The Stoics believed the formula to achieve mastery in any field was simple. “First, tell yourself what you want to be, then act your part accordingly,” Epictetus said. “This, after all, is what we find to be the rule in just about every other field. Athletes decide first what they want to be, then proceed to do what is necessary.” The renowned mental conditioning expert Trevor Moawad put it even more simply: Greatness takes what it takes. As Russell Wilson’s mental skills coach, he has seen what that process looks like from the inside. His new book (with that awesome title), It Takes What It Takes, is about the kind of work we have to do to achieve our biggest goals. In our interview with Moawad below, he explains why people struggle to come to terms with something so obvious, the most powerful thing we control, tips for cultivating mental resilience, and much more. Please enjoy our interview with Trevor Moawad!
Your focus is on mental performance and you have worked with elite athletes, business leaders, and military personnel. Before we go into the nitty-gritty, why did you get into this line of work and what piqued your interest?
Out of college and after my $800 a month soccer career taught me life lessons quickly, I went into Education as a potential career path. I knew teachers were needed and I felt I had a natural aptitude towards the profession. I went back to Occidental to get a Masters Degree in Education with an emphasis on the Social Sciences. This ‘trained’ me to become an educator specifically in the challenging Los Angeles Unified School District. Teaching Social Sciences at the High School level – which included elements of psychology and sociology – had its moments for me, but after a few years I felt a different, but similar journey was out there for me. I had moved out to the South as a good friend of mine got traded to the Miami Fusion of MLS and got a job teaching and coaching in DelRay Beach, Florida. This would take me to a clinic at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida where I would officially see ‘sport psychology’ taught to 250 high school coaches. I immediately knew I should still be teaching, but not US History, but exactly what this guy was teaching. My father was already a well established motivational educator at this point which opened the door for the internship, and I knew I would either sink or swim in the profession I felt like I was born to lead.
How do you personally define mental performance? And what specific skills do your clients seek to develop and how exactly do you help? Any specific tips you can give to our readers?
I think this is a complicated question for me. You, Ryan, went into a super successful book launch – we had you speak to us at Alabama and Ego is the Enemy was a huge hit – and you immediately move into the top end of the circuit relative to pay, respect, and appreciation. That is badass. This is not my experience in 44 years of living my life in this field. First as a son, and second as a practitioner.
18 years in sports and I don’t believe athletes or coaches at the highest level believe that psychological development is possible. They’re essentially like, ‘fuck it, we have an infinite supply of talent so just get rid of the weak ass ones.’ Therefore if you are one of the very very few that can actually get an embedded opportunity to consult, you have a population of athletes and coaches that have no education on the basic fundamentals of thinking or any experience with someone that does whatever this job is called – mental conditioning, life coaching, sport psychology – and there are so many variations in skill set and experience.
So what does an athlete expect from me? If they are in the small minority of athletes that have any experience before me, the person most likely educating them was probably not very good or had a weak ass message. More than likely they saw a movie making fun of the self-help field or they’ve seen Tony Robbins telling people how to make boat loads of money and it doesn’t resonate to sports. They’re true expectation? Well, it is for me to be done as quick as I can shut up so they can get back to sports. I’ve embraced this reality. I know that no matter where I’ve been, what the programs have said, what the teams have won, and what I’ve done, this is where I’ll start if I’m in the sports world and many times my experience has been similar in the special operations community. So what is My job? Simple. Confound expectations. Have content that resonates. Educate on multiple planes. Be much better than their previous experience, and know most likely I’m the first introduction into anything connected to enhancing their minds they’ve received to date. How have I done? Well, I’ve never signed more than a 1 year contract in a row, but I’ve lasted with some of the baddest and best programs and units for 8-10 years at a clip. I don’t make anywhere near the money a Jon Gordon makes YET (because I’m new to that population) but you could put me head to head with any speaker in the country and because of the populations I’ve built relevance in, I would go one on one with anyone. In addition, many of these athletes here me 20-30 times over their career if not more – and that takes depth more than a simple keynote or message.
Your phrase It Takes What It Takes is so good. It’s got an ancient bent to it too. Epictetus said: “Athletes decide first what they want to be, then proceed to do what is necessary.” Why do you think people struggle to come to terms with something so obvious though?
I looked into Stoicism and Taoism when I started writing the book. Taoism made sense to me in college, particularly as I was struggling with the role Catholicism played in my life. Stoicism is bad ass, but implies a lack of emotion that I think neutral thinking involves. It Takes What it Takes as a broad message is the acceptance that choice is an illusion. It goes back to a conversation I had with NBA star Vince Carter when I was consulting with them. He said at 38 the behaviors for him to keep playing were clearly defined. It ‘took what it took’ and he had to decide whether to do them or not. Things like not dunking as much in games when it impacted his ability to get back on defense at speed required and fast food post-game, etc. That conversation helped me better explain the simple truths behind success to athletes. It also safely allows for people to choose an average set of behaviors but the outcome will be pre-determined.
You talk about training and preparing your athletes for the stresses, difficulties, and pressures of high-level competition. What are some exercises regular people should know?
I think the spoken word is the most powerful thing we control. I also have followed the data and embedded it into programs where less negative language was much more powerful than more positive language. Positive thinking and it’s constant quest to bully people into brighter lives has been an arch nemesis of the self-help industry for years. If people were simply less negative – particularly their language and consumption of content – it would help them exponentially more.
The Stoics have the concept of the Inner Citadel—the strong fortress inside ourselves we can retreat into in difficult situations. Do you feel like people need to get tougher?
This is the AP version Ryan. When people have a strong set of the fundamentals, then I think this is where affirmations, imagery, meditation really come into play but I rarely work on changing that inner citadel – I think for many of us it’s all over the place. It doesn’t make the effort to do it one that happens in vein – but the outside voice is the lead villain in impacting our ability to create that strong fortress. Get that right and you increase that resiliency significantly. The challenges in my life have been significantly impacted by my ability to find strength inside me – but that strength comes from how I handle what’s outside me.
I was huge growing up on Bartletts book of quotations. Loved it. From 4 years old on my dad played the top self-help gurus by tape recorder everynight I went to bed. Needless to say, there were a lot of quotes! Epictetus was one that resonated.
“First say to yourself what you would be, and then do what you have to do.”
What other books and writers have had the biggest influence on your thinking and how you live your life?
Olympic Gold Medalist Michael Johnson, and my father are the two biggest influences educationally on me. MJ wrote a book called Slaying the Dragon after the 1996 Olympics. MJ – talk about a badass stoic – I recommend that to everyone.