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Ann Surg. 2019 Aug 28. doi: 10.1097/SLA.0000000000003573. [Epub ahead of print]

Mental Skills in Surgery: Lessons Learned from Virtuosos, Olympians, and Navy Seals.

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Faculty of Medicine, McMaster University, Hamilton, ON, Canada.
Department of Surgery, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada.
Department of Surgery, Fox Chase Cancer Centre, Philadelphia, PA.



The present study investigated the role of mental skills in surgery through the unique lens of current surgeons who had previously served as Olympic athletes, elite musicians, or expert military personnel.


Recent work has demonstrated great potential for mental skills training in surgery. However, as a field, we lag far behind other high-performance domains that explicitly train and practice mental skills to promote optimal performance. Surgery stands to benefit from this work. First, there is a need to identify which mental skills might be most useful in surgery and how they might be best employed.


Using a constructivist grounded theory approach, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 17 surgeons across the United States and Canada who had previously performed at an elite level in sport, music, or the military.


Mental skills were used both to optimize performance in the moment and longitudinally. In the moment, skills were used proactively to enter an ideal performance state, and responsively to address unwanted thoughts or emotions to re-enter an acceptable performance zone. Longitudinally, participants used skills to build expertise and maintain wellness.


Establishing a taxonomy for mental skills in surgery may help in the development of robust mental skills training programs to promote optimal surgeon wellness and performance.

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