Nature: The Ultimate Teacher of Peak Performance

  • Alexa Miller
  • August 20, 2020

Jurgen Heitmann had the privilege of learning from some of our nation’s greatest leaders in National Security and the Special Operations community across the domains of unique teams, diplomacy, innovative technology, physical capacity, and decision-making in dynamic environments, but he identifies nature as one of his most profound sources in learning and keeping an explorer’s mindset throughout his life. Here Jurgen shares key lessons from his lifetime of interaction with mountains, open ocean, forest, ice, and terrains beyond the control of humankind.

Jurgen Heitmann, Arena Labs’ Director of Performance, enjoying the Hyalite Canyon in Montana

Your life in nature and in athletics started at a very young age. What did some of those early experiences look like?

Nature has been so important throughout my life. As a youngster, I always wanted to be away from the house, away from the urban environment. I didn’t have all the other dynamics that we have now that keep us connected and indoors, so I was always, always outside. I would be home at night to sleep and then gone always during the day whether it was lifeguarding, camping, and backpacking, cycling, martial arts, sports…

I started off playing soccer and loved having a mix of both team sports and individual sports throughout my school years. The solo stuff is all about that discussion with yourself to push past limitations– like open water swimming, running, cycling, and solo backcountry skiing. In a team dynamic, there’s also that collective that can push you a little bit further and give you the collective confidence and leadership past boundaries. I always enjoyed combining the two, but I was always more of an introvert so that endurance piece was always what called to me.  I also got into strength training and training through martial arts. I mean, I finished high school at five-six and a hundred twenty pounds so… it got better from there, thank goodness.

What are some of the most memorable natural environments in which you have learned? 

I have always loved the mountainous cold regions of the world and the ocean environment as my playgrounds for learning. North of the Arctic Circle in the Norwegian fjords, as well as in its icy waters was a huge test. The walls of the Omani wadis with contrast to the Alaskan range and both the US and Canadian Rockies provided unique challenges. The harsh, wet, and cold Scottish Highlands to the surf and life in the water around the Hawaiian Islands were other ingrained memories of significant respect for the power of nature. Here’s a short video of Mark, a Waterman’s connection with the ocean that speaks to me.

You’ve talked about nature as a teacher of peak performance. Can you identify the foundational pieces?

There are so, so many. Top of mind is… Discipline. Humility. Respect. Self-efficacy. Adaptability. Risk perception. Learning maximum efficiency with minimum effort. There are so many intertwined from experiences in different natural environments.

Let’s start with these three: 1) Accountability, 2) Resetting, and 3) Creativity.

Love it. Could you talk about how you personally learned these components in nature?

1. Accountability

As a youngster, just being outdoors gave me the privilege to be on my own. I had to be accountable and make decisions and deal with the outcomes of those decisions myself in environments that really humbled me. I learned early on that I was just a speck in the larger picture. Through repetition–whether it was cycling, climbing, swimming in the ocean, etc. – I began to accumulate experiences of being forced to make decisions and deal with outcomes, usually not the best. Whether it was mitigating hypothermia in the ocean, or being in a blizzard and needing to build a shelter, or finding the best approach up a cliff… I didn’t know it at the time, but it was developing my sense of psychological emotions and cognitive skills towards environments and situations: the confidence of just being able to deal, translated into suffering at times, with situations.  I was developing a mindset that “you’re constantly training,” whatever environment you’re in.

What about accountability at the team level?

Sure, when you put the complexity of multiple people and leading, or being part of a team towards an objective, whether it’s moving from Point A to B, or a climb, everybody reacts differently. So the teaming dynamic now exposes the complexity of how everyone reacts emotionally and physically in these environments.

You have your team cognition–everyone’s kind of moving together towards a goal–but they’re all reacting a little bit differently. Some people don’t like pivoting to unknowns; they like a very concrete plan. So when you are out there in dynamic, unknown environments that are constantly changing, you get to see this cohesion…or lack of, with clarity!

When you’re living so close, and you’re going through suffering together–sometimes you’re curled up together because you’re freezing cold– how do you communicate? What’s that kind of humble, respectful way of dealing with the negative issues and emotions that surfaces, such as it’s a stupid idea or this person isn’t as skilled or this person is a threat to the team or to the objective. How are you catching yourself and checking yourself? Because there are very real outcomes. You absolutely have to rely on the team or partner that is next to you. An ingrained example was ice climbing in the Canadian Rockies…you are still five pitches up rappelling down a frozen waterfall, your ropes are completely frozen, you’re hundreds of feet up and it’s dark w/ your headlamp on and your hands are so frozen from being above your heart all the time, and you’re trying to work with all these tools and screws and you have sharp points on your feet and in your hands! How do you keep that discipline, focus, and stability to allow safety and that team flow at the forefront… and not, you know, the negative or chaostrophic thoughts creep to the edge. 

