For me, keeping in shape and performing at a high level is not just a requirement but a must. There are very few sports that don’t require some sort of effort to function at peak performance. In business and in life, a fit and healthy body is key to long-lasting success.
Optimum nutrition. Strength training. Cardiovascular training. Stretching. Yoga.
Asa part of our series about “How Athletes Optimize Their Mind & Body For Peak Performance”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nordine Zouareg.
Nordine Zouareg is a former World Bodybuilding Champion, Mr. Universe, bestselling author, international speaker and high-performance coach. Born in the Saharan desert to Bedouin parents in war-torn Algeria, Nordine has overcome insurmountable obstacles to achieve success.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Yes, absolutely! I grew up in Roubaix, a city approximately 150 miles north of Paris, France. Life was very tough for my family. My parents and I immigrated from Algeria with just our clothes on our backs. I was barely a year old. Immigrating to a country that had just lost the war against the country we originated from was risky. But my parents had no choice. They had to find a place with modern medical technology to help me with my health condition. Being born three months premature in the back of an army truck and weighing a mere two pounds led me to suffer poor health; I was diagnosed with rickets, a malnutrition illness.
Although I received the medical care I so desperately needed, the treatment my family and I experienced was horrific. We were victims of hate crimes, racism, and constant oppression. Hate letters shoved under our home door presented us with lingering fear, as I was the only one who could read them. A terrifying experience that lasted for years.
I was bullied and beaten at school. By the age of 19, weighing only 108 pounds, I searched for a way out. Thankfully, I was introduced to health and fitness via an infomercial, and I realized that I was more than just a weakling little boy. I began bodybuilding and weight training with only one goal: to escape the hell I was locked in.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high-level professional athlete? We’d love to hear the story.
Sure! In my first book Mind Over Body published by Springboard Press/Hachette Books in 2007, I wrote about the power of your intention. The power of your intention allows you to match your behavior with what you want for yourself. Becoming mindful of your thoughts concerning your mental, physical, and emotional well-being is what will help you get in touch with that power. If, for example, you value yourself as a caring and gentle person, yet sit behind the wheel of your car screaming your head off at someone who has cut you off on the road, what are you being at that moment? Not the caring, gentle person you value. If your intention is to be healthy, lose weight, and be full of energy, but your behavior shows that you are not exercising and eating unhealthy foods, you are not being true to what you value and want in and for yourself.
Focusing on what you want for yourself until you feel it is a true core desire will unleash the magic within yourself that puts you in touch with the positive power of your intention — whether it is to be fit or to start a new relationship. And it is that power that will lead to your taking the positive actions that make your desire a reality. It’s with this belief that at age 19, I set my intention of becoming a gymnast after watching an inspiring documentary featuring Aleksandr Dityatin, a Russian gymnast. Sadly, my physical condition didn’t allow for that dream to come true. After only one year of practicing gymnastics, I broke both my wrists during my first and last gymnastic tournament. But I wouldn’t let fate beat me so I refocused my intention on creating an appropriate plan that would lead me to bodybuilding.
Determined to succeed, I followed a friend to a gym opening ceremony where I met the legendary Serge Nubret, former Mr. Universe and French actor, whom I convinced to take me on as a student. As a huge fan of Serge, meeting him was a highlight in that chapter of my life. I remember seeing him in the movie Pumping Iron with Arnold Schwarzenegger and saying to myself: “If I could only have a body like that!”
Serge was more than a coach; he was a friend and a mentor. He taught me how to persevere and keep pushing during hardship and challenges. I followed his path, which eventually became mine and led me to win the French, European, World and Mr. Universe Championships.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
Absolutely! I’d like to refer to my previous answer when I said that Serge Nubret not only inspired but also mentored me in becoming a high-level professional athlete. However, when you enter the professional world of sport, you encounter many people who may influence your career. But I can also tell you that the one person who can be a major source of inspiration is you. Day in and day out, you’re competing against yourself. Your mind is constantly challenging you. You become self-motivated and self-inspired as you learn to overcome mental barriers.
Competing at a high level required that I travel abroad frequently. I would be in Sydney for three days then hopping on a plane back to Paris, enduring a whopping 24-hour flight. You combine that with sustaining a strict diet, the four-hour daily workouts, and managing a business. You understand why the need to be self-sufficient is not only important but also vital to one’s career?
