SANDCAST: Finding mastery on, off the court with high-performance psychologist Michael Gervais

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Michael Gervais-SANDCAST-Tri Bourne-Travis Mewhirter
Michael Gervais appears on SANDCAST/Alex Wood photo

It was the same conversation, repeated over and over and over again, that pushed Michael Gervais out of professional sport and into an industry where the high-performance psychologist’s role was, in a way, to push someone else over the edge.

“Getting coaches to create the space for the work to happen, it was hard,” Gervais said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I left pro sport for this reason: It was ‘Yeah yeah yeah’ and then ‘I don’t have time. This is too hard. I’ve gotta do this, that, and the other.’ It became an extra. In my life, I don’t want to be an extra.”

An extra, Gervais has never been since. He briefly left professional sport, where the old school ethos — tough it out, rep it out, physically work harder — still remained dominant. The coaches did, for the most part, genuinely intend to place some focus on the mental side of the game; it just wasn’t the priority. So Gervais delved into an area he labels “environments of consequence,” where the mental aspect was absolutely critical, potentially the difference between life and death.

“My life depends on it, my partner’s life depends on me having full command of myself in high-stress, fast-paced environments,” Gervais said.

In 2012, rather than working in the NFL or NHL, he instead worked with Felix Baumgartner, an Austrian daredevil. Gervais was helping him prepare to jump out of a helium balloon… from the stratosphere…where a five percent tilt in the wrong direction could have left Baumgartner dead or without faculty.

Gervais was an extra no more.

Four years after Baumgartner’s stratos jump, Gervais was certainly no extra when Luke Aikins readied himself to jump out of an airplane from 25,000 feet … with no parachute or wingsuit … and a landing area the size of a four-car garage. That landing area, from that distance, is relatively the size of a postage stamp. When Aikins sought someone to get his mind in the proper space to pull off such an extraordinary feat, it was Gervais whom he called.

On his podcast, Finding Mastery, Gervais has dug into the mindset of men such as Alex Honnold, the man who free solo climbed El Capitan in Yosemite, where the line separating life and death was as slim as a poorly trimmed fingernail.

In environments such as those, Gervais was certainly no extra. It’s possible he was the most valuable member of a team whose main goal was to keep everyone alive.

“We need them in our lives,” Gervais said of men like Baumgartner, Aikins, and Honnold. “People think they’re crazy. They’re not. We need them to remind us what it means to get up on the edge. And they look at us, by the way, sitting in closed spaces and the life we live, ‘What are you guys doing with your life?’”

His is a space that has alas exploded into the mainstream. It is now almost universal that teams and organizations will have sports or performance psychologists on staff. Meditation and mindfulness apps — Headspace, Calm, Waking Up — are booming across the globe, used by everyone from elite athletes to soccer moms and dads, Wall Street investors to baristas at your local Starbucks.

For so long, Gervais has seen it coming. He likened the rising tide of mental health awareness and training to surfing, when a surfer might be bobbing gently on still waters, yet still able to feel a swell somewhere in the distance.

“When you’re at your level of sport, I haven’t met a coach or athlete who doesn’t nod their head up and down when you’re talking about the importance of the mental part of the game,” Gervais said. “Then you double-click: ‘OK, what are you doing for that? How much time in your practice is dedicated to the mental part of the game?’

“I don’t fault the coaches or the athletes, it’s really the science, going from the laboratory into application, it’s that stitch that hasn’t been eloquently made yet. The science of excellence is really relatively new as a science. And the exciting part is we really are much closer to knowing best practices in a laboratory, and best practices on a playing field. Those are becoming more apparent, and it’s one of the reasons we’re seeing progression in sport happening faster — one of many.”

It is no coincidence that some of the top performers in the United States have worked with Gervais. April Ross, when she recently appeared on Finding Mastery, said that some of her most valuable conversations throughout her illustrious career have been with Gervais. Winning three Olympic medals is a hard thing to do.  It requires, at a minimum, 12 years of high stress, unfamiliar environments, where external pressures not only don’t cede with each success, but mount exponentially.

It just so happens that is the exact area in which Gervais thrives.

“I don’t know how you can do hard things in life if you don’t practice doing hard things,” Gervais said. “All of that starts: You have to have your back. You are the pebble in the pond that creates ripples. If you don’t invest in your inner life, you don’t know if you have your back. What do you do when it’s difficult? Do you do what your brain tells you to do, which is to turn inward, narrow all of your attention, tighten up to either fight or run away, or can you drop your shoulders when it’s hard and explore? And love the ability to explore the unfolding moment? If you can get to that place, that is part of mastery.”

That’s part of winning an Olympic gold just as much as it is part of jumping out of a balloon or airplane or even the simple act of walking through the door to greet your loved ones. All of these moments have varying consequences.

All, in Gervais’ mind, no more or less important than the other.

“If you don’t fully commit to being in this present moment, you lose it. You don’t get it. You lose some fraction of it,” Gervais said. “If you add it up over time, our life becomes something not even close to what we could experience in life. So for most of us, we don’t have the ability, the faculty, to have true command of ourselves, so our mind is running amok and our brain is running amok trying to survive. [The Red Bull Stratos Project with Baumgartner] for me materially changed my life, and it became crystal clear how important it is for others to spend more time in the present moment. As a matter of fact, it’s become my life purpose to helping people live in the present moment more often.”

And he is doing a phenomenal job of it. Gervais, alongside Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, has created an online course called Compete to Create, which is designed to “give you every single resource you need to find balance in our crazy busy world, reduce your stress levels, and eliminate those feelings of being overwhelmed.”

Finding Mastery is almost required listening among the beach volleyball community, and he has hosted a number of American volleyball players: Reid Priddy, Karch Kiraly, Kerri Walsh Jennings, Ross and Alix Klineman, among others.

“I’m not teaching somebody about the value of moments,” Gervais said. “I want to understand their philosophy. If someone says ‘Ok Gervais, this is the biggest moment of my life.’ ‘Ok, how are we going to prepare for it?’ It’s going to be a set of the same practices. If you’re anticipating this moment to be big, how do you want to organize your life so that you’re ready for the big moment when it does happen?”

And when that big moment does happen, rest assured, Gervais’ role will certainly not be as an extra.

He’ll be a fundamental piece to the puzzle of finding mastery.

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