It's All in the Mind: An Interview with Nate Wolch, Mental Conditioning Coach
The mind is one of the most present muscles in our bodies. It's with us through everything—every second of every day, every milestone, and every setback. It's that little voice of triumph or doubt. That cheer when you succeed, and that laughter of ridicule or groan of frustration when you fail.
We often think that if we do enough of a certain exercise, the muscles in our bodies will become stronger. But out of the list of muscles to train, how many of us consider that mental muscle? Many books, podcasts, and interviews attest to the fact that getting in shape mentally can help you physically. But how do you train your mind?
One answer is: with a mental coach.
For this piece, I had the opportunity to speak to Nate Wolch, coach and owner of Inner Champion Performance, a business that gives people the mental tricks, tips, and techniques needed to help them in their daily life and out on a ring, field, or track. His experience in sports led him to degrees in psychology and sports and exercise psychology, and now he's putting his expertise and experience to work.
What is your background? What started you on the path to a career in mental conditioning? Who or what inspired you?
Growing up I was a decent athlete—not great, but I was skilled and had the physical abilities to hold my own. I was a very industrious athlete, always seeking out additional coaching, 1-on-1 trainers for every sport that I played (basketball, football, tennis). What I was missing was the mental component. It didn't matter which sport I was playing; I felt that the skills and abilities that I had trained in practice did not translate to the performance. I wasn't performing in an authentic way. For whatever reason my skills just didn't carry from practice to the games.
I played tennis in high school and college, and I can remember one tennis match in particular at a huge regional tournament down in Portland. There were hundreds of players at this 18U tournament with many Division I prospects (myself not being one of them). I distinctly remember warming up and feeling good, but when the match started I double faulted four times in a row and lost the first game of the set without the opponent doing anything at all. I was crippled by anxiety and my attention was scattered, I lost all confidence and I had no idea where to direct my attention. That was one of many moments where I could have used a sports psychology consultant.
As I got older, I transitioned to combat sports (boxing), and I have a whole new take on sport psychology. Here the mental game is critical, but in a very different way. You have to use mental skills (building confidence, attention/focus, goal-setting, imagery) just to survive training! Then when the fight comes, your self-talk becomes crucial. Body language comes into play during the ring walk as well. In this situation, you have to be extremely skilled at slowing down your thoughts while your body is in fight or flight to ready the other fighter and hear your coach.
This is how I stay sharp in practicing my own mental skills, because I believe it's crucial as a practitioner to practice what you preach.
In terms of educational background, I went to Western Washington University for a bachelor's in psychology and a master's in sport and exercise psychology.
Why is mental strength in physical activities and life in general important? I always come back to this idea of authentic performance. In practice we train our body and our craft, but our mind allows us to bring our training to life when it's time to perform. It allows us to bring the best of who we are. How many times have you left a workout knowing you could have done 1% more? More often than not.
What's stopping you? Your thoughts!
I know for myself I have thoughts like, "That's probably good enough. I went pretty hard yesterday so I can go light today. Alright that's all that I had planned, 3 sets of 10, so I'm done (when I still have 20% left in the tank)." It allows us to stay disciplined and motivated to do the training and allows us to feel confident, poised, and focused on the right things when it's time to perform.
The scope is extremely broad too. Mental skills apply to business, conversations with your loved ones (staying calm, attentive, self-aware), and any other time you're doing something that matters to you. If it's something that makes you feel nervous, you could probably benefit from mental skills training.
What is Inner Champion? What is its main focus? How does it work? Inner Champion LLC is a consulting company that I started. I work with athletes, combat sport athletes, businesses, and first responders to prepare their minds for meaningful performances. I do some group workshops where I'll come in and teach a skill or two, usually through experiental learning. I am not a fan of traditional powerpoint presentations, although I have done that a few times.
I start with an intake interview, where I typically sit down with the leaders of the group and discuss which mental skills are the best fit for the group, ju
st as a doctor or physical therapist runs an initial diagnostic. Then I custom design a training to fit the needs of the group.
One training I did was with a tennis team. This group struggled with letting their emotions get the best of them after losing a point. I designed a training around keeping your cool emotionally and remaining focused on one point at a time. I came out to their practice and designed a drill where they had one chance to hit an overhead, and if they missed, there would be a group punishment. We talked about the nerves they had prior to the overhead and some techniques to calm them and also the reaction that they had following the overhead (successful or not), and whether that reaction would be productive during the next point.
Is there a physical office where clients meet, or are virtual clients possible? I do not have a physical office currently. I will meet clients in reserved office spaces or coffee shops depending on their desired level of privacy and I do Zoom/Skype sessions as well. I can also come out to practices and games.
