Thursday, June 28, 2012

...from Sports Psychology

Sports competitions are the perfect place to look for business lessons, and none more intriguing than the place that gathers only the top of the top: The 2012 Olympics.

With the event quickly approaching London, I wanted to understand what it takes to become a business Olympian.

Participating at a CCL training in Colorado Springs, home of one of three USA Olympic Training Sites, I met Roberta Kraus, Vice President at the Center for Sports Psychology.

 A quick phone interview with her gave me a glimpse of what it takes, besides muscles and practice, to prepare psychologically to compete in the world’s toughest competition.

The Ten Things I Learned from Sports Psychology

1. Set your own goals
There’s a difference among athletes: there’s those who want to break a record, those who want to get a medal, and those who are content with just making it to the Olympics. Achieving any of those goals is the same thrill for each one of them. Across those groups, there’s people who become satisfied and others who are always raising the bar, repeating to themselves “I’m good, I’m getting better, but I have to be the best.” Set the career goals to get to where you’ll be satisfied, and go after it. Becoming CEO might not be for everyone, making it on the team might be just as rewarding for you.   

2. Recovery is an integral part of training
Athletes who work too hard tend to get over trained and burnt. Constantly pushing beyond the limits risks mental stability and might result in “Staleness Syndrome” the point at which your irritable, angry, exhausted self can’t perform at its best. Top performing competitors know when to say enough and take time off. Like with weight lifting, it’s the rest that creates the muscle. Balance your work with enough breaks, personal time, and vacation days to make sure you come back mentally strong to continue the corporate race.

3. Build your confidence to improve your performance
Confident players make it to the “Flow Zone” a mental place of complete focused motivation, where winners leave all others behind. Every Olympian can have the same strength, skills, and practice levels, but it’s those who focus that win. Build your business confidence by repeating experiences often, looking for training, and keeping your focus. The better you get at your job, the further you’ll get.

4. Have the right performers on the team
In the team events at the Olympics, there’s potentially nothing more important than having the right performers on the team. It’s more than their skills and strength, it includes being on the same page, perfecting their team dynamics, sharing the same goals, and resolving difference upfront – only then will you have a team that is set for success. At work, build the right teams for your company’s projects, help build the dynamics and set shared goals for them.   

5. Mental ability is what differentiates top performers
There’s no denying the benefits of hard work and practice, but mental training is what sets the best from the rest. At the Olympics, participants rarely lack the skills to win, it’s the lack of focus, leadership, concentration that can slow them down to lose only by less than a second. At work, you most probably share the spotlight with other employees of a similar training and skills. Leverage your mental abilities by showing focus, leadership, teamwork, and more to stand out from them. 

6. Eliminate negative thoughts
There are two types of competitors, the ones with a desire for success and the ones with a fear of failure. A negative mindset – “what if I fall? what if I can’t?” – distracts you from wining every time. Those trained in positive self talk build the much needed confidence and repeat the right cue words to keep them moving forward. In the end, a statement as simple as “you go hard, you stick, you reach up high, you stay” is what helped Mary Lou Retton get the gold. In your office, stay away from negative influence and words that can bring you down. Find the inner, and sometimes outer, motivation and coaching to keep you fighting. 

7. Visualize success instead of playing it back 
An important difference between athletes and business people, is that the first group use imagery to feel success prior to the games, a technique called “Mental Rehearsal.” Business people, on the other hand play it back after the fact – like debriefing on how a meeting went. Sports participants focus on the performance, the feelings, rather than the outcome. Interestingly, Roberta starts her sessions by asking the participant every time “Are you here today because you are aspiring to take home the gold medal in the 2012 Olympics?” Practice asking yourself something similarly every day you walk into work and visualize success early instead of playing it back later that night.

8. Focus on your strengths and manage your weaknesses
Athletes perform at their best when they take advantage of their strengths rather than get distracted by their weaknesses – the latter most probably won’t go away. The champions are the ones who using their strengths overcome their weakness. If you run fast but don’t jump high how do you leverage your strong running differently? Unfortunately at work, most development plans are focused on fixing people’s weaknesses rather than building on employee’s strengths. Take the initiative to change that in you, your direct reports, and within your circle have them focus on their strengths and make them stronger.  

9. Love what you do
Roberta shared an interesting story about a book signing event for the Women’s Hockey Team. A young kid looking for an autograph asked “how can you do it?” to which a player replied “I love doing it” Within her advice, and related to the recovery and rest lesson, balance loving your work with a “Just Enough” principle which entails learning when to balance the sport with the burnout. Do what you love at work or else you’ll have to face physical and more importantly mental burn out. 

10. Plan for what happens next
For many participants, they know this is their last Olympics. In an event that occurs only every 4 years, there’s a narrow age and physical window to compete at. So, athletes began planning for what’s next. A technique they use is asking themselves “what will I miss the most?” which helps them get at what they’re passionate about and turning that descriptor into a job search key word. Fortunately, many sponsors are also there to fall back on. In our office, we tend to focus on today, the next quarter, the fiscal year end but not on what comes after all of this. Start planning on what that retirement looks like and the things you’ll miss the most to turn those into the hobbies you’ll enjoy onward.   

The corporate world was made to compete and it’s an untelevised daily event. The skills and training learned in school get you on the team but it’s the mental abilities that get you ahead.

There’s more to life than winning medals. For many its having gone to the games, for others the fame and fortune obtained through sponsors, and for others the feeling of achievement after all the hard work. Find your finish line and let the games begin!