Getting the Edge on Life – Interview with Rhys Dowden

Can mindset really help travellers and security operatives respond safely to uncertain circumstances? This post summarises a podcast interview with former Australian Special Forces soldier and hostile environment security expert, Rhys Dowden about the benefits of a preparation mindset. He explains his holistic approach to confidence in any situation and his tips for getting the edge on life.

Rhys has a wealth of experience in the security sector including a role as executive protection operative to Steve Irwin, the crocodile hunter. He’s a Ronin South Africa graduate and holds a post-graduate certificate in security management. Rhys is a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black-belt, a helicopter pilot and now uses his expertise to help his clients develop a winning edge as a mindset and mental conditioning coach.

Types of travellers explained

There are two types of travellers – those who are prepared and those who aren’t. Those who aren’t prepared are the ones who get to the check-in counter and seem to forget why they’re even there. Or those who forget to take their belt off though they’ve been through the X-ray machines at least 50 times before, and hold up the whole line.

There are also those travellers who go to a volatile country like South Africa without any real incident. And because they’ve travelled safely, think they’re good to go to other volatile countries. Unfortunately, they can find themselves in potentially dangerous situations without a clue how to react. This could be a layperson, business traveller or even someone in the security contract field who’s managed to get this far relying on luck. Whoever it is, the reality is that the more prepared you are, the better position you’re in when facing a tricky travel situation.

The preparation mindset

Preparation, says Rhys is the key to success in any tricky situation. In his business, Operator Edge, he helps people tackle all kinds of challenges through developing a state of preparedness, both mentally and physically. So, whether they’re hoping to go into special forces or they’re just looking to hit some big hairy audacious goals, Rhys helps them build confidence to the point where they feel like they can go after whatever they want, confident of success.

Rhys goes on to explain that the crucial element is the ability to plan out their mission, to adapt and overcome adversity. The difference between those who bounce back from setbacks and push forward with drive and discipline, and those that stumble and fall, is their mindset.

Mission planning puts you in control

Rhys says that when it comes to travel, whether you’re a layperson or security operative, the first and most important element is mission planning. Mission planning means anticipating situations that could go wrong and planning the processes you can action if setbacks do happen.

‘Whatever the task, whatever the goal, the more you plan that mission down to the nth degree, the more likely that mission is going to go the way you want.’

For example, make sure you have all your documents, visas and timings planned out, and that you know the procedures you must go through in different countries. Travelling can be tiring and tough. If a difficult situation occurs and you’re not prepared for it, it can have a knock-on effect. However, if you’ve anticipated the problem and have pre-planned a response to it, you’ll be far less emotional and better able to deal with it successfully, moving forward with less disruption.

‘The advantage is that if and when things go wrong, you’re okay because you’ve already thought about it and you’re in the right mindset to get over it. Being out of your comfort zone and being in a situation where you don’t have full control is okay, because you know you’re going to get through it.’

When you travel, there are moments when you find yourself out of your comfort zone. You might be in a line that goes all the way around the airport. Or, you might be faced with a confrontation where your physical well-being is at risk. The thing is, the body reacts to stress the same way. But when you’ve planned your trip and thought through all eventualities, you won’t have such an extreme stress response if you do get challenged, since you’ve already put in processes to get around that roadblock.

Rhys explains how, in stressful situations, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in to get your body ready for fight or flight. Your heart rate increases, your blood starts flowing to your big systems and muscle groups, and your frontal lobe can effectively switch off. (This is where cognitive thinking happens, like focusing and processing.) Being ready, focused, and situationally aware of what could happen in advance is the key to overriding the body’s stress response. You’re more able to control your body and therefore think through the situation because you’re in the right mindset and you’re prepared.

Of course, there are plenty of situations and contingencies that we may not be aware of or able to plan for, and Rhys goes on to explain the kind of preparation we can put in place for any uncertain events.

Tip #1 – Breathing

The easiest and probably the most important thing you can do to prepare for anything is a simple breathing exercise. Breathing right into your diaphragm, nice and slow, taking 15 or so seconds to go through a breathing cycle, will enact your parasympathetic nervous system. This is your rest and digest system that works to bring your body back to homeostasis (balance). By doing this exercise and filling your body with as much oxygen as possible, you will think and process better and quicker and therefore be more able react the way you want to.

Tip #2 – Creating your winning environment

Rhys talks to his clients about conditioning the mind to be tougher and creating a winning environment by controlling what you can control. This might be practices like getting up in the morning for exercise, making sure your house is tidy before you leave for work, or making sure that you’re presentable. All these things build a platform of success.

‘If you always win, you’re always winning. It’s very hard to be lazy and then expect to be tough enough to turn up to a selection course like Special Forces and get through it. Toughness starts from the little things that you do every day consistently over time.’

Tip #3 – The Big Four

The Navy SEAL technique to conquering fear and panic, known as The Big 4, cites the keys of mental toughness as: goal setting, visualisation, arousal/breathing control and self-talk.

In the case of travel, this would mean planning your trip, visualising your journey, playing out in your mind what could go wrong and how you could positively respond in any given situation. Faced with that stressful situation and your sympathetic nervous system kicking in, you’re prepared to enact the breathing routine which helps your body come down off that stressful high and allows your frontal lobe to switch back on so you can think through the situation.

Self-talk is a huge part of mental toughness. Rhys points out that we say anywhere from a hundred to a couple hundred words a minute to ourselves, and if that’s negative self-talk, it prompts a physical reaction in our body.

‘Start positive self-talk by talking to yourself into the situation, how you’re going to respond, how you’re going to react, and how you’re going to get through it.’

Tip #4 – Nutrition

Your nutrition has to be on point, especially if you’re expected to be switched on, looking after someone in an executive protection role. Many people refer to the gut as the second brain (80 to 90% of your serotonin levels – your feel-good hormones – are produced in the gut) so, it makes sense that what you eat has a direct result on your mood and mental state. If you’re eating badly and drinking a lot of alcohol, you’re going to disrupt the microbiome in your gut and that will have a flow on effect on how you feel.

Tip #5 – Rest, recovery, relaxation

Training hard builds your physical stamina and also sets off your parasympathetic nervous system which destresses you, and you need good rest and recovery after such activity. And let’s not forget that your mind has to switch off and reboot too.

Rhys recommends taking up an activity that allows you to totally switch off from your stressors. For him, it’s Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Unlike many types of exercise, such as running for example, combat sport doesn’t allow you to think about anything else other than self-preservation. You’re totally engrossed in the moment, and the positive benefit is that it allows your mind to switch off.

A holistic approach to planning travel assures the best results

In regards to an executive protection role, Rhys suggests that if you want to be at the top of your game, you need to focus on all 5 key elements.

‘Nobody wants someone protecting them who’s really fit and trains hard, has their nutrition on point with 8% body fat, but can’t deal with stressful situations; can’t think straight when things go wrong. You really should be thinking about mental toughness or mindset development in a holistic way.’

Rhys puts his military background to good use, not just for people in the security and risk field, but people wanting to achieve their goals. For example, for anyone petrified of speaking publicly or asserting themselves generally, putting these processes in place will completely transform their experience.

‘Planning out your ‘mission’, practising your material, visualising yourself getting through the talk, breathing deeply (especially for a few minutes before speaking), and conducting positive self-talk will really prepare you for dealing with any situation. Remember, create that winning environment, and you’ll always be winning.’