Your Mindful Life podcast with Zoran Stojkovic of Kizo Performance

It was wonderful to interview Zoran Stojkovic, founder of Kizo Performance, a company that trains and conditions the minds of athletes with evidence-based techniques to empower peak performance.  Zoran works with elite junior and college age athletes and high-level coaches in North America. He is one of the first mindfulness influencers I got to connect with when I moved out to Victoria, British Columbia, out on the beautiful western coast of Canada.

In this podcast, Zoran shares his own approach to mindfulness and how he cultivates and nurtures present moment awareness in the minds of the athletes he works with. He’s got some fascinating insights to share on the nature of the mind and its impact on high-level performance, as well as upon his experience in helping young people cope with the pressures of modern-day expectations both in the sporting and academic world.

Here’s the words...

Christopher
: So Zoran, you've actually said that you believe that every athlete should be at their best and be happy, which is interesting because it hasn't always been about happiness, or flourishing optimal performance, it’s been more about achievement and attainment. And you equip athletes, coaches and teams with mental skills, so they can unleash peak performance, and do so with a smile on their face.

Zoran
: Well Chris, I think that performance without satisfaction or happiness, whatever you want to call it, is a little bit empty and that can lead to burnout and that could lead to all sorts of mental health issues. So I think in any sort of domain it's really important to nourish both of those things, so they both flourish and grow, and a lot of what I've noticed in the past couple decades is that sport and performance were pretty, pretty rough places and there wasn't a lot of talk of mental health and well-being and you know training the mind and those sorts of things. People just assumed you were born either mentally tough, mentally healthier, or you weren't and that was it. And now the science of positivity and the research of the mind, and mindfulness especially, has has shown us that we can change our mind, and we can we can kind of change who we are by changing our mind and believing that it can change.

Christopher
: So how about yourself in terms of your mindfulness practice? The thing about mindfulness to me is it's not necessarily well I sit and I meditate every day. It's about reframing mental states.

Zoran
: Yeah, definitely. There’s a traditional definition of non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, and so to me you can work on that, by doing a breathing exercise, you can work on it by doing some sort of mantra, you can work on it through single point focus or contemplative meditation, but you can also work on it by when you brush your teeth in the morning actually brushing your teeth. You can work on it by when you’re talking to somebody actually talking to that person or looking at them and not thinking about what you're going to say. And if that thing that you want to say comes to mind you let it go and it's very similar because all we're doing is anchoring ourselves in the present and letting those thoughts of the future or of the past kind of wander away.

Christopher
: What's the story of Zoran, getting to that level of awareness?

Zoran
: It has to do with just life and experience and having situations in life and things that happen that don't go our way and then evaluating those situations and saying what could have been different and realizing that well, look, there's this state of mind that I'm in and the what's important now sort of mindset and focused on the right things either externally or internally. Then I came to understand that it was a better experience for me and the people around me and so I took a course on mindfulness in 2016, in the summer. It was an online course, but it was really good because it wasn't just theory, a lot of it was a lot of exercises that you did and a lot of reflections in a lot of group discussions and it was really great. And so I played around with a couple of different types of mindfulness in that but nothing was really sticking with me, you know, at that time and then what I really came to understand is that thing that really, really clicks with me is mindful breathing exercises, and exercises where I use my breathing to just be with the breath; whatever breathing pattern you use. Also, I'm a spiritual person, I'm a Christian and so, going to church - it's a different experience for different sorts of people - but for me, it's about you go and you're in church and your mind wanders and it wants to do its own thing, but bringing it back to whatever is being said and to the prayer and to something other than you know thinking about the future or the past - just being in the present.

Christopher
: Do you find that that's a good performance technique, you know this present moment awareness? Stop thinking about yourself and think about being in the moment?

Zoran:
 Yeah, I think that's massive. And again, every athlete is different but across athletes and coaches who are performers as well. What I've noticed is it's those people that can take a step back from those moments and not be selfish and have that team-first mindset and let emotions slide for a moment, you know, whatever strategy they use. I've noticed that those people are very much more adept at a) dealing with adversity because things don't always go well and then b) just being at their best. There’s different ways to achieve that but what the common thread has been is it's really really important to be able to step back, and for me personally it's hard,  it's definitely a struggle. A lot of times I'll catch myself doing things that serve me mostly and it's about stepping back and saying hey, why am I doing this? Asking that question of ‘Why’? is massive, and that's a really important question to ask because if the answer you come up with is I'm doing this because, you know, I'm doing this for me, sometimes that's okay, but other times that isn't the thing that's important at the moment. So yeah, it's about taking a step back and seeing what lens you’re looking through.

