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Mental Fitness & How To Get It

Graham gets back to basics and explains what Mental Fitness is, and how you can get it to help you become a world-class leader.


Our work in the area of Mental Fitness is built around the work of Coach Shirzad Chamine, who is a Stanford lecturer, an expert in this field and is based in San Francisco.

Why do I think I'm qualified to talk about this? Well, the first thing is I am a qualified executive coach and mentor. I have a master's equivalent qualification, and I've been doing so for many, many years. I have a qualification as a positive intelligence coach, which is both an academic qualification and a peer-rated qualification. I've coached personally and The Executive Mindset has coached hundreds of people around the world from Beijing to Houston and all over this country. I am an entrepreneur; I've built my own businesses and I've sold them, and much more importantly, I live in the same world that everybody else lives in.

We all know how important physical fitness is to our general health and well-being, and the truth is that we're getting more prepared and more accepting of saying out loud that mental fitness is important too. I'm of a certain age, and I remember when admitting to stress was seen as a sign of weakness and was definitely a career negative, and thankfully, we're past that and we're moving forward from it, and we are beginning to really see and understand the importance of being mentally fit to help us stay at the top of our game, to work really well with the people around us - domestically as well as professionally - and generally, through ourselves and as a society.

As a coach, I'm continually meeting signs of a lack of mental fitness with the people that I work with. Being a coach, you do get very, very close to the people that you are working with. The effects of Mental fitness or lack of mental fitness come out in those programs and become important elements of what people want to work on.

I do see people who are physically unwell because of the amount of stress they're going through. A great sign of poor mental fitness is fitness is an imbalance between work and home. No ability to get prioritisation. People who just generally feel inadequate. They just don't think that they're worthy of the jobs or the life that they're enjoying. People who really don't have confidence, people who are lacking in mental strength find it difficult to make decisions, and they live in a world of stress and pressure, and that damages their relationships, both personally and professionally. It can get in the way of their careers and their ability to perform at work.

Another sign is very poor time management, which in itself feeds on it. If you're not getting stuff done, you feel the pressure and the stress and the worry of the to-do list that never shrinks. Time management is about confidence, about prioritisation. It's also about delegation. We can't all cope with everything in life. It's just physically impossible, whether that's in a workplace or whether that's at home. The truth is other people have to help us along, and getting people to do that stuff is part of the confidence and strength of being mentally fit.

A lot of the people I meet, particularly the people suffering from a lack of mental fitness - live in a world of overwhelming. Everything is just too much. There's a tsunami of life coming at them that they're just not making headway with. Broadly speaking, people who are less mentally fit, they're just not happy. They live more of their time feeling less happy than the people who feel more mentally fit, and live in a world of more optimism and more positive thinking.

Sometimes these signs are pretty extreme, and people are pretty unwell or pretty unhappy or not coping. And in the vast majority of cases that I see, the single biggest root cause is fear of failure, fear of embarrassment, fear of poverty, and fear of rejection. You name it, the list is endless, but what's driving the worry, what's driving the stress is the fear of something they don't want to happen, happening?

But there is good news out there. This is a happy place. The truth is we can define mental fitness as the ability to cope with life challenges more positively.

Resilience isn't having a force filled around us, which is really probably a little more than delusion or a lack of empathy. Resilience is the ability to recover from life's setbacks quickly if something happens. And it always does. We live in the real world. The speed with which you can move on from that is your ability, is your resilience and the more resilient you are, the greater the ability to be more mentally fit.

I suppose the biggest single lesson for me when I was studying this work was to recognise that the person that puts you under stress is you. That being the case you can choose to do or not do that.

The value of the work that Shirzard Chamine has done in this area isn't that he's invented a whole lot of new learning. What he's actually done is looked at lots and lots of different elements of learning and of research, and he's pulled it all together into one place, into an easy bite-size set of chunks that you can absorb and learn and work on in one place. And it's not philosophical. This work is entirely science-based and therefore I'll talk to you in a moment about the elements of the research that he's pulled together. But, the reality is much of it you may well have seen; certain elements of it you will have seen in your life so far, and that should give you confidence about the validity of what we're talking about.

