The Psychology of American Ninja Warrior Contestants
One of the best television moments of the past few years came when Isaac Caldiero stood at the base of Mount Midoriyama and held the red rope he would use to pull himself to the top of what host Matt Iseman called “the highest peak in sports.” At the bell, he flew up the 75-foot structure with breathtaking speed. Iseman said Isaac was “ascending as if he had wings on his back.” Caldiero slammed the red button at the top as the crowd below erupted in celebration. Isaac Caldiero had just become the first American Ninja Warrior Champion.
It was an accomplishment that until then seemed impossible. Anyone who has watched the show knows how amazing this feat was. Most competitors—nearly all of them athletes in peak shape—don’t even make it past the first round. They slip and fall; they lose their grip; they miss their landing; they fall short of their jump; their arms give out from the strain. To finish all the rounds and win it all is about as improbable as winning the lottery.
I spoke recently with Isaac and he acknowledged it was his mental game that gave him an advantage. “It sets me apart from the other competitors,” he said, adding, “There is so much psychological pressure on top of the physical pressure. There are a lot of strong competitors but they often make mental mistakes.”
I asked him how he developed the mindset that made him the show’s first champion. “I attribute it to years of rock climbing. That’s free solo climbing,” he explained. “I climb 50, 100 feet off the ground with no protection. If I fall, it’s game over. I use that same strength and mindset.”
While you aren’t likely to die if you fall during American Ninja Warrior, the reality is one mistake on the course can cost you a year’s worth of preparation and training. The show’s co-host, Matt Iseman, said, “You only get one chance. There is a mental element. The physical stuff is what catches people’s eyes, but there is a strong mental component.”
What exactly is that mental component? “It’s a psychological gear in the brain!” Iseman said.
I wanted to understand what that psychological gear was. I wanted to know what separated the successful competitors from the other great athletes who couldn’t make it. I talked to several of the top competitors, including Isaac Caldiero, the only man to go all the way in eight seasons.
The competitors mentioned several keys to their success. One mentioned the ability to be accepting of discomfort; another mentioned his faith in God; still another referred to the ability to sit in fear without freaking out. However, even if they didn’t use the same terms or language, nearly all of them mentioned three key themes:
Whether they called it this or not, almost all the show’s top competitors referred to mindfulness and the extraordinary focus that comes with it as a crucial part of their game. Simply stated, mindfulness is a deliberate focus only on the present moment without any judgment. When you are in a mindful state, you fully experience the moment.
Think about how lacking in mindfulness modern life has become. We’re constantly checking our phones, multi-tasking, watching multiple screens at once. Successful American Ninja Warrior contestants have to somehow break free of that tendency to have their minds be in several places at once. They have to be completely in the moment, fully attending to the task before them. In other words, they have to be mindful.
Rooted in ancient practices, mindfulness has only recently been studied by Western science. Study after study confirms its benefits in an amazing range of areas from stress management to sports performance. Meditation is the easiest path to mindfulness and the best way to practice it, but you can get into mindful states naturally—savoring a good meal, listening to a concert, walking along the beach. These are times when you are completely in the moment without distraction and without evaluation. The weight of the world lifts from you.
When people intentionally practice mindfulness on a regular basis, they become not only less anxious and stressed, but they also become better performers. This is true in business, entertainment, and athletics, among other fields. Psychologists have found the deliberate practice of mindfulness helps top performers achieve better results in nearly every discipline.
This appears to be true among the best American Ninja Warrior contestants, as well. When I asked Isaac Caldiero the keys to his success, the first thing he described was mindfulness. Isaac said, “A lot of it comes from my breathing. From the time I was younger, I was doing meditation and breathing exercises. Even day-to-day activities, I feel like I am somewhat in a trance and in a constant awareness of my breathing.”
He sees mindful control of his breathing to be the key to his success and stamina. “The second you lose your breath,” he said, “your body naturally begins to get fatigue. In some sports, they call it ‘bonking’. Your body shuts down. My whole point is never to get to that stage.”
During this current season, one of the most inspirational contestants was Zach Gowen, a former WWE wrestler who lost a leg to cancer at the age of eight-years-old. His remarkable run earned a standing ovation from the American Ninja Warrior crowd. He also believes mindfulness is a key component to his success. “If I get up in my head, the battle is already lost. If I’m mindful and in the moment, I can navigate obstacles—on the course and in life—much easier,” Zach said.
The benefits of mindfulness extend beyond the performance for Isaac, however. When he is in that mindful state, he becomes intensely part of the whole experience. “It’s as close to being as spiritual as possible,” he said. “To be in that moment when nothing around me exists and when I can block out all the pressure and the cameras and the physical exhaustion. It’s just me and the obstacles. It’s beautiful. It almost feels spiritual.”
That mindfulness also brings an extraordinary focus to the task at hand. In order to be a top competitor on the show, Isaac said you must have “the ability to stay calm and keep your composure and not lose focus when you are totally physically exhausted.” That laser-focus is essential, he said, because, “There’s so much pressure. There’s the cameras. You just spent the whole last year [training] and you only get one try and you’re done. That pressure is what breeds failure for people, even on the most simple obstacle. It can be all over in a split-second.”
Through the extraordinary demands of his style of rock climbing and his regular practice of meditation, Isaac has cultivated the ability to screen out distractions and stay locked into the task before him. “I have an ability to focus and not let anything around me distract me from that focus. On stage three, I’ve seen it happen. The crowd is there. Everyone is screaming at you. Contestants fumble. They lose focus.”
