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‘My Mental Toughness Manifesto’ Part 2: PRACTICE

15 Mar, 17 | by rlloyd

Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 15.55.21

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.


“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.


“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.


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.


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.


  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 [].
  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.

The ‘Deliberate Practice Mindset’

27 Jan, 17 | by rlloyd

Performance improvement is an interest of mine. I have previously blogged and podcasted about the strategies I employed to lift my game (from rock-bottom) when working in an extreme environment – a South African township ED.

I first became aware of ‘deliberate practice’ after reading an excellent St. Emlyn’s post last year. I had never encountered the concept before, but it resonated with me because it resembles certain aspects of how I’ve approached self-improvement in a professional setting, particularly when desperate to prove myself in South Africa.

The psychologist who originally described deliberate practice, Dr. Anders Ericsson, has recently published a book – Peak. It explores the ‘science of expertise’, for which he is the world’s leading expert – the expert on experts.

I thought I’d discuss a few of my take-home points from the book.

The ‘gift’ fallacy

“I am not talented, I am obsessed” – Conor McGregor, UFC lightweight champion

Too often, wider society’s assumption is that elite performers are naturally ‘gifted’. They have been magically blessed with superhuman ability. According to Ericsson, this is false.

No-one is born with an innate ability to perform at expert level, in any domain. All exceptional performers, regardless of field, have had to push themselves through a very intense practice regime to get to where they are. They have learnt how to be brilliant.

Ericsson repeatedly makes the point that in his 30+ years of studying an extraordinarily wide range of expert performers, from grandmaster chess players to professional tennis players to concert violinists, he is yet to encounter a genuine ‘prodigy’ – somebody born with prerequisite skills for expert performance.

MozartEricsson’s favourite example of the ‘God-given talent’ fallacy is legendary composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. From an astonishingly young age, Mozart wowed audiences in concert halls across Europe with his apparent mastery of multiple musical instruments, and was labelled a child prodigy. Not so much, it turns out. The history books reveal that Wolfgang could barely walk before commencing a comprehensive training regime designed by his father, a pioneer in musical training. Furthermore, Ericsson claims that if he were around today he would barely stand out from the crowd. In fact, it’s been demonstrated that Suzoki Method-trained child musicians are often able to perform to a higher level than Mozart was ever capable of achieving.

A key component of Mozart’s prodigious skillset was thought to be his possession of perfect pitch – the ability to accurately name a musical note upon hearing it in isolation. The assumption was that it spontaneously emerged from birth and was un-teachable. It has since been proven that anyone can be trained in perfect pitch, particularly if they’ve received appropriate training between the ages of 3 and 5 years. Intriguingly, it is now acknowledged to be fairly common for children born in countries where tonal languages (e.g. Mandarin) are spoken to possess perfect pitch if musically trained. No magic involved.

The only exception to the rule that natural talent is bogus is when it comes to height and body size. Specific phenotypes are essential for certain sports – you need to be tall to slam dunk a basketball, and being short confers a big advantage for competitive artistic gymnastics. No specialised training regime will lengthen or shorten your bones.

We’re all endowed with the same ‘gift’ – the ability to adapt and improve if we train ourselves correctly (i.e. effective practice). Excitingly, Ericsson’s key message in Peak is that a common set of general principles lie at the heart of effective practice for any human endeavour… all walks of medicine included.

All practice is not equal – avoid naive practice (and forget the 10, 000 hour ‘rule’)

The most common approach to improving performance is ‘naive practice’.

This is where one spends a significant amount of time engaging in the activity, with the hope that stockpiling experience alone will improve performance, and move them closer to the realm of expertise.

“All I need to do is see 15 Majors patients per shift for the next 10 years and I’ll become a world-beating Emergency Physician” – hapless emergency medicine trainee destined for mediocrity

This is aligned with the 10, 000 hours ‘rule’ as per Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. The proposed theory is that 10, 000 hours of generic practice yields expertise, with emphasis on time spent practicing as opposed to the nature of the practice itself. No specific component of the activity is isolated and focused on (e.g. putting in golf, or needle manipulation in central venous access), one just keeps doing the task over and over again. Outliers has been an immensely popular publication, and the 10, 000 rule a widely-disseminated concept. It sounds cool, and it satisfies the basic human desire for cause and effect.

In reality, this theory is fundamentally flawed. In order to change behaviour (i.e. improve performance), you need to engage in effective training. Ericsson calls this ‘purposeful practice’.