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
I’ve made many mistakes during my career. Some were serious, others not so. Most of my mistakes carried both a price to pay and a lesson to learn. Sometimes those missteps lead to an interesting outcome indeed. One which comes to mind is an experience I went through as a competing athlete. It was while I was preparing for the World Bodybuilding Championships in Bern, Switzerland, in 1986. Waiting backstage for the competition to begin, I decided step outside to take a breath of fresh air away from all these pumped-up and sweaty athletes, who were nervously waiting to get on stage. As I stepped out of the building, I locked myself out. All I was wearing was a posing trunk! And it was December! Can you imagine, standing there almost naked under below freezing temperature? You’re thinking: “How to hell did he get back in?” Thanks to the security guards who were patrolling, I could get back in. As you can guess it by now, I froze! And as if my troubles weren’t enough, the lead judge announced we had just four minutes to get up on stage. Four minutes to unfreeze, pump and oil up my body. Ask any high-level bodybuilder, and they’ll confirm that this was I gigantic and perhaps even impossible task. But I did it! That night, not only did I win my category, but I also took the overall competition. I was crowned Mr. World and Mr. Universe.
What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your career?
To those who want to pursue a professional bodybuilding career, be careful what you wish for. Being a professional athlete and having a professional athlete’s career are not the same. Only a few make it to the top. Those who succeed have these three important skills in common: resilience, determination, and passion for what they do. They can face failure and use it as fuel to reignite the will to succeed. I’ve failed so many times, but each time I reconnected to my self-worth, retreated, reassessed my goals, and came back re-energized and ready to tackle whatever life threw at me. Remember, it’s not about what happens to you, but how you deal with it that does. If you love what you do regardless of the financial gains, you’ve already succeeded. Bodybuilding is far more than a sport, it’s a discipline! Film director James Cameron once said about working with Arnold Schwarzenegger: “I never worked with anyone more disciplined that Arnold! I think he applies the same controlled and focused attention to details as he did when he was a professional bodybuilder.” There you have it, take it from the best!
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
My staff and I are working on several projects that are going to help with the individual’s mental and physical wellbeing. Amongst those, we’ve already launched two programs, a wellness retreat called Your Life Is Now℠ offered at award-winning resorts spas, and an online group mentorship program accessible to everyone on my website at NordineZouareg.com under The InnerFitness®Tribe. We hope both programs will benefit many who are seeking to improve their health and wellbeing.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As an athlete, you often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?
Some of those techniques I use, I learned from my mentors. Amongst those techniques are meditation, deep breathing exercises, affirmations, and visualization, which are all part of my InnerFitness morning ritual. These are awesome tools for mental and physical preparedness.
The first technique is the practice of meditation for relaxation and peak performance. Meditation has long been used amongst top athletes such as Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Michael Phelps, Derek Jeter, and Carli Lloyd, to name a few. Meditation helps with relaxation, concentration, reduced stress, and anxiety.
The second technique is deep breathing exercises to allow for relaxation, reduced stress, and anxiety. Proper breathing has many more health benefits such as lowered blood pressure and improved sleep quality.
The third is visualization. I use visualization in both my professional and personal life. Visualization is an amazing tool to prepare for events, practices, or to set my intentions for the day. Visualization helps you bring about the desired outcome before it has happened. Many professional athletes use creative visualization to manifest positive outcomes.
The fourth tool is affirmation. Believing in yourself is a must if you want to succeed in anything. One way to strengthen your purpose is to write and repeat your affirmations three times every day, preferably upon rising in the morning. Writing your core desires and repeating them softly or out loud creates a pathway to reaching your goals much quicker.
Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques to help optimize yourself?
Yes, I do! As I mentioned earlier, deep, slow breathing is a powerful tool to release stress and anxiety and find calm. Breathing is at the core of ancient mindfulness practices. There are many deep breathing techniques; I use the “3 Minute Box Breathing” — relying on this technique to get calm and focused when under tremendous stress — and recommend it to my clients as well. You can practice it anywhere: at your desk, in your parked car, or even in the bathroom. I outline the method in my latest book, InnerFitness: Five Steps to Overcoming Fear and Anxiety While Building Your Self-Worth(Skyhorse Publishing, 2021).
Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?