So here are some of the concepts; You may have heard of E + R = A. Well, what that is a formula. It basically says E is the event, and R is your reaction, which creates the outcome. And if you think of the easiest example, it would be road rage... there you are minding your own business, enjoying your commute to the office, and someone cuts you up and causes you all kinds of difficulties with the journey and what you do next decides what happens next. Do you sit there, turn the radio up, and keep enjoying the news, or do you flick the finger, beep the horn, leap into the other lane and return the favour?

One is not very stressful and one is very stressful and entirely your choice.

The next piece of our Mental Fitness program is about neural pathways and for those of you who don't know what neural pathways are, I'll do this very, very simplistically, but in essence, as we grow up, the brain learns to react to life's stimuli, things go on and build up repetitive, reinforcing ways of how to do stuff. So, we might hear a noise that frightens us. We might realise that bright lights are unacceptable. We might find that heat means we need to move our hands, but over time we build these neural pathways, which means we regularly respond to life's stimulation in the same way. And if you want to change those reactions, if you want to change those habits - because they are habits - you have to change them.

Change habits around your diet, change habits around drinking, change habits around keeping fit. You've got to do these sorts of things for at least a month or so in order to be able to create new neural pathways where new habits are reinforced.

We've all heard of meditation. Meditation is a skill whereby you empty your head of thoughts by concentrating on a single sense, and it in essence de-stresses you because it stops you from thinking about the things that are stressing you. Mindfulness - being more present in the moment, being more aware of what is going on, puts you into a much more confident, much more strengthened position around what the stimuli are and the things that are happening.

Just prioritising your own personal well-being promotes a situation of mental fitness. I guess we've all heard about the need for three positives to overcome a single negative and the bad apple in the barrel and so on and so on. Well, this is a science-based reality. The truth is, as we've grown up, fight or flight is an important protection mechanism that the mind has created.

It is better to understand a threat than it is to look for a benefit, and therefore the mind will naturally look for a problem before it looks for an opportunity. And therefore, if you have a problem, you do need to work harder to create the opportunity from that problem. And a lot of the work that Shirzad Chamine has done in this area is about techniques to relieve stress and around performance improvement. We've all been involved in situations, whether it's in the sports arena or whether it's at work where things just are so easy. The ability to round or play the sport better than you have ever done. Being totally in form, and being in the flow comes from a moment of true mental fitness.

So what's all this about Coach Shirzad Chamine and his work and the concept of positive intelligence? Shirzad defines mental fitness as your ability to respond to life's challenges with a positive rather than a negative mindset. The impact of this, as I mentioned a moment ago, will improve performance and it'll give you peace of mind, which in turn will lead to improved wellness, and that gives greater chances and opportunities to develop better relationships.

As I said earlier, this research is not anything other than scientific. It's not built around faith or any form of spirituality. And so the neuroscience, the neural pathway piece I mentioned earlier, the positive psychology. We know it's going on in The World Cup, that the sports scientists are saying to the teams, what's it gonna feel like when you win? Can you imagine yourself winning? They create this mindset, this positive outcome, which leads and encourages people. The cognitive psychology, knowing that you are in control, you can be in control of the way in which you respond to life's challenges and the performance science piece, I've already mentioned this several times, but understanding that when you're in the flow, you really will perform better than you do when you're pushing yourself and under stress.

And all of this comes together to create the concept of Positive Intelligence.

Shirzad Chamine has worked with hundreds of CEOs and their executive teams. He's done extensive work with Stanford students - the college in California - he's worked with world-class athletes, and well over half a million participants from 50 countries. The really important thing isn't the 500,000, it's the 50 countries. This is not a culture-based thing. This is a science-based thing, and it works across cultures, and the work goes beyond the workplace. It goes into families, and it goes into groups. And unsurprisingly, he's written a best-selling book.

As I mentioned at the beginning, one of the great things that Shirzad has done is he's taking a whole series of complicated concepts and he's distilled them into something that is easy to understand, and he describes it as the power of factor analysis. So, he believes that you can discover the root cause, which enables you to radically simplify difficult concepts.

