Transcription - uOttaKnow Podcast (season 2, episode 1)

Gwen Madiba

Welcome to uOttaKnow, a forward-thinking, expert-driven, current affairs podcast produced by the University of Ottawa.

Hello, my name is Gwen Madiba, host of uOttaKnow and a proud two-time graduate of the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Social Sciences. I am also the president of the Equal Chance Foundation. uOttaKnow puts you in touch with uOttawa researchers and alumni at the cutting edge of their fields for thought-provoking discussions on today’s trending topics.

It’s the start of 2021, and things are looking up. Everyone is relieved to be turning the page on 2020 and looking forward to a fresh start. It’s time to reset, make resolutions and set some goals for the coming months. Since many people’s thoughts will turn to improving their quality of life through self-care, Season 2 of uOttaKnow will focus on well-being and personal growth. And I think we’ve found the perfect guest to kick it off.

Jean François Ménard holds two degrees from the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Ottawa and now works as a mental performance coach. Right after completing his studies, he was hired by the Cirque du Soleil as a mental performance coach. Since then, he has worked with an incredible roster of high performance athletes, like Olympic champions Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue and Super Bowl champion Laurent Duvernay-Tardif. He has also authored the book L'olympien au bureau: La préparation mentale des grands athlètes transposée au monde du travail, which has been translated into English as Train (Your Brain) Like an Olympian: Gold Medal Techniques to Unleash Your Potential at Work. Jean-François, thank you for joining us today from Montreal.

 

Jean François Ménard 

Thank you, Gwen. It’s always a great honour to talk to people about my passion. Thanks for the invitation.

 

Gwen Madiba

First of all, it’s great timing to have you on because the English translation of L'olympien au bureau, titled Train (Your Brain) Like an Olympian, will be released on January 26. How do you feel about launching the book at the start of 2021?

 

Jean François Ménard

I’m so happy that the book will be released in a few weeks because obviously we’re still in the midst of the pandemic. People still need resources to become more effective, focused and motivated in what we do.

It’s strange because so many people couldn’t wait for 2020 to end, as if we would wake up on January 1, 2021 to a completely changed world. It turns out that things are essentially worse in Canada. The French version of the book came out in November 2019, three or four months before the pandemic. I had no idea it would end up being a resource to help people through the pandemic. To my great surprise, the timing couldn’t have been better.

I got so much feedback from people on social media and those close to me thanking me for publishing it because it provides techniques to stay more focused despite all of the distractions around us. And to stay motivated, as well, because people are trying to work from home without knowing what the future holds. It’s hard to throw yourself into a project with such uncertainty about what’s coming in the next weeks and months. So originally, I definitely wasn’t planning to publish a book for the pandemic, but things take their own course. In the end, the timing was perfect.

 

Gwen Madiba

That’s interesting, and it brings me to my next subject: how we see things. I want to bring up something you posted on Twitter that I really like. You wrote that the best way to stop thinking about bad things is to think of good things. You always have a choice. There’s definitely enough bad stuff to think about with today’s 24-hour news cycle. We often feel we have no control over or choice about our negative thoughts. So what did you mean by choice?

 

Jean François Ménard 

What you’ve got to know, Gwen, is that the brain believes what it hears and not necessarily what is true. Let me repeat that. The brain believes what it hears, not necessarily what is true. So you’ve got to be careful about what you feed your brain because it has a direct impact on your behaviour. In a university setting, it’s the mindset you have before walking into a classroom. The courses you like versus those you don’t. For courses you don’t like, even before they start, you’ll often have the mindset that it’s going to be long and boring. “I don’t want to be here. It’s going to be tough.” It hasn’t even happened yet, but you’re already conditioning yourself for that outcome. And — surprise, surprise — more often than not, those courses are the toughest to get through. It’s harder to concentrate. On the other hand, you look forward to the courses you like. You want to be there. You’re curious and tell yourself that time will go by fast. Most of the time, that’s exactly what happens. In general, your attention will be focused on what you decide to focus on. It’s as simple as that.