Excellent question! We live in an information-saturated world. We are bombarded with text messages, and pop-up windows, emails, social media, online videos, and are addicted to this crazy feeling of being in demand. Attention-craving creatures is what we have become. Our brains are overloaded. No wonder we struggle with brain fog and lack of focus. Interference in our day-to-day living is a norm and can greatly hinder in our quality of life. For a long time, I struggled with a mild form of attention deficit disorder and anxiety. I’ve had to research ways to cope with them. Several techniques helped me with creating a strong focus and avoid distractions, among those, I used mindfulness and energy vs. time. Managing your energy allows you to give your best at whatever it is that you’re doing.
Performing at the highest level is being able to balance your focused tasks with short recovery periods. People who recover after a period of laser-sharp focus get better results than the people who don’t–make sense? Think about professional athletes and their dedication to their sport. When they get on that field or enter the arena, they’re in a state of full engagement that allows them to manage their energy and control where it’s being directed. To get to a similar mindset, you need to switch from time to energy management. It’s a powerful and easy shift to make, and yet so many people fail to make that shift. They cannot stay focused.
How about your body? Can you share a few strategies that you use to optimize your body for peak performance?
For me, keeping in shape and performing at a high level is not just a requirement but a must. There are very few sports that don’t require some sort of effort to function at peak performance. In business and in life, a fit and healthy body is key to long-lasting success. My strategy to optimize my body for peak performance is three folds:
One: Optimum nutrition: Nutrition has always accounted for 60% of my strategy for optimum peak performance. I use a ratio of 40% low to moderate glycemic index (GI) carbohydrates, 40% of biological value (BV) protein, and 20% good fats.
Two: Strength training: I usually start my workouts with strength training. I combine free weights and machines followed by 15–20 minutes of cardio interval training at the end of my routine.
Three: Cardiovascular training: It’s important for me to stay in shape, thus cardiovascular training is part of my workouts. As I mentioned earlier, I finish my sessions with 15–20 minutes of cardio. I also add two additional cardio sessions two days a week for 30 minutes.
Four: Stretching: It has been said that flexibility is a measure of good health and I agree. I like to stretch each body part using my resting periods between strength training sets for about 15 seconds.
Five: Yoga: I enjoy adding one to two yoga sessions to my overall weekly routine. I don’t need to tell you that yoga is an ancient art that has its own merits and benefits. I enjoy doing yoga for both mind and body.
There you have it!
These ideas are excellent, but for most of us in order for them to become integrated into our lives and really put them to use, we have to turn them into habits and make them become ‘second nature’. Has this been true in your life? How have habits played a role in your success?
I love this question, so I am going to start my response by quoting the Buddha: “What you are now is what you have been, what you will be is what you do now.”
Habits are like loops that make or break you. Understanding your habits requires identifying how they work. Once you have established and understood the habit loop of a particular behavior, you can look for ways to replace old vices with new routines.
Essentially, it’s about asking yourself if your habits are serving you well if they are conducing to your core values, are they moving you closer to your goals? The sum of your habits controls the outcome of your life. They play an enormous factor in your happiness. They make you fat or fit, healthy or unhealthy. Your success depends on them. So, it’s fair to say that improving or replacing your old vices with new behaviors would do the trick.
Take Bruce, for example, who, after a long day at work, gets home, drops his briefcase, opens the fridge, and grabs a pint of chocolate mint ice cream. He then sits on his couch, turns on his favorite show and enjoys his ice cream. Sounds familiar?
Bruce’s habit loop includes a trigger (watching TV), a behavior (eating ice cream), and a reward (feeling good). That’s the structure of any habit. One can argue that although Bruce may feel good about his actions in the long run, they may not necessarily be conducive to his health. In my bookInnerFitness, I outline a powerful way to break old and non-healthy habits and help you build new and healthier ones. Habits ultimately create your destiny. Build good ones.
Can you share some of the strategies you have used to turn the ideas above into habits? What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?
Of course! To stop an old and non-conducive habit, you need to both be aware of its structure, and accept that it is perhaps leading to serious problems by creating poor health. Once you have made those discoveries, you can then move on to replacing those habits with new ones. It’s my experience that once we understand the structure of a habit, we can easily substitute their reward with healthier ones. Again, I would refer to the concept I outline in my book InnerFitness.
As a high-performance athlete, you likely experience times when things are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a mind state of Flow more often in our lives?