Einstein said something along the lines of, if you can't explain a difficult concept simplistically, you don't understand it well enough. And that's broadly the achievement of Shirzad Chamine. The easiest parallel is obviously primary colours when we're going back to school. There are only three colours from which all the other colours come. In this context, Shirzad has identified three core muscles, mental muscles, and the root of our ability to be more mentally fit. And we all know if the parallel works with physical fitness, that the more you work on your core, the more you work on your muscles, the greater the chances of improving physical performance.

So, the whole program is about identifying these three core muscles and them working on them. And the first one is the Saboteur Interceptor. Now, the saboteurs are these negative thoughts that go on in your head, and we've all got them and if you can identify them for what they are and say, I'm going to not do that, then that's the first step to taking control of the way that you're thinking. That leads to the ability to say, now I'm not going to think about this thing in a negative way. I'm gonna think about it in a different way.

Next, the Sage is, is the muscle; the thought process that enables you to identify how you're going to move forward from where you are today with whatever this thing is that's just happened. It comes from the two sides of the brain, the Saboteurs live on the left side of the brain, the rational, hard thinking, logical side of the brain, and the Sage side is on the more creative right-hand side of the brain.

So, what about this saboteur interceptor? There are 10 saboteurs as identified by Shirzad. Everybody is led by the Judge. The main saboteur is the Judge. This is the thought in your head that says, I don't like that person. That's a really bad thing. That's just happened. I'm a fool. It's all my fault. The judge is that set of thoughts that judges. It comes to the conclusion that it's not good stuff. The other nine saboteurs - and we all have an element of each of them - but we'll have 2, 3, 4 that are our main saboteurs. And the weird fact of this is they're not just our saboteurs, they're actually our greatest skills. They're the things we're really, really good at, but they've got out of proportion. We've overworked them, they've got overdeveloped. Part of this process, part of what we're doing is to get them back into a sense of proportion.

So let me give you some examples if we work with a Controller. It's a fantastic skill to be able to organise people and to take responsibility for getting things done. That's fantastic. But if you take it too far and you might promote, manage everybody, and you make sure nobody makes a decision without your authority, all you are doing is piling stress on yourself. If you look at Stickler, the perfectionist, it is a great ability to set high standards and deliver excellent work, but sometimes good enough is good enough. Pushing people and organisations to overachieve is unnecessary. Stress is unnecessary pressure.

If you look at being a Pleaser, it's a fantastic thing to want to help everybody rub along together. It's a great thing to see other people's points of view. However, if you intrinsically put other people's well-being, and other people's wants and needs ahead of your own, in the end, you suffer. And in the end, you pay that price through stress and lack of mental fitness.

If you look at a Hyper-Rational, someone who's really, really good at analysis, totally objective. But if that goes too far, that'll end up losing empathy with anybody else's point of view. Understanding that the world isn't black and white, it's got whole shades of grey, and they become very cold and very analytical, and again, that can ostracise them from the rest of the world.

The Restless person. It is a real skill to be able to multitask. It's a real talent to want to move on to the next new thing and to be seeking out new ideas. That's a fantastic attribute. But if you've now got to the stage where you don't finish anything, if you've now got to the stage where the minute the email pings, you've got to find out what it is. If you've now got to the stage where actually you can't knuckle down and finish the thing that's in front of you, you'll become very, very inefficient and that internal compound can create an awful lot of pressure and stress for you that you don't need.

One last example, Hyper-Vigilant. Someone who can actually identify risk, someone who is totally in tune with what might go wrong. If you are in a project, you're running a project, or you are putting an organisation or a situation through change is fantastic to have that kind of person on the team. But if that's where they live, that whole of their life looking for threats, that's a pretty negative, stressful and hard place to live.

So, we all have these saboteurs. These are the negative thoughts that go on. Something happens in life, and our natural triggers are the Judge says that's a bad thing. And then these assistant saboteurs kick in and whichever one of yours is the most relevant are the ones they're going to take control of the way you typically think they are, your habitual thinking process. They are your neural pathways that normally take over from that point.

Our coaching program would get you to take an assessment online which takes about 10 minutes. An example report for Sarah, who happens to be a Stickler and a Hyper-Achiever and Restless. Sarah wants everything to be right. She's gotta be seen to be the one that wins. She's got to prove that she's better than everybody else, and she's desperately hardworking. My gosh, I'm already exhausted! After the test, you get a report with a written description of the sorts of characteristics and aspects of being a stickler, and you get that for all of your major saboteurs.