I value confidentiality and I have my clients sign a confidentiality agreement to let them know that the details of our meetings will not be shared with anyone unless they specifically request it. I will not go around sharing who I work with in an identifiable way. I actually offer discounts for virtual visits because it's more efficient.
What areas do you focus on in mental coaching? Can you give some examples of techniques used to strengthen the mind? My trainable skills that I offer are listed on my website, innerchampionperformance.com. There's a lot of them, but one example is training mental imagery. This is a widely used skill by high-performing athletes, and it's a chicken/egg situation because we know from research that higher-level athletes use imagery, so do they use it because they are good and want to be great and use imagery to do so, or does imagery make them high performers? I think it's both.
To use mental imagery with a client, I would have them give a detailed description of the skill that they are hoping to perform. Then, I would work with them to create a script or recording that they can rehearse to see themselves performing that skill at the highest possible level. This does a couple things. First, by seeing the performance in their minds, the performer goes into the performance seeing things for the 99th or 100th time instead of seeing it for the first time. Second, it actually gives them time to think about and plan for unexpected adversity, mishaps, and obstacles. Third, it trains their motor pathways at a low level to perform the physical skills involved in the performance.
There's some research out there that people who perform mental imagery have muscle stimulation in the muscles and brain areas involved in performing the skill in real life. Connor McGregor is a fan of this skill, LeBron James, and something like 90% of Olympians.
What are some tips for people who struggle with the mental aspects of physical activity? Figure out what the struggle is and gain clarity and self-awareness. What is the issue? Is it a struggle for motivation? Is it too difficult, too easy, too boring, painful, pointless? Figure out what the root of the issue is, then begin problem solving from there.
I know for myself I need goals to stay motivated and to guide my training. If I am not working towards some type of goal (e.g., 6 min mile, 300 lb bench press, win a boxing fight), then I am not motivated. I think this question is a little context dependent, but it all starts with self-awareness. Once you have clarity about the issue, then you can begin self-regulating to solve it.
What are some benefits of having a mental training coach? GET. BETTER. FASTER. And you actually save money in the long run! As an athlete, businessman/woman, or first responder, how much money do we spend on equipment? A ton, right? Why do we buy newer better, equipment? To get better results. Getting better equipment might make us 1% better in some cases and cost thousands of dollars. However, people don't realize that training the mental component can get you the same, if not better, results for much less money, AND its positive effect bleeds into other areas of life. If equipment gets you 1%, mental training can at least get you 5%. Imagine if you're a runner and you run a 19:00 5k. If upgrading your shoes for $200 can get you 3-5 seconds faster, imagine what 3 mental training sessions for $200 could do. When you're on the last half mile stretch and you're two seconds behind the first-place runner, what's going to win you the race? Your shoes or your mindset? Your shoes will deteriorate over time, but those mental skills last a lifetime if you know how to train them. The thing is, sports psychology is not difficult to understand. It is difficult to do. So I spend some time educating athletes and performers on how these skills work and it seems obvious. You can read up on mental skills no problem. My craft is finding creative and unique ways to integrate the skills and point out what performers are doing mentally that is helping them and what they are doing that is getting in their way. Just like a dietician. They have you keep a food log and they'll tell you, "Hey, you're eating these foods already which is helping you, so keep that up, but here's a couple adjustments we need to make to help you fuel your body a little better and here's why." Mental training follows the same process.
How is your business changing right now in the midst of COVID-19? To be honest, it hasn't changed much other than the fact that I haven't scheduled any large group workshops. All of my virtual sessions are still on the table right now. If nothing else it's forced me to become more fluent in using different online platforms. What tips regarding mental strength can you give people who are doing workouts they might've done in groups but are now doing alone due to physical distancing requirements in many areas?
In terms of tips, I would say stay connected to those individuals and keep holding each other accountable. If someone asks how your run went and you didn't do it, it's going to feel pretty bad. So, knowing that others will check in with you and checking in with others can help you stay motivated—an Accountabilabuddy, if you will. Also, use this time to do things that you wouldn't be able to do in a group. Novelty can spruce up your training and give it new life.
For myself, I've been going out to a track and running sprints or doing some online yoga since I'm not in my normal boxing gym. It keeps things new and fresh and exciting.
Are there any books you'd recommend people read, or podcasts to listen to, that center on mental conditioning? Books:
Such great advice here! Thank you so much, Nate! Readers, if you think now is the time to strengthen your mental muscles, consider working with Nate directly. Visit his website for more information and ways to contact him.