The example I always use is when you need to pick up 20 items at the grocery store, you make a list. Do you write what you want or what you don’t want? Obviously, you write what you want. Your needs and desires. You need milk, bananas, yogurt, meat or whatever. Reading over that list 2, 3, 5 or 10 times conditions your thoughts. When you get to the grocery store, your eye tends to be immediately drawn to the items you need. The items on the list. But imagine what would happen if you wrote a list that said: I don’t need apples, I don’t need carrots, I don’t need spinach. I don’t need soy milk. You would never make a list like that. But that’s essentially what being negative in your daily life or at work is like. The more you condition your thoughts to that negativity, the more it will be like at the grocery store. You’ll get there and see everything you don’t need. You end up being inefficient and distracted, and buying what you need takes a lot more time. So, as I wrote in my tweet, it’s important to focus on good stuff when you’re thinking of bad stuff. And I’m not saying that being negative is the end of the world. I think that sometimes it’s okay to be frustrated, angry or disappointed. It’s okay to vent your feelings. But just for a short time. Getting stuck in negative thoughts and being distracted by them is the truly harmful thing. I also strongly believe that you learn a lot from contrasts. Having negative thoughts from time to time can help you appreciate positive thoughts more. And that’s what shapes our brains.

 

Gwen Madiba

That’s very insightful. You mentioned university courses and how we perceive some of them. Personally, I considered my statistics courses to be very difficult before I even started them. But shifting how I looked at things was a game changer for me, and I will definitely remember the advice you gave us today. Your book talks about ways to recover from a major blow. Over the last year, many people have lost their jobs or had professional setbacks because of the pandemic. It has been a very trying year for them. What advice would you give those people?

 

Jean François Ménard

The pandemic has definitely brought its share of problems. It has been a huge challenge for everyone. But it’s so important to keep things in perspective.  Sadly, thousands of people have lost family members and friends to COVID. And it’s definitely no fun if you’re in a situation where you’ve lost your job or have financial troubles, but at the same time, it’s not the end of the world. It’s temporary.

It feels as though we’ve been living with the pandemic for a long time, but it won’t last forever. It’s just temporary. At some point we will come out on the other side. So what I do is challenge people. I challenge our listeners today to use the pandemic as an opportunity to forge their psychological strength. Because, Gwen, you don’t become mentally strong when everything is going your way. Choosing to have a good attitude during the good times is easy. It comes naturally. But choosing to have a good attitude in the face of challenges and problems — when things aren’t going your way — that’s real mental strength. I always give the example of lifting weights at the gym. You really want to strengthen your muscles, but if you always choose light weights that are easy to lift, you won’t challenge your muscles. So you won’t build muscle strength. You need weights that are hard to lift. Usually, you can do eight reps with a certain weight, then you try to do eight reps with heavier weights. Psychologically, your brain is a bit like a muscle. It’s no different. To me, the pandemic is a fantastic opportunity to learn about yourself,  to understand how your brain works. If you can maintain a good attitude and find solutions to your problems during a pandemic — when you face some real challenges — imagine the investment that represents for the future. If you’re able to stay confident and motivated now, what will it take to unsettle you in the future? Things are definitely challenging right now. But staying in control and seeing the positive through adversity will train your brain, and in the future, it will take something even more challenging to throw you off balance.

 

Gwen Madiba

My next question comes from a Faculty of Arts alumna. Kaly Soro is a former star Gee-Gees volleyball player who is now the team’s assistant coach.

 

Kaly Soro

Hello Jean-François. I know that working with athletes can be a challenge, and they’re often the centre of attention. So my question is about you and your personal routine. What are three mental performance tools you use every day to help your athletes? Have those tools changed over time?

 

Jean François Ménard

Kaly, thank you for that question. As a quick aside, my wife played on the Gee-Gees volleyball team for five years in the early 2000s. So, given that personal connection, it’s an honour to answer your question. Now on to my answer.