The saboteurs may take you through negative emotions, primarily fear, but that creates stress and anger and guilt and shame and insecurity. The saboteurs will push. They absolutely will push you, and that's why they're your great strengths. They've got you to where you are so far, but your Sage will pull you. It'll encourage you to think about things from other people's points of view. It'll encourage you to look at a situation then it'll encourage you to think of new ways of dealing with things that are coming at you. So, the saboteurs will push you and they can and will generate success, but that's not inherent happiness and Sage can generate success and happiness.

Are these negative emotions good for you? Is pain good for you? Well, clearly if you put your hand on a hot stove, you want someone to tell you to take it off. Clearly, pain is that message system and you need it to save you from burning your hand. So negative emotions. These alert signals are crucial. You need your judge to say, hold on, something's gone on. You might want to be paying attention to this. This is really important, but staying in that negative zone means you are no longer thinking about what you're going to do next. It can blur your ability to be objective and it can get in the way of taking action to move forward to decide what you are going to do and get on with it and move away from the negative event. You can't change the negative event. You can't pretend it didn't happen, but by responding to it in a more positive way, there is a good chance you'll move on constructively.

So these negative emotions are your saboteur. And we've all got them. There's no shame in it. There's no embarrassment in it. We've all got them. And whether you've got the different ones that we, you that we've seen on the analysis or whether you've got a single leading saboteur, which some people do have, it doesn't matter.

And so what is this Sage all about? Now, whether you like Shirzad's terminology or not, doesn't really matter - it is something you get used to. The point is there's a sage perspective and it lives in the right side of the brain that's dealing with positive emotions, where you get peace and calm, where you do find this clear objective focus and where, where creativity is. We don't worry about the small stuff, and it operates from, as I said a moment ago, the sage perspective.

Now the sage perspective is that every outcome or circumstance can be turned into a gift and opportunity. Now, I fully accept that many of you'll be looking at it with a huge dollop of cynicism, and that's fine. I understand that but what if I said to you, the sage perspective is making the best of a bad job? You know, stuff happens, crack on. Well, the way to do that is to say, it's happened. How am I gonna make the most of this? It's happened. Where's the opportunity? What can I take out of this?

I'm going to give you, Short little story called The Stallion Story. It's a Chinese fable and it's an example of a set of experiences that we will have all had, I'm sure. I'll pick it up at the end, but I'll talk you through The Stallion Story...

In ancient China, there was a very wise old farmer who has a prized stallion. It's his pride and joy and he puts it into a competition and it wins. The only problem is that some thieves identify this as now as a valuable horse and steal him. His friends and neighbors come around and see him and say, oh dear, I'm really sorry to hear about that. You must be heartbroken. And all he says is, who knows what is good and what is bad?

A couple of days later, this stallion breaks free and runs back towards the farm, and on the way, it bumps into a herd of wild mares who follow the stallion back to the farmer who's now got his stallion back and also a new herd of mares. So all his friends come around and pat him on the back and say, isn't this fantastic? And all he says is, who knows what is good and what is bad?

Now the farmer's son is out working with these mares and he's thrown by one of them and breaks his leg. So these mares have come back and they've broken the leg of his son and all of his neighbours come around and say, oh dear, this is terrible. What are you going to do? And he says, who knows what is good on what is bad? Suddenly war breaks out and the army goes from village to village conscripting, all the young able-bodied men to fight. And of course, the son can't go to fight because he's got a broken leg and none of the neighbours bothers to go and talk to him anymore because they know exactly what he's going to say, which is who knows what is good and what is bad?

Now, there's a lot of profound and deep meaning in the whole of that story, but the truth is the farmer puts his faith passively into something good that will come from something bad. And what we're saying here, what this program helps you do is to turn that into a more proactive situation where you take lemons and you turn them into lemonade. You choose the outcome that you want, positively, proactively, and you work on it to create those opportunities for yourself, which gets you inevitably to this question, and you probably already know the answer, but whatever you think is true will be. If you want a bad outcome or you believe in a bad outcome, that's what you'll undoubtedly get. If you believe there's a gift, you believe there's an opportunity, then you've got a much better chance of that being the fact. So, you are absolutely in control of this outcome more so than you think.