The description you gave is excellent! I would add that you enter flow when you become one with the task; your mind is fully engaged in the here and now. To achieve that, one must have passion for one’s activity at hand. In other words, the skill is mastered and then developed into a passion. You often hear self-development gurus suggesting that you get a passion in a blink of an eye as if it were something you buy at your neighborhood’s convenience store. We all wish it was! Passion is a process, one that starts with an activity you enjoy, a skill. When people ask me how I find the focus or concentration required to perform at a high level, I always answer the following: “First, make sure you have the mental, emotional, and physical energy to perform.”
When I first competed as an amateur, I wasn’t as focused as when I turned professional. The reason for that is I lacked inspiration or even motivation. I did not have the mental concentration I have now. Learning to get in the flow was a career savior. Once I understood I had to be passionate about each of my activities, whether it was at the gym, playing with my children or writing a book, I gained wisdom. I realized I had to become one with what I was doing. Entering the flow requires us to be mindful, have sustained energy, allocated time, and the ability to be free from distraction.
However, there is a time limit when in a flow. If we stay highly focused for over ninety minutes and ignore our rest or recovery period, we deplete our mental energy. Then we tap into our emotional and physical reservoirs to compensate for a loss of mental energy, creating more physical and emotional stress. Switching to a recovery mode after ninety minutes of high-focused work is crucial to our performance, productivity, and wellbeing. Recovery allows us to refuel our energy reservoirs, so we can function optimally for our next task. During my career, I had an on-season when my workouts were more intense and focused, and an off-season when recovery took place.
Do you have any meditation practices that you use to help you in your life? We’d love to hear about it.
Yes, I do, I mentioned earlier in this interview that I meditate every morning. There are many practice types of meditation practices out there, and readers can find online videos on how to meditate. Although I use different types, to answer your question I’ll share one basic method I use.
If you’ve never meditated before, you may feel uncomfortable in the beginning; don’t worry about that. The more you practice, the more comfortable you’ll feel. And don’t be concerned if you have a hard time “clearing your mind.” Thoughts will intrude, and that’s okay. Just accept them and go back to your breathing. You can also use a “mantra,” which is a word such as “one” or the name of a loved one, to help you focus.
There are just four simple requirements for practicing meditation:
1. A comfortable position.
2. A quiet environment.
3. A mental device (such as your mantra.)
4. A focused attitude.
Many of us are limited by our self-talk, or by negative mind chatter, such as regrets, and feelings of inferiority. Do you have any suggestions about how to “change the channel” of our thoughts? What is the best way to change our thoughts?
Thoughts are just that, thoughts! We can’t control every thought that goes through in our heads, but we can manage those that are negative. Self-talk is healthy when it’s conducive to our health and wellbeing. Auto-suggestion is a great way to convince oneself to change behavior through affirmations or verbal statements. However, we all have a voice, I call it roommate, in our heads, telling us we’re not good, not enough, or that we should give up. You can’t stop that voice from nagging at you. You can’t unfriend it or block it, and it’s there 24/7. The best way to deal with the roommate in your head is to be at peace with it, don’t push it away, make it your friend and nicely deny its requests or suggestions when they are of negative nature. Building your self-worth, not self-esteem (there is a tremendous difference between the two), is key to reducing or eliminating of negative self-talk.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Thank you, that’s nice of you to say! I believe anyone, regardless of their standing, can bring goodness into the world. It all starts from within one’s own inner world by creating inner peace. When that happens, one can project that same peace, love, and understanding into one’s family and community. I was very fortunate to create a platform that allowed me to spread a message of hope, health, and wellbeing with folks around the world and from all walks of life.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
I have many favorite quotes, and they all resonate with me and my vision for this world. But for the sake of your question, I’ll share one that makes its way to my heart regularly. His Holiness the Dalai Lama said: “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” This quote helps me remember why I’m here and how I can be of help to humanity.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
I get this question a lot. My answer is usually Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, but today I must choose Oprah Winfrey. I also must confess that I worked with her many years ago. We even had a little dance in one of the classes I taught at an award-winning resort spa. It was a phenomenal experience. I’d like to repeat that by inviting Oprah to lunch. Ms. Winfrey is a one-of-a-kind person; she has an amazing spirit about herself and cares deeply about the state of this world.
This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!
Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film…
Interview by Edward Sylvan, President of Sycamore Entertainment Group