psychology | August 16, 2017

Success or Confidence: What Comes First? Lavin Talks to Dr. Jonathan Fader, Head of Mental Conditioning for the New York Giants

In his role as the Director of Mental Conditioning for the New York Giants, Dr. Jonathan Fader teaches already high-performing individuals to transcend their inhibitions. When not with the Giants, he helps other specialized workers—including New York Fire Department first responders—perform better within the everyday, often life-and-death pressures of their jobs.

In this first part of his exclusive interview with Lavin, Dr. Fader expands upon his psychology practice, and how anyone with a pulse, literally, can use the techniques of mental conditioning to maintain and strengthen inner dexterity.

The Lavin Agency: What does a typical day look like for you?


Dr. Jonathan Fader: In a lot of ways, I think of myself as an anthropologist. My main role is to meet up with people of all diverse walks of life, bringing them the tools that I know from the culture of sport and performance psychology, really helping them to use them.
Do you sometimes think of yourself, and the work that you do, as being about boosting confidence?


That’s an interesting question in performance: Does success come first, and then confidence? Or does confidence come first, then success? Can it be reverse-engineered, so to speak? Can people begin to develop confidence, and then have success? The field of performance psychology and sports psychology would say, “Absolutely, yes”—that you can train your brain and yourself to feel more confident and then have more success.


You typically work with people in high-performance positions—like the Giants or the New York Fire Department—doing average or well, wanting to do better. Can your work affect the lives of people who aren’t professional athletes or firefighters? 


People who are doing fine or stressed out in life can really benefit from mental conditioning—from working daily on improving their mindset, their attitude, their daily activities, and their jobs. The majority of people in our world are struggling to some degree. Maybe they’re not inhibited in their performance, but they’re stressed. They might not be bringing their best performance every time. With a little training and a little skill development, they can change that. 

How can they make the necessary changes, or even just learn to see it that way?


Think of your mind, or your mental state, as a fish tank. A lot of times, what ends the fish’s life is that you’re not really taking care of it. You may be overfeeding it. You might be not cleaning the tank enough. You might not have a filter that works. You might be introducing fish that don’t go together. 

I see. It’s incremental, but it adds up.


Typically, that’s how we are as humans in our mindset—in the way we think, in the way we feel. We kind of leave our fish tanks there. Mental conditioning and sports and performance psychology techniques are really helping you day-to-day to keep your mental fish tank clean. We work proactively. We don’t wait for problems to come up. We don’t wait till we get out of shape to go to the gym. We’re using our mental skills training every day to make sure that, when adversity comes, we’re ready. Mental conditioning is for everyone. 


When you speak to people who work at a company, do they ever come to you with specific questions, and have you noticed any particular patterns related to their stress?

The typical person doesn’t have a formed way of managing stress—they’ve just learned as they’ve gone along. It’s sort of the way that most people learn to drink. No one teaches you, so there can be a lot of problems because you’re just kind of figuring it out as you go along. Usually, it’s about something that’s coming in the future. It could be your P&L, it could be a discussion with your boss about a raise, it could be a discussion with your employee about a raise. It’s some future-oriented thing.


Is there a place to start managing those simple, everyday stressors?


Everybody has a heart. I mean, literally, an organ that beats within your chest. The more you learn the specific techniques around breathing, around imagery, around the way you message yourself with words, and the more you make those part of your day-to-day routine, the better you’re able to really manage that stress and help to metabolize it, so you can perform at your best. You are—everybody is—an athlete. Everybody is a performer in their context.

What do you mean by that—“everybody is an athlete”?


I once spoke to the online outlet Quartz about how to manage your inbox like a professional athlete. You open your email and there are a thousand emails in there. Instead of letting it overwhelm you, you develop a system for how to calm yourself down using breathing; how to not just say “Oh God.” Instead, you say: “Okay, just this email. This one in front of me.” The better that you get at that, the more that you find that you enjoy work more, and experience stress less. Whether working in the office in the battlefield, people experience stress. It’s really your brain and your heart, and your ability to manage your brain and your heart using evidence-based techniques. That’s what makes this applicable to everybody.


It’s a great way of thinking about the mind as something that doesn’t require massive overhauls.

Yes. I just don’t believe that. The other thing is, I think that we have a very dichotomous view of “better.” When you go back to the fish tank, anytime you clean it, it gets a little bit cleaner. People always ask me, “Can you fix that person?” and I say, “No. No one’s fixable. We’re all complicated organisms with a lot of learning to do.” But, you can certainly improve how you feel, even a slight bit. It’s the same way when you’re losing weight—calories in, calories out. Same with our mental state: one minute of relaxation will help. Two minutes of changing your perspective will help. So if you decide, “Hey I’m going to do that two minutes every hour,” or “I’m going to build it into my routine,” then you have a whole different thing. You become the kind of person that’s really going to change your mental state.


Check back next week for Part II of our exclusive interview with Dr. Jonathan Fader, which will feature practical tips on how to change your own mental state in small but vital ways.


To learn more about speakers similar to Dr. Fader, check out our slate of motivational experts and performance psychologists.

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