Joovvin' with Dr. Michael Gervais
World-leading sport psychologist, Dr. Michael Gervais focuses on training the mindset skills and practices essential to pursuing and revealing one’s potential. His clients include world record holders, Olympians, internationally acclaimed artists and musicians, MVPs from every major sport, and Fortune 100 CEOs. We recently caught up with him to learn more about performance psychology and how fear can be used as an advantage.
What exactly does a performance psychologist do?
Performance psychologists use the applied science of psychology to help people unlock their potential, enhance their performance, and achieve their goals.
What inspired you to get into psychology? Did you always want to help people perform better?
When I was growing up in Southern California, the prevailing wisdom was that life is as it is and our responsibility was to inhabit the world, stay in your lane, don’t be too disruptive, and maybe go one step beyond what your family carved out. There was an implied suggestion that the rules had already been written—and one’s job was to figure out how to navigate within those rules.
But I was always fascinated by people who seemed to operate differently. People who traveled without a map. People who created things. Fell. Got up. Pushed up against the boundaries of what we knew about ourselves and the world around us.
I wanted to understand the minds of those people who broke barriers. How did they work? Was there a common thread among them? Were they outliers? Or were they like you and me?
So, I went to college and got my Master’s degree in Kinesiology and a Doctorate in Psychology, specializing in sports performance. During that time, my focus shifted beyond understanding the mind to training the mind.
You’ve been with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks for many years now. How did you first get involved with the Seahawks?
Head Coach, Pete Carroll, and I were introduced in 2011 by a mutual friend. Shortly after, he invited me to come to Seattle to continue our conversation, and see (and feel) the culture that he was building at the Seahawks.
Pete has a deep appreciation for the psychology of high performance. He and I aligned on so many philosophical fronts on how to help people become their very best. Soon thereafter, he invited me to formally work with the team.
Aside from working with the Seahawks, what other projects are you involved in?
I just returned from the Tokyo Olympics working with the USA Surfing team. Hawaii's Carissa Moore is the first Gold Medalist of surfing's first Olympics Games!
Does performance psychology work for just high-performance athletes or can anyone benefit?
The principles and practices of high performance are equally applicable whether you are jumping from a capsule from the edge of space, trying to break through a glass ceiling in Silicon Valley, or navigating the challenges of parenting.
What role does pain play in the human experience?
As children, we learn to avoid discomfort and pain. We are told to stop crying. We are rebuked for showing anger. We are told our fears are unfounded. We are taught that these emotions should be avoided or hidden from view. We carry that conditioning forward into adulthood—and we tend to avoid pain at all costs.
But we limit ourselves when we view pain as a sign that something is wrong. It is a precondition to growth and change—and the gateway to high performance. World class performers don’t simply tolerate discomfort—they seek it out and embrace it again and again. Transformation does not happen in the comfort zone. It happens when we push beyond what’s familiar.
Can fear be used as an advantage? In other words, what good can come from fear?
Fear can tell us when we are in danger. For the sake of our survival, the human brain was hardwired to pick up the slightest disturbance in our environment. In tribal times, there was no real disadvantage if you thought the sound of rustling leaves was a lion in the brush, but if you thought the lion in the brush was just rustling leaves, that could be fatal. Our brain errs on the side of survival.
Our ancient brain is well-suited for survival, but it’s not very good at distinguishing between real and perceived threats in the modern world. The nervous system that protected us by being so easily distracted by potential threats is now constantly bombarded with the stimuli and ‘threats’ of modern life. Rival tribesmen don’t show up in our villages wielding spears. Most of the saber tooth tigers we experience today are not threats to our physical survival, but perceived threats to our emotional survival. But once our amygdala—the area of the brain responsible for detecting and responding to threats—gets hijacked, our minds and bodies react as if our lives are at stake.
If you could go back and talk to yourself at the beginning of your career, what’s a piece of advice you’d give young Dr. Gervais?
Relationships (not tactics and principles and practices) are at the heart of high-performing organizations and individuals. And -- balance is a mythical ridgeline, stop searching for it. And - in 2021, the application of psychology will be at the forefront of elite sport and world-class business solutions -- it’s about to get really exciting. And -- chill out, it works out.
What were your first impressions when you heard about red light therapy and the clinical research behind it?
I spent my entire life inherently understanding the benefits of being outdoors, playing under the sun. And -- I also learned the dangers of too much sun exposure and found myself over-rotating against sun exposure. When I began to read the science underneath red light therapy, I scoured the research to understand as much as I could about the intersection of mitochondria, energy, and recovery. I was fascinated by the potential.
You’ve implemented Joovv into your daily routine. What benefits have you noticed?
I use Joovv nearly every day. It’s not an intervention where benefits are immediately noticeable (other than the temporary enjoyable warmth sensations from the lights). While I’m in front of the lights, I work in 10-minutes of mindfulness training. I found that this stacking helps to maximize time and it also leaves me with a deep calm after the session. After about 10 days of light training, I noticed an improvement in my sleep. After about 3 months, I noticed the sun damage on my hands began to lighten.