Which edge? The waterfall? Or….?

Where your mind will go when you…give in or drop your guard. That’s where I’ve always focused on surrounding myself with partners and folks who have that very disciplined, respectful approach to themselves, the environment, what they do, and how they interact with each other.

Those are the people who are truly accountable to the team. It’s always caring about each other and looking out for each other. And then yourself, as it is so important because you’re focusing on yourself as an accountability measure to the team’s safety and success. Are you keeping yourself hydrated? Are you keeping yourself healthy? In a jungle environment or a winter environment, you have to be so disciplined about keeping yourself healthy, on time, prepared, etc. Otherwise, it goes into contingency mode. The adventure doesn’t start until things don’t go as planned!

So: how do you minimize that? The accountability to yourself to always be 1% better the next day, physically, mentally, psychologically in control, and on that edge. A lot of the time you are not in control, but you’re able to work that edge. Accountability to self and the team in this way, and collaborating with those who share this understanding, has allowed me to step into environments and situations for learning I would have never imagined.

2. Reset

There is just so much vastness and complexity, in nature…so much going on. Nature does not have straight lines: there is movement, and colors, and sounds, textures and smells that just connect you. You step into it–and pause and absorb.

On a very base level, when you just get absorbed into the environment, you begin to adapt yourself out of your previous mindset. You’re resetting yourself and stepping into a different mindset and environment. That’s where you take in the humility and respect for where you sit in the bigger picture. And if you don’t do that, my view is, you stay subject to overconfidence or lack of humility that then prevents you from absorbing and adapting, or from having the ability to make creative decisions.

It’s kept me alive over the years and I’ve definitely applied it in dynamic, unstructured decision making processes you deal with both in work and in expeditions. This feature on runner Joe Grant’s approach speaks to it. And we can really see it here, in photographer Michel d’Oultrement’s approach: the essence of patience and absorption in nature.

In Special Operations, this “pause and absorb” is actually an important part of tactical practices for adjusting to the environment: you get off the helo, you move about 100 meters into the bush, you take off your hat, and you just sit in silence and absorb the environment for a while. This is the only way to understand the natural sounds, smells, and movements, so from there you can adjust and start to pick out the things that are not natural or aligned with the environment you have just stepped into.

Can you give an example of a time in nature that was resetting like that?

I remember in High School it just naturally occurred in one memorable outing. I finished school that evening, it was a Friday in winter, I got in my old Volvo 122S and drove up to Yosemite with my skis and pack. It was snowing pretty good so I was debating whether to continue on. I drove up to the trailhead, and it was dark, and I wanted to move in some distance and then set up a place to bivy for the night, ideally under some shelter because the snowfall was picking up.

I had so many things in my mind: contingencies racing, school, weather, the right gear, etc. I got my gear on, and I moved out, and my mind was still racing; I could feel my pace of movement was too fast. I was not adjusting.

So wait, you’re a teenager skiing in the dark by yourself?

Yeah, you just put a headlamp on when needed but there are the moonlight and snow. There’s plenty of ambient light to be safe, and you could see trail markers and tracks. It’s not dangerous. It’s just a nice, relaxing environment to envelope yourself in.

So, I decided to step off. In the night time, when it’s dark, your mind races because you are perceiving what’s out there, anxiety builds up.

I was feeling nervous–probably like when your kids feel scared when they have to take out the trash in the dark. So I decided to pull into the treeline and just sit and absorb myself in the snowfall. I put on my puffy to stay warm and I just sat there for twenty minutes absorbing all the softness and the stillness of the environment. Pretty soon, I noticed a deer trail and some animals moving across it. I kept my headlamp off so my vision got much broader. I could sense it calibrating with the moonlight and connecting with the sounds and the snow falling.

Nowadays, I’d probably be wearing a biometric device and watch my heart rate, but without having that technology at that time, I could just feel myself relax, my breathing slowing down, rhythmic. I just absorbed the environment and reset my mind as to why I was there and what I was going to do for the next two days.

And then I just moved out. About an hour later I found a great place close to a creek on a little high ground but protected with trees. I set up camp and just crawled in. It was magical, especially at that age! I had found that spot because I had been able to allow myself to just switch off, and then move on.

That’s a very simplistic example, but so memorable. But it’s that simple, whether you’re doing it on a mission or in different environments you step into. You’re being humble enough to check yourself and recognize that you’ve stepped out of your environment that you’re “controlling,” and now you’re in someone else’s space.