Christopher
: Okay, so you're the founder of Kizo Performance, which trains and conditions the mind with evidence-based techniques to empower peak performance at full speed while fatigued and under pressure. That's interesting because it's almost like sport is a metaphor here for life as well. And it's interesting that you talk about fatigued and under pressure because life has its pressures, doesn't it? And it's interesting. You’ve got a religious background. You've got a strong faith and it's very interesting that when I talk to people about mindfulness a lot of people say I came to it by accident. I’m not saying that you came by accident, but it seems to dovetail quite nicely with a very grounded set of values that you already have. You also go into schools, don't you? And you're going to private schools, I think. Is there a difference between both in terms of anxiety or fatigue or pressure between the two of them?

Zoran
: I think the pressure to perform is much higher in private schools. I've worked with students and private schools. A girl I was working with recently, the end of the school year. She just finished grade 12 and I asked, you know, how was the last few months for you? And she said it was it was really tough because of a lot of competition and people are very competitive and it's a hostile environment and I asked, you know, when you have kids one day would you want to send them to a school like this? And she said depends on the kid, but probably not. So to me, yeah, you’re asking about the difference between private and public schools. Public schools are more laid-back.
There’s less structure, so it feels like you have more room to express yourself. Which can be good for some people but then some people like that structure and like that rigidity and having a certain time when you're allowed to do homework and a certain time when the internet's cut off and phone services cut off and stuff like that. So, recovery comes into the piece, very, very importantly because these are kids we're talking about at private schools, they're away from home they’re half the world away from their mom and dad and so they're, you know, they're expected to perform in their academics; a lot of times: the athletics, arts, community-wise, socially … so recovery becomes important and knowing how to unplug and what that means for you. So what we do is we do sessions, you know lunchtime sessions for these kids and we just explore the topics of hey, what is it? What are the mental skills top performers use and what is it that you know, what  are three or four ways to recharge your human battery?

Christopher
: What are these kids searching for?

Zoran
: Maybe some of them are searching for the Magic Bullet.

Christopher
: What's the Magic Bullet?

Zoran
: A quick fix, a magic wand that's going to make their exhaustion or burnout or dissatisfaction with their school or their surroundings go away. And that's not going to happen in a 30 minute session.

Christopher
: There's a whole education in that, you can build a university on that. That's the school I want my kids to go to. Rather than going because I want you to fix something for me. I mean it’s part of the human condition. I'm trying to get my head around the public school system here and private schools. It sounds a little bit different. Public schools in the UK are very pressurized because of performance criteria, measurable criteria that teachers are under pressure to deliver, so it's quite coercive. It's very much moved back in the last 10 years and you're saying that public schools have a little bit more freedom.

Zoran:
 More. I went to public school. My sister went to a private school, so I knew a lot about both. I've worked in both and worked with teachers and coaches in both and there is definitely a difference.

Christopher
: So are there any kids that come along who say I'm coming for me? Kids who are looking at the bigger picture, rather than the fix?

Zoran
: Oh, definitely. Yeah. Yeah lots. Yeah lots. I'm just saying that some of the kids who come searching for that magic bullet you got kids that come because their friends came. You got so it's a social thing you got kids that came because the coach told him to go and they feel that you know, they trust their coach and they think what she or he thinks is important and then you got kids that come because they want to learn something or because they actually have some sort of challenge and they're actually actively working on it and they want some other way to tackle it.

Christopher
: Okay. So what sort of things are you teaching them?

Zoran
: What are we teaching them? Oh man, well how to schedule breaks into your day? Okay different types of recharging strategies in terms of picking a strategy that works for them individually. So, whether that's, you know, detaching from people or maybe being around people is what recharges some people being in nature versus being at home and being creative with something with their hands with their voice with their senses and then having ways to put bigger breaks throughout their month. So, it's almost like batteries right? You have these quad A batteries which are super tiny and that's your 15 ,10-15 minute breaks throughout the day and that might be a mindfulness session. It might be reading a book, might be going for a coffee with a friend. Bigger ones would be like a day thing where you go out for a hike or a 24-hour screen-free, so we explore those things. We say look, here is some things that are backed up in science research, proven to give you that break that your brain needs from your school, from your peers, from whatever. Then the longer ones are you know, you do maybe a couple times a year where you go away with your family for the weekend or for a week camping or something like that and they're all important and some of these kids will go to their parents and say hey look we should do this and the parents will listen.