The purpose of my book Train (Your Brain) Like an Olympian or L’olympien au bureau is to help readers understand that the psychological skills used by elite athletes are extremely practical for everyone. In response to your question, there are several things that I do every day to keep my brain healthy, think constructive thoughts and stay effective throughout the day. The first one I want to mention is that I give myself what I call timeouts several times a day.  For example, in a day, I can have seven coaching sessions with seven completely different people, ranging from a surgeon, to a downhill skier, to a civil servant to a circus artist. Between each coaching session, I schedule a break. During each break, I set aside at least one or two minutes for a timeout to focus on my breathing and flush my brain of what I just finished. I was very drawn into my previous client session and I answered a couple of text messages and emails. So I flush that to be refreshed and available for my next client. Because my philosophy as a coach is that the most important thing I can offer is my full attention. It’s crazy how distracted we are as a society. Our minds are constantly juggling a thousand thoughts. So I use timeouts. Sometimes I stop six or seven or eight times a day for one or two minutes of conscious breathing to flush what I just did and prepare myself for what’s next. The second thing I want to share is that I exercise almost every day. I know myself. I know that I need to move. I need to boost my endorphins for my own mental health and to be on the ball, because I know that my brain does not work the same if I haven’t exercised. So I exercise at least five or six times a week. Never underestimate the impact of even a little exercise. Sometimes I don’t have 45 minutes or an hour to exercise. But even a four- or five-minute walk can make a huge difference. So before most coaching sessions, I take a walk around the block. I come back from my walk refreshed and full of ideas. So that’s the second thing I make sure I do. The third thing is to work with and not against, nervousness. Here’s what I mean by that. I am also a professional public speaker. I give 50 or 60 keynotes and workshops a year. It’s normal, even as an expert mental performance coach, to get a little nervous before these events. Giving a talk to 600 or 700 people can get to you. So when I get butterflies in my stomach, it’s a natural reaction. I don’t know if you know, but getting nervous is a good thing. It means that we’re getting ready for something important. It’s a natural mechanism because something important is going to happen. So when I get those butterflies, I think, Yes, good. I’m supposed to experience that, and I’m ready. That’s another thing I use regularly to make sure my nervousness isn’t working against me. I use my nerves to my advantage to perform well.

 

Gwen Madiba

Thanks Jean-François for answering Kaly’s question.  You just said that we should work with and not against nervousness. Your book covers another subject I absolutely want to talk about, being comfortable with discomfort. I think that’s a very important subject, especially given the times we’re in now. It’s uncomfortable to live with uncertainty.

 

Jean François Ménard

I think this quote is the one I have used the most over the past ten months. The best way to manage uncertainty is to focus on certainty. We are creatures of habit. We are so used to being able to plan and know where we’re going. But even medical specialists have trouble predicting what’s going to happen with the virus in a few weeks or months. So what’s the point in us trying to predict what will happen in three weeks or three months or one year? We don’t know. But we can have a good idea of what will happen today or in the coming days or week. Focusing on the short term will exponentially reduce your anxiety because it’s clear. It’s just ahead. It’s tangible. Long-term planning is now seven days ahead. Not seven months. Seven days. Medium term would be maybe four days. Short term, maybe a day or two. Above all, focus on your daily goals. What do you need to get done today? In any case, by always taking care of what needs to happen today and in the coming days, you end up taking care of the long term, whatever it is. That’s how I work with my athletes. They were preparing for the Olympic Games and now they don’t really know when the next competition will be. The coming week. We’ll make sure that we’re very effective this coming week. So the best way to manage uncertainty is to focus on what you know for certain.

 

Gwen Madiba

Jean-François, you’re active on social media. Could you share your social media handles with our listeners?

 

Jean François Ménard

Of course, Gwen. On Instagram, it’s @j.f.menard. I’m also very active on LinkedIn, so just type in my name. You can also connect with me on Facebook and Twitter. Type my name, and you’ll find me pretty quickly.

 

Gwen Madiba

Jean-François, it was a pleasure talking to you. I’ve learned a lot. Thank you so much!

 

Jean François Ménard

Thank you, Gwen.

 

Gwen Madiba

Thank you. I encourage you to follow Jean-François on social media. His book, Train (Your Brain) Like an Olympian: Gold Medal Techniques to Unleash Your Potential at Work in English and L'olympien au bureau: La préparation mentale des grands athlètes transposée au monde du travail in French, is available right now online or at your favourite bookstore.

uOttaKnow is produced by the University of Ottawa’s Alumni Relations team. This episode was recorded remotely with the assistance of Pop Up Podcasting in Ottawa, Ontario. We pay respect to the Algonquin people, who are the traditional guardians of this land. We acknowledge their long-standing relationship with this territory, which remains unceded. For a transcript of this episode in English or in French, or to find out more about uOttaKnow, please refer to the description of this episode.

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