3. Creativity

Being in the elements lends you to a different sense of discipline; you have to be very dialed in. After I had the opportunity to train professionally in Winter Warfare and then with my time attached with the United Kingdom Special Operations Forces, we would spend two and a half months up in Norway every winter, working out of the WWII submarine tunnels in the northern Fjords and conducting winter training. I just loved that environment: it’s so challenging; you just can not make mistakes. I loved the focus under duress, and most importantly the creativity in how you make decisions and deal with the dynamic, ever-changing environmental conditions that always impact your planning and execution of tasks. It might seem counter-intuitive in a disciplined, process-focused approach, but the environment actually allows you time and space to be creative.

When you’re ice climbing, for example, you’re constantly making creative decisions as you move up. You start with a mathematical or foundational mindset, but really what you have is an open canvas of how you’re going to approach a problem set. The ice is ever-changing, sometimes daily. You read ice patterns, color, sounds, texture, etc. There’s so many facets as to how you might pick your route, move, and then how you bring in your climbing partner or team up safely and efficiently, always conserving energy and strength. Watching great climbers is just fascinating how they dance up the ice vs a beginner which just pounds ice tools and kicks so hard into the ice!

You also get very creative with shelters when you get into storms and tough situations. It takes creativity on top of the basics, to build for how long you may be there or other functions influencing your snow cave. It also just opens up your mind as only nature allows. Storms are just so energizing and bring out a whole intense level of self-awareness!

In my earlier years, I had this connection to Alex Lowe, who was just a phenomenal individual and inspirational climber, father, explorer. He was a virtual mentor to me, though he never knew it. He was always there pushing the envelope, but with an extremely calculated approach to managing risk. He was always outside his comfort zone, and yet just so comfortable in that space. He would always have this smile, in just the most challenging situations…reflecting with some of his close friends now. I’ve always emulated that; it’s so important as a leadership tool. He had this memorable sense of humor, and he was always thinking about his teammates and the team…with a smile.  This tool has always stuck with me.

He was a glowing example of creative mastery at the edge and always strived to be better 1% every day, both with family and his passion in the field. He had this expert intuition and was so generous in sharing it. He was putting up lines people thought were completely impossible, with calculated boldness and a non-conformist, but respectful approach. His actions spoke volumes to learn from.

These are such profound experiences. When you look at the world of medicine, does anything stand out to you as to how might nature inspire or reset teams in healthcare?

Absolutely! I think one of the most important and easiest solutions is to take a hard look at what space you ask your staff to step into for a break, a reset, or clear their mind.  I bet it is hardly a place that other high performing teams that have incredible demands put on them would call a place of regeneration!  Most hospital break rooms are made up of spare furniture that is uncomfortable, cheap, and is usually the same color as the walls…a drab, stale, sterile color.  The room is sometimes a converted space and usually too small.  If you ever looked at the importance of a green room for creatives and musicians, Squadron room for fighter pilots or Team rooms for Special Operations, etc. you will find history, sacred spaces for the team members, tradition, color, pictures, anything to allow them to either prepare or reset in an inspiring environment that celebrates and respects the sacred work that they are expected to do for others. We all know most hospitals, unfortunately, do not do this well.

Additionally, this is the easiest space to develop from architects that design around human factors, Neuroscientists that emphasize the science behind these spaces to creatives that overlay the art and celebration of the humans that perform.  Talking about designing around human factors, in collaboration with Matt Chader at Instinct Laboratory in the UK, Arena Labs has done some preliminary work recreating physical space in hospitals to support Reset.

The creative solutions are out there. These incredibly powerful designs, spearheaded by Physical Therapist and neuroscientist David Putrino at Mount Sinai, hold nature at the core and are so simple in cost and design. What other creative solutions are out there? Let’s search them out.

So, at the end of the day, what does it come down to for you?

It’s all about the explorer’s mindset. The mindset that allows you to look out past your liminal threshold and peer over your fence…and allows you to jump over it with a disciplined approach. An explorer doesn’t know what’s out there but works from a place of preparation, discipline, and edge with respect and humility with what may be on the other side waiting. As Neale Donald Walsch wrote, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

A high-performance mindset is all about how you show up! How you approach your intent. It starts with your first visceral reaction and the maturity and experience of changing it into a response to a challenge. Whatever it is you are approaching: Is it your morning? Your work? Your training? Your community? Your passion? Staying alive? It’s all mindset. What is that mindset that allows you to push further than the human next to you?

It’s the humility to come back to a beginner’s mindset which allows for a more open space for creativity. It’s enjoying the process. It’s celebrating the climbing of the route, the pitches vs. just reaching the peak or summit. It’s allowing yourself to be completely absorbed in the process and creative approach vs laser-focused on the outcome. That’s the performance mindset.

When you step into that liminal space. That’s when the smile comes on your face!

Heitmann with Coleman Ruiz


Interview by Alexa Miller, High Performance Medicine® Correspondent, Arena Labs