“The physical aspect of the sport can only take you so far. In the Olympic Games, everyone is talented. Everyone trains hard. Everyone does the work. What separates the gold medalists from the silver medalists is simply the mental game.”

Shannon Miller, U.S. Olympic gymnastics gold medalist

Does your mind at work feel like a business pinata, minus the candy falling out? Does it feel like time to stop the swirling in different directions, streaming of interruptions, and constant pummeling of time-wasting activities? What would it be like to eliminate that “treading-water” feeling and replace lingering doubt with confident direction? Strengthen your mind, and you gain greater control of your time, talent, and performance.

The journey requires mental toughness. Psychologist Daniel Gucciardi describes mental toughness as “the psychological capacity to drive towards a goal, particularly in response to challenging circumstances. High levels of mental toughness enable individuals to achieve and sustain high levels of performance because they can optimally direct energy towards their personal goals, maximize congruency between their behavior and valued goals and efficiently adapt their thoughts and actions when confronted with stressors.”

Wolf eyes
We know this to be absolutely true as it relates to sports. Find the best players in their athletic arena and a large contributor to their success is their mental game. As former tennis pro and author of the book, Winning Ugly, Brad Gilbert writes, “The difference in the world #1 and the world #3 is usually mental.” It’s now common for high school athletes to be doing some form of mental training to complement their physical game. However, in business, the mental side of the game is typically bankrupt.

There are seven common saboteurs to the mental side of our business performance:

  1. Anchors Away: allowing a comment to anchor us to an erroneous or mistaken starting point. Counter: Think through and process the opinion, information, or data that others are planting as the conversation starting line and redraw the line by sharing your view.
  2. Power Outage: giving away our autonomy, choice, or power to another. We often perceive others have “power” over us, but that ignores the fact there are always options. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Nothing external to you has any power over you.” High performing organizations create an environment where insights, not job titles, drive initiatives.
  3. Judge Dread: prematurely passing judgement on an event, person, or result as good or bad, when it’s not necessarily either. Our proclivity for snap judgements reduces our options and boxes up events and people. Keep a gavel on your desk and each time you find yourself passing judgement too quickly, bang it on the block as a reminder.
  4. Embracing Noise: focusing on the uncontrollable elements in a situation. For situations you’re evaluating, create two columns labeled “Controllables” and “Uncontrollables” and list the factors that fall into each. Focus on the controllables. This is especially valuable in team meetings when it’s easy for a group to get off track by worrying about things they cannot possibly influence.
  5. Time Traveling: continually replaying past events or worrying about future events that may never occur. When you find your mind rewinding or fast forwarding in time, use a trigger word to bring your focus back to the present situation. As Lao Tzu the father of Taoism wrote, “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.”
  6. Energy Vampires: putting ourselves within reach of habitually negative people. We all battle that little voice inside us that raises doubt and instigates negative self-talk. That battle is challenging enough without having to also ward off the negative energy from people who constantly criticize, condemn, and complain. Find a way to disconnect from these energy vampires.
  7. Brain Ruts: creating artificial constraints on ourselves. Our past experiences—both successes and failures—have created mental ruts in which our lives run. Intentionally steer your mind out of those ruts through exposure to new people, events, experiences, and resources (e.g., books, blogs, magazines) which represent higher and different plateaus that can alter your view.

Having worked with excellent leaders across industries during the past 20 years, I’ve observed the following techniques used to enhance their mental approach to the business:

Call of the Wild. Mentally resilient leaders tend to be less passive and more assertive than their counterparts. Assertive is defined as “confidently aggressive or self-assured; positive, bold.” Assertive executives are driven by strong set of principles and don’t kowtow to the latest whims and vagaries espoused by politicians and other non-experts in a variety of fields. They’ve thoughtfully considered and recorded their leadership philosophy, built on their values and purpose, and use them to navigate in turbulent times. Marketing guru Seth Godin said, “…most people spend their time on defense, in reactive mode, in playing with the cards they got instead of moving to a different table with different cards.” Creating a list of affirmations can be a powerful way to maintain an assertive approach to your work. A list of 5-7 affirmations (e.g., I am an empathic listener, I am a servant leader, etc.) read each morning and following lunch can focus your mind on the key drivers of performance and instill genuine confidence. Former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali said, “It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.”

Create a Competitor. I don’t believe I’ve ever moved faster than I did at age 44 when I was chased by two wild dogs in a rural field during a long run. Heart pounding, sweat flying—I felt like Usain Bolt. Why? I was competing. Research dating back to 1897 shows conclusively that competition catalyzes latent reserves of extra effort. In the first study ever published in the field of sports psychology, Norman Triplett’s research on bicycle riders’ speeds showed that riders paced by a competitor rode 34 seconds faster per mile than solo riders. These findings have been replicated in a number of other academic and social settings. Dallas Stars professional hockey player Tyler Seguin observed: “When I’m at the hardest point in a workout, I picture my strongest competitors doing the exact same workout but flying through it with no fatigue. My competitive drive kicks in and that inspires me to work as hard as I imagine those guys are working.” To ignite your efforts and fuel mental toughness, consider a competitor in your field and envision their initiatives to outperform you. Then let your competitive drive take over and channel it into your work.

Pump Some Insights. A physical workout can build muscle, improve cardiovascular health, increase energy, and generate other powerful benefits. However, it takes discipline, commitment, and a plan to improve your physical fitness. The same is true for your mind, and the exciting news is that by incorporating a regular mental workout into your routine, you’ll be in rare air. In my strategic coaching engagements with executives, we often develop a customized mental workout that helps them maintain a high level of resilience. The mental workout strengthens their leadership muscles by giving them a framework to ride the waves of challenges that continuously roll through their calendars. The mental workout I’ve created can be completed in five minutes and includes the following core steps:

  1. Performance statements: 3-5 keys to optimal performance.
  2. Visualization: Recalling positive recent events and preparing for upcoming events.
  3. Personal statements: 1-3 phrases that encapsulate your best self at work.

If you want to be an Olympic-caliber executive, invest time training your mind to be more resilient and generate insights. What you’ll need to watch out for is the activity whirlpool and status quo quicksand that pull the passive back to the mediocre middle.

Assertive executives tend to be anomalies in that they spend more time seeking gains than avoiding risk. As Sofia Viranyi and Virginia Morell commented in the journal Scientific American: “You can leave a piece of meat on the table and tell one of our dogs ‘No!’ and he will not take it. But the wolves ignore you. They’ll look you in the eye and grab the meat.”

Be the wolf. Grab the meat.

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