Interestingly, it is Ericsson’s original work, examining concert violinists in training, that inspired Outliers, and he levels a reasonable amount of hostility towards Gladwell in Peak, with accusations of corrupting lessons from the research. The best violinists out of the trainee group had all spent approximately 10, 000 hours by the age of 20 in solitary practice, as compared to the more inferior (but still relatively elite) trainees who had a few less thousand hours on the clock. It was this finding which prompted Gladwell to jump to the conclusion that 10, 000 hours was the magic number, yet the few that went on to win international music competitions did so at 30+, when they had put in 20,000 to 25,000 hours of practice.

“The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint, the greats were great because they paint a lot” – Macklemore, rapper

It might be mired in controversy, but the 10, 000 hour rule does serve one crucial purpose – it reminds us that a massive volume of practice is required to achieve peak performance. No elite performer in any field has not dedicated a significant slice of their life towards achieving their goal. The path to greatness is not easy.

Purposeful Practice (core of Ericsson’s deliberate practice)

Exactly what it says on tin – this is practicing with a purpose. The mission is to improve, and you are practicing for that sole reason. Every time you practice, you are asking the question: “How can I do this better?”

A specific component of the skill is isolated (a component that one is poor at/can’t do) and then targeted for improvement via training activities. There are four principles of purposeful practice:

1.     You need to establish a (reachable) specific goal. Vague overall performance targets like ‘succeed’ or ‘get better’ won’t cut it.

2.     You must be maximally focused on improvement during practice. It must be intense, uninterrupted and repetitive (‘drilling’). Not particularly pleasant, but highly rewarding.

3.     You must receive immediate feedback on your performance. Without it, you can’t figure out what you need to modify or how close you are to achieving your specific goal.

4.     You must get out of your comfort zone, constantly attempting things that are just out of reach.

Take chest drain insertion for example. You isolate one part of the procedure that you know needs improvement – e.g. surgical hand-ties (to suture the chest drain to the skin):

Goal: Be fast and efficient at single-handed surgical hand-ties by the end of the training session.

Focus: Watch a training video explaining how best to perform the tie a few times; then practice tying knots round a kitchen utensil using the taught technique multiple times.

Feedback: Compare your performance to that on the training video, or ideally get personalised feedback from a supervisor.

Exit comfort zone: Experiment by performing the technique under time pressure or give yourself less suture thread to work with.

A hallmark of purposeful practice is that performance level during training tasks is not initially at the desired level – there is a gap. By the end of a phase of training, there needs to be something measurable that you’ve improved.

Embracing these principles in training squeezes the trigger of the greatest weapon in the arsenal of the human brain – adaptability. Every training session should be viewed as a challenge to refine and improve.

Deliberate Practice

“The most effective (improvement) method of all: deliberate practice. It is the gold standard, the ideal to which anyone learning a skill should aspire.” – Anders Ericsson

Deliberate practice encompasses the principles of purposeful practice, with a couple of additional elements:

1.     The field must be well established, and elite performers easily identified.

2.     A coach or teacher guides training.

A good coach provides constant individualised feedback and designs training activities that target specific areas. They hold the ‘roadmap’ that guides the student through an evolving training regime that hones skills in a specific order. Certain skills can only be taught and practiced once others have been mastered.  This calculated and heavily supervised approach to training always leads to elite performance when the student is motivated. It is tried and tested.

A useful analogy is to think of purposeful practice as trekking through the desert to a specific destination that is out of sight. You know the general direction you need to go, but in order to reach the destination you must walk in a completely straight line – notoriously difficult in the desert. A good strategy would be to use landmarks up ahead such as trees and sand dunes to aim at, so as to avoid walking round in circles. You are progressing with a purpose, but there is minimal guidance.

In this context, deliberate practice can be thought of as that same journey, but instead there is a path marking the route you need to walk, with signposting along the way, and even a camel guide to get you back on track if you veer off the route.

Mental representations

Engaging in purposeful/deliberate practice modifies the structure of our brains. Specific neural circuitry, which fires action potentials when training a skill, get reinforced and increasingly complex. This serves to strengthen the ‘mental representations’ one has of the skill in question.

The human brain is a blank canvas, and learning a new skill is like painting a picture on that canvas – the picture being a mental representation of that skill. With effective training, and as one improves at performing the skill, a discernible image starts to take shape. As the years of effective practice roll on, the picture becomes increasingly detailed and animated, and eventually it correlates with performing the skill at an expert level.

The expert performer, via their mental representations, is acutely aware of how best to perform. By comparing what they are doing in the moment with the perfect picture in their head, they can modify their performance appropriately – self-policing. The quality and quantity of mental representations is what sets expert performers apart from everyone else.

