What “The Mental Game” Can Teach Us About Law, Life, and Change

Contributing Author: Jonathan Meyer, Lewis County Prosecuting Attorney and President of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (WAPA)

Photo credit: Nik Shuliahin/Unsplash

magine picking up a file for the first time as you stand up to give an opening statement. No one would expect you to perform at your best. The same can be said for stress. If you wait until you are stressed to address it, you are not going to be able to perform your best. Like preparing for a case, we must prepare for stress so that we are ready when the time comes.

I am, and always have been, a “sports guy.” Many days of my youth were spent at Soldier Field watching the Bears or Wrigley Field watching the Cubs. As a kid, I never fully appreciated the “mental game” of athletics and performance. As I grew and played sports, I began to see a mental aspect, but I saw it as a way to mess with opponents more than a way to improve my performance.

Even after becoming an attorney, I never really connected sports and work other than the naturally competitive nature of sports and law practice. That competitive nature has served me well throughout my career and has been a driving force through much of my life. A self-professed “leadership junkie,” I regularly am reading and learning to hone my knowledge and skill. But I still never connected “mental performance” and what I did in the courtroom.

Then, I met Brian Cain. To give back to the community, I have coached high school football and fastpitch for years. The school brought Brian in to teach the coaches about the “mental game” and delivering it to the players. The night before the presentation, I was at the local brewery with a group when Brian came in with the school’s athletic director (AD). A couple beers, a lot of laughs, and then Brian said, “Come on Meyer, we’re going for a run.” I politely declined and heard the response of “it’s just 5 miles.” I had NEVER ran 5 miles, nor did I ever intend to run 5 miles, 5K maybe. I told Brian this, and he said, “you will. Tonight. With me.”

So, there we were, running and cussing. Well, at least I was swearing (not under my breath because I was panting like a dog on a hot summer day) trying to figure why, at 10:30 at night, I was running through an industrial park with a headlamp, my AD, and some guy I just met. Between my choice words for the decision I made and my certainty that “this is how I die,” Brian and I talked. We talked about “the next two hundred feet” and “traffic lights.” We talked about “recognize,” “release,” and “refocus.” It started to come into focus.

During the presentation the next day, it was as if I was one of those cartoon characters with the lightbulb turned on over their head when they FINALLY understand. The “mental game” applies in sports and life. This moment started me on a journey that has not stopped.

Brian and I kept talking because I knew this was a program that could make me better, the office better, and would be useful to law enforcement as we all deal with the inherent stressors in our professions. Brian created two great new programs to increase his ability to help others. I wanted to test to see if these programs could be useful outside the sports world and, if so, how they could be helpful.

First, I completed Brian’s Mental Performance Mastery Coaching Certification Program. I wanted to help others, and this course was the perfect solution. But, I also knew that the program may not be for everyone. Brian asked me to beta test his newest program, 30 Days to Mental Performance Mastery Course. Both programs delivered more than advertised and more than expected. I knew this needed to be shared.

Fortunately, with the help of some drug seizure money, we could partner with our Sheriff’s Office and bring Brian to speak at a regional training. Brian had the same impact on them as he had on me. Then, the very next day, our worlds changed. The State was, in essence, shut down because of COVID. Then, about two weeks later, a Trooper from our local detachment was murdered. A local kid, beloved by his community, restrictions prohibited mourning in the way most are accustomed to.

Yet, as I talked to people who attended Brian’s training, I repeatedly heard how his training impacted them and how they dealt with what was happening. Sure, the hurt, pain, sorrow, anger were all still present, but it was how they were equipped to deal with the adversity that had changed. I heard them use one of Brian’s sayings: “Control what you can control.” They understood much of what happens to us in life is outside of our control. But what is in our control is the HOW. How we react, how it impacts us, is 100% within our control.

Photo credit: Matteo Di Iorio/Unsplash

Like many organizations, COVID continued to take its toll on the staff within the office and within county government as a whole. Sure, there were physical impacts for some, but what was more noticeable, was the mental impacts. As a group sat around talking about what could be done, we came around to Brian’s training. Many of us had attended Brian’s presentation and his follow-up group calls. All agreed this would be a great tool. The decision was made to provide the program to everyone working for the county. Officials, directors, managers, and supervisors would be offered the Coaching Certification Course, and everyone would be offered the 30-day course. I made the training mandatory within our office.

Then, as I was standing in court, asking the court to send a recent drug court graduate to prison, the defendant, with his family there in support, talked about the isolation created by COVID, I had another light bulb. He spoke about how he was not able to access his usual support networks as he had before (NA, AA, and the Drug Court Alumni group). The sentencing judge, who also happened to be the drug court judge talked very fondly of the defendant, his family, and his progress. He congratulated him on taking ownership of this transgression and urged him to use it as an opportunity to learn and grow. I thought why not equip our drug court and mental health court program participants with the tools?

In our office, we talk about participants in these programs and how they must “redefine normal.” If you suffer from Substance Use Disorder (SUD), using controlled substance is your “normal.” If you have mental health issues, your “normal” led to involvement in the criminal justice system. These programs are designed to help those participants move beyond where they are and help them get to where they want to be. Yet, we had not adequately addressed the inevitable obstacles that will be faced. It seems relapse often happens in the face of adversity with the person retreating to a familiar place.

I quickly called Brian and asked what he thought about the applicability of his programs to these situations. Brian, a little choked up, shared that, during COVID, his brother, who for years had struggled with mental health and substance abuse issues, had passed away, a suicide from a drug overdose. He understood these issues impact everyone; not just those directly going through it and wanted to help. After meeting with the drug court judge, the drug court manager (both of whom were going through Brian’s courses), and the mental health court program coordinator, it was decided Brian’s program could be an important part of preparing participants for continued success.

Photo credit: Ricardo Annandale/Unsplash

All agreed this would be a great benefit for participants…when they were ready. As with most specialty court programs, many participants start in the program hesitant, reluctant, and, perhaps, resentful. But, over time, you see a shift in attitude, outlook, ambition, drive, and commitment. As they see their new future and potential, that is the time for this training. We are excited for this new offering. Brian, excited for the possibilities as well, even provided an introductory video to introduce himself, his background (including about his brother), and his hope for the participants in his programs.

We all need to ensure we take care of our physical health, but all too often, we ignore our mental well-being. Sure, we can “tough it out” on some things, but even the strongest will eventually feel the strain if we are not properly equipped to handles the stressors. We need to take the opportunities to ensure we have the tools to deal with these issues. But, as prosecutors, we are also called to help others as well, regardless of circumstances.

As the President of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, one of my main objectives is to provide resources to our members to ensure they have the needed tools and resources. Recently, the Washington Bar Association has also made this a point of emphasis. But that is not enough. As attorneys, we help people when there is a problem. That is literally our function. Why should mental well-being be any different? By helping ourselves, those around us, those we represent, and, yes, even those we prosecute, we cannot help but make our world better.

Remember physics? An object at rest tends to stay at rest and an object in motion tends to stay in motion. We are those objects too. As Brian says, it’s the start that stops most people. Take the step for yourself and help others take that step as well. Don’t wait for stress to address it. Prepare for it. And remember: Recognize the troubles. Release them. Refocus on your goal.

Pictured: Jonathan Meyer

The National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) is the oldest and largest national organization representing state and local prosecutors in the country.

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