The ability to think and realise that you are moving into negative emotions is driven by your ability to say, Hey, this has happened. I now need to stop. I need to stop going down those old neural pathways, and I need to give myself a break between that event and what I'm going to think.

Our ten-second PQ reps are really just small moments of meditation. They're a point where you enter your head of those negative emotions and replace them ultimately with these sage thoughts, these more positive thoughts. And so the sage in the saboteur interrupter is the ability to say this is happening and to then use PQ reps.

The simplicity of this concept is if you are actually feeling these negative emotions, something's happened, that's making you feel bad. Recognise that your saboteurs are at play. Do some PQ reps and activate the sage part of your brain and believe that you can find value in whatever it is that's come from that event without being delusional, without pretending it didn't happen and work the best way forward for you from here which could be in the moment. It could be longer term. It could be involving other people. But you get a plan. And if you think about this in very simple terms, spending your time thinking positively about making the best of a bad job is a significantly less stressful place than sitting and dwelling on all the bad luck you've ever had in your life.

And the sage powers are things like empathy. How do you understand and see a gift? Well, perhaps you must work out why the other person has done what they've done. Empathy isn't sympathy, but at least if you understand why they've done it, you might be able to find a way of meeting them halfway.

Curiosity, what is it? I'm learning from this creativity. Is this sponsoring an idea of I just learned something I can really use? It might not be what I was intending, but can I build on this? And then taking answers by saying, This is what I'm going to do and doing it.

Can you use Sage in very, very difficult circumstances Well, the answer is yes? But the ability to do that is all about the strength of your muscle, the strength of your mental muscles, those three mental muscles, and just like going to the gym, you have to work on them. I mentioned this right at the beginning, but there, there is very little complicated about what I've shown you today and what is behind all of she's work. And, if success is made up of a hundred per cent, 20% is understanding and 80% is a mental muscle. And for those of you that are used to working in the sport area, perhaps you keep fit or perhaps you do long-distance running, who knows? Running a long distance, running a marathon isn't about knowing how far it is. It's about getting the miles in your legs. It's about doing the work.

So success has got to start somewhere. And it starts with intent. Initial practice. Remember I mentioned right at the beginning that you've got to rebuild your neural pathways, you've got to create new habits, new ways of responding to life's challenges. Well, this program does exactly that. For six to eight weeks, you have 15 minutes practice or work a day broken down into PQ reps of five minutes; you do that continuously for six to eight weeks and you will lay the foundations for a fitter, more mentally fit muscles. It is a program and it does take six weeks.

  • It's all driven by an app that goes on on your phone.

  • You can take two online assessments. You've seen the Saboteur assessment, but there is another one, a PQ assessment, and that reflects back just where you are on a scale of positivity at this point. And then you can do it again at a later date.

  • There are eight chapters of Shirzad's book to read. Download it onto the app. You can print them off, or you can use them as an audiobook.

  • Every week you'll get a video about an hour long of learning.

  • There are daily training exercises, which take about 15 minutes every day.

We encourage people to join a pod, to join a small group of people going through the program at the same time. We do programs with individuals on a one-to-one basis. We also put people through pods. Pods are very successful. The peer learning, the peer group advantage of shared learning. Shared experience does improve the process by about five times.

We will show you these ways to interrupt those negative thoughts. We'll show you how to identify the saboteurs and how to use the PQ reps to stop that from happening again and build these new habits. We'll teach you these new habits and how we can all of us manage ourselves and respond to life challenges in a much more positive way.

We have literally put hundreds of people through this program. I can tell you it works. You can believe me or disbelieve me. You can have your own view of it. It matters not. The truth is we know it works for most people. We know they get a lot out of it. We see it in the testimonials they give us. We see it in the Google ratings that we get. We see it in the things they tell us when we're talking to them. And again, that happens both on a one-to-one basis, that happens on a group basis, and that happens in a domestic environment, and that's in a professional workplace environment because we're all people.

So there you have it, mental fitness and how you can get it. It's a six-week program. It will help you. You will move forward in your life. You will take control of the way your mind works. Choose your responses to life's challenges.


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