In the Brain Games episode about competition, we learned that our motivation to win games is tied in with a brain chemical, dopamine, which is linked to the pleasurable sensations that we interpret as the thrill of victory. We also learned that some people’s brains are hard-wired to be competitive warriors. The good news, though, is that while you may not be able to completely alter your inherent tendencies, there’s a lot that you can to make your brain more warrior-like. Harvard University psychologist Jeff Brown and his neuroscientist colleague Mark Fenske’s book, The Winner’s Brain, contains some great tips on how to win more often.
• Learn to read faces. Winners—whether the game is poker, or corporate takeovers—tend to be pretty good at reading other people’s facial expressions and body language. Brown suggests improving your skills by watching a few scenes of an unfamiliar movie with the sound turned down, and then trying to figure out what emotions the actors are projecting. Then watch the scenes again with sound, and see how accurate your perceptions were.
• Practice Mindfulness. Winners tend to be able to live in and concentrate upon the moment, rather than worrying about the outcome or agonizing about past mistakes. While yoga and meditation are great for developing mindfulness, there’s an even simpler exercise that you can do anywhere. Every so often, just stop what you’re doing and describe out loud what you are feeling, whether it is stress, anger or joy. After you try this a few times, start paying attention to other details, such as how your posture, breathing, and the degree of relaxation in your facial muscles may vary for each emotion.
• Concentrate on one manageable thing. In the 1996 Olympics, gymnast Kerri Strug nailed a winning vault, even though she had a severely injured ankle, by forcing herself to block out everything from her mind but one detail—in her case, a maneuver called the Yurchenko 1.5 twist. She didn’t hear the crowd or think about her ankle. The next time you face a task upon which a lot is riding, try putting all the thoughts out of your mind, and instead think only about what you are doing.