter Olympics.

I had not been a particular fan of winter sports (not being a fan of the cold – Brrrr) and had not in fact heard of Eddie The Eagle. However I found the movie really inspirational.

The movie is loosely based on Eddie (Michael) Edwards, who overcomes adversity to be a ski jumper at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. The movie tells the story of a young boy (the son of a plasterer) who desperately wants to compete in the Olympics – and he does not care initially in what event. As a boy, he wore callipers on his legs and when they are removed, he tries every sport imaginable (from holding his breathe underwater, to high jumping, to hurdles) but without any success. He finally turns his attention to winter sports and skiing and after a lot of hard work and dedication only narrowly misses out on making the Olympic team. So he turns his attention to Ski Jumping and being Britain’s first Olympic Ski Jumper.

Everybody told him he couldn’t do it, even his father. But he wanted this so badly. He overcame adversity including a significant crash after a very bad landing, working different jobs and sleeping in broom closets, and ridicule from peers. But he didn’t care – he just wanted to be an Olympian.

When Eddie finally qualified, he was so overjoyed. He had already fulfilled his dream, even before he competed, and when he arrived, he won the crowd over with his joyful enthusiasm at just competing.

When he did compete, Eddie the Eagle finished last in all three of his jumps at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, but what he did do was manage to beat his own personal record. His responses to achieving his personal best jumps, were overt displays of joy and exuberance, flapping his wings in front of an adoring crowd. He didn’t care about coming last, he cared about competing and achieving his best.

"You have captured our hearts. And some of you have soared like eagles," remarked Frank King, the games' chief executive, during a speech at the closing ceremonies. 

In my opinion, Eddie showed the true nature of a growth mindset:

“He didn’t want to be THE best. He wanted to do HIS best”

 I think we could all learn a lot about ourselves from this great little flick. Think about these opportunities to fly like an eagle and embrace a growth mindset.

1)   Run your own race

Stop comparing yourself to others and their success. Define what you want your personal success to look like. Start to run your own race and derive joy from being better than you were yesterday.

2)   Embrace a challenge

Step outside your comfort zone and get comfortable being uncomfortable. Recognise that you will come out stronger on the other side and learn a lot about yourself and how to tap into your strengths.

3)   Persist in the face of setbacks

Don’t let obstacles or setbacks discourage you from your path. Recognise your self-image is not tied to your success and how you look to other people. A setback or perceived failure is just another opportunity to learn. So whatever happens, you still win.

4)   Put in the Effort

We may have natural talent or none at all. But the only way to mastery is effort and lots of it. Effort is necessary to grow and build skill and capability, so sweat and tears are a must.

5)   Criticism is just another source of information

We often smart when receiving criticism or negative feedback and shy away from it. But if we embrace a growth mindset and see criticism as information that we can use to grow and improve, then we can start to recognise that negative feedback does not have to be directed about us as a person, but about our current level of skill and ability – and this we can always improve with effort.

So, when we have a growth mindset, we can create positive feedback loops that encourage us to keep learning and improving and run our own race.

If you are interested in developing your growth mindset, contact me at michelle@bakjacconsulting.com

Michelle Bakjac is an experienced Psychologist, Organisational Consultant, Coach, Speaker and Facilitator. As Director of Bakjac Consulting, she is a credentialed Coach with the International Coach Federation (ICF) and a member of Mental Toughness Partners and an MTQ48 accredited Mental Toughness practitioner. Michelle assists individuals and organisations to develop their Mental Toughness to improve performance, leadership, behaviour and wellbeing.