“In pretty much every area, a hallmark of expert performance is the ability to see patterns in a collection of things that would seem random or confusing to people with less developed mental representations. In other words, experts see the forest when everyone else sees only trees” – Anders Ericsson

The perfect example of elite performance correlating with highly sophisticated mental representations is George Koltanowski, a chess Grandmaster who set the world record for simultaneous games of blindfolded chess – 34 games (he won 24 and lost 10)!  His mental image was so strong that he could animate each game in his mind without looking at a single chess piece. It turns out simultaneous-game blindfold chess has been a pursuit of Grandmasters for centuries.

Furthermore, in studies of elite footballers and basketball players, it has been shown that when visual stimulus is suddenly removed, they can accurately pinpoint the position of all their teammates and opposition, and even predict how the game evolves in the seconds that follow. Again, this is facilitated by their mental representations – highly detailed images that come to life in the brain of the performer.

Fascinatingly, if you asked a grandmaster to recall the positions of randomly placed chess pieces on a chess board, or asked a footballer to recall the positions of 22 randomly placed men on a football pitch (i.e. not in position as a result of a game), they would fail because their mental representations are specific for the respective activities. If the arrangement of pieces or players is random, it ceases to be meaningful, in much the same way a set of jumbled up words is meaningless in comparison to a sentence.

The ‘deliberate practice mindset’

To truly reap the benefits of purposeful/deliberate practice, one must reject three prevailing myths:

1.     Your abilities are limited by genetics.

2.     If you do something for long enough you’ll get better.

3.     All it takes to improve is to increase your effort levels.

Once this is done, you are set free; the world is your oyster. However, the road to expertise is long and gruelling, and patience is crucial. The four underlying principles of purposeful practice must be kept in mind at all times, and failure should always be viewed as a precious opportunity to reflect and refine one’s mental representations.

If no coach or teacher is available (i.e. deliberate practice not strictly possible), identify somebody who is at a level that you want to reach (i.e. a mentor), try and understand how they got there, and proceed to purposefully practice.

Intense periods of focus, constant repetitions, and hovering at the edge of one’s comfort zone in training will get pretty miserable and frustrating at times. However, it should be appreciated that when quantifiable improvements start to occur, striving for further gains will become more enjoyable… even exciting.

Remember that a crucial aspect of deliberate practice is that it focuses solely on performance (i.e. how to do it) – it is a skill-based practice, and this must be embraced. By effectively practicing components of the skill and building stronger mental representations, knowledge will build naturally alongside. New concepts will seem less abstract as they are absorbed whilst applying skills (NB: This is in contrast to the traditional approach to medical training which has placed more emphasis on knowledge acquisition than skill development, largely because it is more convenient and less labour-intensive to teach).

In medicine?

An unfortunate reality of most medical specialties is that once a practitioner is fully qualified (i.e. a consultant or attending physician) there are few opportunities for immediate feedback on his/her clinical practice. There are no longer regular mandatory appraisals, and too often, little feedback from the patients themselves (e.g. a radiologist might not be made aware of the outcome of a patient where a cancer was missed on CT scan).

Furthermore, as seniors are no longer being actively trained, it is very unusual for them to be pushed out of their comfort zones, and they will usually deem their own performance level to be ‘acceptable’. You might say that they are particularly guilty of naive practice. This is a recipe for stagnation, and an overall decline in performance. An interesting passage in the book is where Ericsson discusses research into senior radiologists looking at mammograms, and experienced GPs listening to heart murmurs. It turns out their diagnostic accuracy is no better (and in some cases worse) than their junior colleagues, who will have received more recent active education.

As an emergency medicine trainee, much of my daily work will embrace the principles of deliberate practice, but it is variable, and often depends on the boss I happen to be on shift with. Taking ownership is key. It’s up to me to be cognisant of what elements of practice will make me a better doctor, and anchor my training appropriately. Awareness of these principles has also given me a greater appreciation of the utility of simulation training – ‘off-the-job-training’ which focuses on closely supervised skill development rather than knowledge acquisition.

It will be far more of a paradigm shift for senior doctors (i.e. finished all training) to adopt deliberate practice, but the implications for patient outcomes, and indeed medicine’s overall trajectory, will be enormously positive if they do.

I highly recommend Peak to anyone interested in improving at what they do. Doctors, of all grades, should be aware of, and striving to incorporate, the lessons from Anders Ericsson’s masterpiece.

Robert Lloyd

*This blog first appeared on the Pondering EM blog

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