Christopher: It’s an interesting issue to send your child away to school in terms of attachment. What we know about attachment. They are forcibly detached and I mean no one's criticizing the parents because parents are brought up that way and it kind of comes back to neuroplasticity, isn't it? Just the way my brain can shape my perception of the world and doing the best thing for my child, but it has to be asked, you know, whether you see students there who really have attachment issues?

Zoran
: Yeah, I was just reading something this morning about resilience and this article was claiming, well suggesting, that resilience is actually mainly built from the environment you're in and not so much from the inner hardware and I don't know what I think of that. What do you what do you think of that?

Christopher:
 You need to be with people, be connecting with people. You need to be with people in order to develop yourself emotionally.

Zoran
: That’s where you’re releasing that oxytocin, dopamine, if you're feeling good in those social interactions, psychological safety, so you can be vulnerable and speak.

Christopher
: We’ve got a society predicated on distracting you to be isolated. We’ve got this algorithmically based society, which is directing your attention towards something else. Yes, connecting emotional connection is probably the most important thing without a doubt and of course you get that through sport. 

Zoran:
 You do you do and that's a piece of that external environment shaping that resilience and we know sport is a vehicle for teaching about character and resilience and grit if it's done the right way, because people can have terrible sports experiences.

Christopher
: Then people will tell them that that's character and resilience and grit and actually resilience isn't really that is it? Resilience is also, let's say it comes from the heart because it literally does in terms of heart rate variability - this ability to you know, reset the dial, as it were. You were talking before about finding space, not reacting, and going to the breath and using that as a focus of concentration, that is also resilience but it's also vulnerability.

Zoran:
 Oh it is. Yeah. It's like we're talking the other day of putting a pause or break between the stimulus and the response and having that distancing ourselves from that event a little bit to give ourselves time to process and to actually come up with how we want to show up and how we want to react and what you know, when I work with athletes, it's quite common, like everybody has stressful events that are you know, and that's quite normal. What we do is we do something called GPS imagery. So what we say is we say look you have a GPS right and you're headed to here to meet and you driving, and what happens is there's construction on the road. So what does it do? It recalculates a different route so you find a different route. It doesn't just say oh crap, like no, you gotta go back home. Sorry, like you can't. No, it finds a way to get you from A to B. In a similar way what we do is we do this GPS. So we say okay, what's a stressful event, or what are things that have come up in past competitions? What are things that have stressed you out? Is it opponents just talking, is it referees making bad calls? Is it a specific situation in your sport where it's tight or it's an important situation or event? And then what do you feel in your mind, in your body? So we're building some of that awareness. And what do you feel? Okay. I feel my hands are sweaty. I'm jittery in my stomach. I've tightness of the chest. Yeah. Okay, good. And then what we say is okay, how do you want to show up? How do you actually want to show up? What we're doing is we're actually creating a space between a stimulus and response by saying what is a stimulus and what is the response you want to have?  It's been a really effective tool. And then what we do is we simulate those situations in their minds, we use performance imagery to actually run them through those situations.
You can’t simulate those sort of pressure conditions, but what we can do is we can create a rich internal film of those events so that they're feeling and seeing and hearing and doing those sorts of things in that moment. And so I think that's that's really important. 

Christopher
: That's some neat science. Neurons that fire together wire together. But I find the difficulty with that is committing myself to that practice because often I'm taken to a place that I don't want to go to. Yeah. I don't want to encounter that difficulty.

Zoran:
Yeah. Well, you got to get comfortable being uncomfortable.

Christopher:
 Okay. So how do you do that?

Zoran:
By being uncomfortable! But by not doing it too much. Okay, so think about it in terms of…. let’s say there's a person who's afraid of snakes

Christopher
: Okay, that's me.

Zoran:
 Okay. Yeah me too. We wouldn't just give the person a snake and expect them not be afraid of snakes. It's probably gonna push them in the other direction. Okay. So what we do is we play with the uncomfortability by putting it onto a scale, we say look what's a 1 out of 10? And it might be the thought of snakes, makes your leg go off the floor, makes your leg tingle, or whatever. What's a 2, what’s a 3, what's a 4? 4 might be thinking about going to the place that has the snakes, right? So that might be okay, it's in the zoo. I don't like that. An 8, or a 9 might be actually holding the snake. So, we slowly work towards using that exact thing that we just talked about of either the contemplative simulation, or the high-performance imagery we can use to actually get you to be uncomfortable, but in little doses so that comfort zone expands, and eventually you're doing it and it's maybe never going to feel entirely comfortable but it's going to feel more comfortable than it did before, because you've worked slowly through that progression.