Joe Moravsky, another popular contestant on the show, nicknamed the Ninja Weatherman, echoes that thought. “I understand the amount of pressure that is found in each competition,” he said. “It’s hard to shake it and focus on why you are there in the first place.” However, he says, the key is “having the mental fortitude to push all that to the side and focus on what needs to be focused on. At the end of the day, once you are on the course, everything goes away, every positive and negative thing goes away. Everything.”
Another mindset that seems to set the successful contestants apart is a deep sense of optimism. Joe Moravsky placed this mental attitude on par with mindfulness. “The mental game consists of staying focused and staying optimistic,” he said. “You stay optimistic in times of peril. You think to yourself, I can correct this and I can push on.”
Obviously not everyone has this mindset, including other Ninja Warrior Contestants. “I don’t think everyone is as optimistic as I am,” Joe said. “I have a very strange way about myself in that I’m just a very happy person. Even in times of depression, I find ways to show it. I’m always very optimistic. For other people, it is not always as apparent.”
Isaac spoke of optimism in a different way. He returned this season after being the first and—and currently only—American Ninja Warrior Champion, but, he said, he “let go of the idea of winning and being first.” But even though he trained minimally for this third season of his and he had suffered a couple of minor injuries, he still approached the competition with optimism. “Going into the final competition, I was trying to keep some positive visualizations of success. There was no failure in my head.”
3. Openness to Support
A final theme that emerged from the competitors was how open to help and support they all seemed to be. Dr. Robert Brooks, author of The Power of Resilience and more than a dozen other books, found that the most resilient people are actually the most open to help and support when they need it. Contrary to the American notion of being a fully autonomous person who pulls himself up by his bootstraps, Brooks found that truly resilient individuals—first responders, high-impact athletes, those who’ve experienced trauma, people who lived through persecution, and others—reached out to others for help or let people support them when they most needed it.
The American Ninja Warrior contestants recognize this, as well. Host Matt Iseman listed this first among the keys to success he has observed in the top-performers. “It’s the incredible camaraderie and support,” he explained. “You are a stronger competitor with a team around you.” He gave several examples of competitors who had shared their secrets to success with the others and had trained together. “One of the Ninjas even housed 14 different Ninjas!” he said.
Zach Gowen, who faced challengers like John Cena and Brock Lesnar during his days with the WWE, said one of the keys to his success in wrestling, on the Ninja Warrior course, and in life was “asking for help and being coachable.”
“They don’t see each other as competitors. They are competing against the course and against themselves,” Matt said, referring to all the best contestants. “It’s a community.”
Nearly all of the top competitors agreed. “Having other people by your side giving you a confidence boost is always helpful,” said Joe Moravsky. He added that a recent rule change that allows any contestant who ascends Mount Midoriyama in the allotted time to win the title and the cash prize has helped further reduce competition among the competitors and allow for even more support amongst contestants. “In years past, you want your friends to do well, but you also want the million bucks. You want the grand champion status,” he explained. “It’s even easier to root for the other person now.”
Matt Iseman experienced the benefits of support firsthand when he took on the obstacles himself. “I’ve gone on the course a couple of times and I got to the top of the double steps,” he said. “I didn’t think I was going to make it to the top, but the crowd was responding and cheering and I willed my arms to move forward.” It was that “psychological gear in the brain” he had described for me earlier. For Matt, who has also successfully battled rheumatoid arthritis, the support from the American Ninja Warrior community gave him that extra boost he needed to go the next step. The keys to success on American Ninja Warrior, he said, are, “A mix of camaraderie and incredible mental fortitude.”
WINNING AMERICAN NINJA WARRIOR
What does it feel like to win American Ninja Warrior? Only one person in the world has had that experience. So, of course, I asked Issac what it was like and how it affected him mentally.
“It was very surreal. It felt like a dream,” he began, recalling the moments right after he won. “At the top, I was at such a high, I felt like I was still stuck in that place. It took me a while to get back to reality. I had no clue what my time was, I just know I went as fast as I possibly could.”
It didn’t stop at the top of Mount Midoriyama. The effects of winning were long-lasting for him. “It took days and days and weeks to make it seem like it actually happened,” he said. “It was just an amazing adrenaline high. Even in rock climbing, I had that same high and adrenaline, but this was such an important step in my life and my life’s work that it lasted for months.”
Unlike most other athletic competitions where the results are known to the public immediately, the nature of American Ninja Warrior required non-disclosure for months, a requirement that can be hard on the contestants. “I had to keep it a secret from three months,” Isaac explained. “Even though it already happened, it almost didn’t feel like it didn’t happen until I watched it.”
And what was it like when he finally got to see it? “It was the most amazing, emotional, and spiritual experience I’ve ever had in my entire life,” he said.
LESSONS FOR EVERYONE
Matt Iseman, who has joined the pop culture hall of fame with his signature growl of the show’s title, gives the play-by-play for the competition. He’s also an incredibly accomplished man in his own right. He’s a physician, a stand-up comic, and an actor, in addition to being the host of the show. Matt told me he loves what the show does for the competitors and for the viewers. “Every show teaches us a story of how we can overcome hardships,” he said. “We all have excuses and what I find in every episode is that you’ll see people who can go through so much more.” Referring to Zach Gowen, he said, “This season we have a one-legged amputee who competes. It makes me think, What’s my excuse?”
“These are everyday people,” Matt said. “Every season, there are people who go from the couch to the course. Whatever your excuse is, if you really apply yourself, you can overcome them.”
The lessons from the best competitors tell us if you stay focused on the present moment, have an optimistic mindset, and are open to help and support, you can overcome nearly anything.
American Ninja Warrior airs Monday nights on NBC.