Christopher
: So, do you have a practice yourself? Let's just call it a mental performance practice , are there any routines that you have, daily routines that kind of keep the old synaptic connections in the groove?

Zoran
: So what I started doing about a month ago is doing a gratitude journal at the end of the day, I'll write what are the three good things that happened today. What is it that I did to make them happen? If it was something that you know, maybe somebody did something to me that made me feel awesome. Gratitude  journaling has been shown to shift your mindset and after just 21 days - that number varies but on average 21 days. Besides that, planning and goal setting, or setting intentions is really huge for me. Having that sort of clarity in the day about what I'm going to do and how I'm gonna do that, how I'm going to achieve that and then besides that just throwing in breathing throughout the day. There's nothing consistent that I do. I have these moments of like tension or anxiety or whatever you want to call it. Dis-ease. So I'll throw that in and do that.

Christopher:
 And what would that involve?

Zoran:
It would involve some sort of breathing where I'm just breathing in through my nose and using the nose to breathe and then either doing box breathing where it's like a four ,four, four, or a five, five, five. Four inhale, four hold, four exhale, four hold. Or it might be just a simple hand breathing exercise which I teach athletes where you just take your hand and you breathe as you trace up and down your fingers… and it's five deep connected breaths. I've had athletes tell me how you know, I teach it to them for rowing and then they come to me next week and say, you know that thing you taught me well I had an interview for a scholarship and I used it and it was really great. Thank you so much.

Christopher
: Would you like to share a little practice that you do with teams that we can do now? Just a little finding the space activity?

Zoran: Okay, so there's a mindful breathing exercise that includes visualizing that I absolutely love and it's been really well received by my kids and by coaches. I picked it up at a conference that I went to so I'm going to share that with you. So, if you find a comfortable position to sit in, maybe your feet grounded on the floor with your hands in your lap, or lying down if you want. What I'd like you to do is take an inhale through your nose. And you can exhale through your mouth. And again, inhale through the nose. And exhale through the mouth. One more inhale through the nose. And exhale through the mouth  And as you keep focused on your breathing, I'm going to take your mind on a journey and we're going to imagine that you're on the side of a mountain. And it's a forest on the side of a mountain and it's surrounded by beautiful leaves of all sorts of colors. There’s orange and there's even hints of red and there's lots of green leaves and some of them are on the ground, and even hints of brown as well, and what you hear in the distance, maybe 50 feet away, is you hear a stream. You can faintly hear it if you focus on it, and as you walk towards the stream you can hear the sound of the leaves rustling beneath your feet and you can feel how the leaves are soft as you walk towards them. And as you get closer and closer, you can hear the sound of the stream get louder and louder and now you can see that the stream is there and it's a lot closer to you and you can see more of the details of it. You can see some rocks poking through the water. You can see little waves breaking and water rushing down the mountain. Cold mountain water. And as you get close enough so that you can actually touch the stream you kneel down and you dip your fingers in it and you feel the nice cold and wet mountain water on your fingers. And as you stand back up and fill in some more picture and detail in this amazing scene that you've created, what I'd like you to do is I'd like you to grab a leaf from the ground and anytime thoughts about the future or the past or something that's not related to this beautiful image you created, any time those thoughts come to mind, I'd like you to put them down onto the leaf and gently release the leaf down the stream. So anytime those sorts of thoughts that are not related to this come to mind, put them down onto the leaf and release them on gently down the stream. I'll give you about a minute to do that on your own.  And you can slowly focus back on your breathing. We let that image fade and we focus just on our breath. So if we do an inhale through the nose. And exhale through the mouth. And inhale through the nose. And exhale through the mouth. And the final inhale through the nose. And exhale through your mouth. You can gently wiggle your fingers your toes and slowly open your eyes and come back to the present moment.

So, how does that feel?

Christopher
: Yes, good. I feel some sense of calm, focus, clarity, reinvigorated, refreshed sense of purpose through the visualization. One thing that occurs to me now is that silence that descends in a room of people where you've all - I think they call that the affiliate effect. But actually to circle back to what you were saying about your your religious grounding. There's a sacredness to that and you don't know what it is. You can't, it's just there, isn't it? It's like a gift: you can feel it. It's hard to describe and it's like a protective cloak. It brings you home.

Thank you, Zoran.

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