What do Olympic athletes, sports icons, Carnegie Hall performers and many successful business leaders have in common, and how can the answer help to advance your career? The answer to this question is that their success is directly related to their performance.
In both the world of professional sports and the world of business, competition is keen, but there is a frequent disconnect between potential and performance. Leaders in performance psychology, a field that is beginning to cross over into the business world, generally agree that the key to peak performance is the mind. Dr. Jim Taylor, a consultant who practices sports psychology in athletics and business, says that people tend to think of themselves as either spectators or performers. Successful athletes and successful business people think of themselves as world-class performers and apply performance tools and processes to achieve and sustain success. Julie Ness Bell, Ph.D., executive and author of Performance Intelligence at Work, urges those who want to improve their “performance intelligence” to begin with three principles:
Principle 1: Your mind is powerful.
Principle 2: You control your mind.
Principle 3: You have a choice in every situation.
Sounds simple – but how can you make it work for you? You have probably occasionally experienced being “in the zone” when you have looked up suddenly at the end of what should have been a difficult task to find that time has slipped away and that far from being tired, you are energized and have been working at the top of your ability. Conversely, there are times when you are engaged in less-stimulating tasks when the minutes crawl by and you know you are not doing your best. Sports psychologist Bill Cole describes the prerequisite to peak performance as “a special mental and emotional interior climate conducive to top levels of performance” which he calls the “flow state.” It is the place where the performer is deeply involved with a challenging task and becomes lost in the process and immune to stress and anxiety. Here are some ideas from the field of performance psychology to help you find and experience your peak performance zone.
• Find the right match – work that you are passionate about; something that stretches your abilities in an environment that supports your growth. Success requires a combination of skills, abilities and internal traits. Dr. Herb Greenberg, author and CEO of Caliper, a management consulting firm that assesses the compatibility of applicants to business and sports, speaking of NBA draft picks, said, “The kids who were job-matched, who have the psychological “stuff,” outperformed the others 2- or 3 to 1 in almost every statistical category. Now, that does not mean that they were more talented, because they weren’t.”
• Get good coaching – someone who will hold you accountable, help you remove obstacles, provide resources, and provide an open, safe environment in which you can practice and learn from mistakes. Find someone who models the high-performance behaviors you need to acquire: leadership, decision-making, risk taking, self-discipline, resilience, and competitiveness.
• Be a good coach. Build your team around you by recruiting not only for the more traditional knowledge, skills and abilities, but also for high-performance attributes: emotional intelligence, integrity, strong work ethic, perseverance, team dedication, coolness under stress, learning from mistakes, and adaptability to rapidly changing circumstances. You can use validated personality assessments, along with behavioral interviewing techniques, to help you identify likely candidates. Establish and reinforce a culture within your team that values trust, respect, and honesty. Model and reinforce the desired behaviors.
• Aim for No-Lose Competition. Just as an athlete must focus differently in an individual race vs. a relay and a musician performs differently in a solo vs. an orchestra, you need to temper your competitive drive to match team and company objectives. According to Bell, healthy competition is not so much win/lose, but competing with yourself to be the best you can be.
• Train methodically. In business, “training” often means attending a workshop or seminar, picking up some new ideas, then returning to the press of the workplace where, all too often, the binder goes on a shelf, and the newly learned concepts are never fully applied. Contrast that with training in sports and performance arts, where the time spent in drills, practice and rehearsal far outweighs the time spent in actual performance. How can you bring some of that disciplined practice into play so that newly learned concepts and strategies translate into behaviors effectively applied to the work environment? You will need to intentionally schedule time to practice newly learned skills and to establish goals and feedback mechanisms that will allow you to measure variations and improvement in your performance.
Two training techniques from performance psychology that you can apply are:
Mental training. Athletes and artistic performers find that mentally rehearsing before entering the arena improves their performance. This technique has a scientific basis. According to Scarlet Bennett, a performance psychology consultant working in the performing arts, mentally rehearsing skills or tasks activates the same brain pattern as does physical practice, creating new neural connections and stimulating myelination – the neurological processes most important to learning and skill building.
This principle can also work against you if, instead of analyzing mistakes to learn from them and moving on, you ruminate over past failures, allowing a negative picture to play over and over in your mind. Just as a star batter can get into a slump, creating this kind of negative mental rehearsal can lead to fear and actual future failure.
Visualization. Have you watched an Olympic athlete close her eyes and mentally run (and win) the race? Management consultant Michael Kemp advises sales professionals to set goals, then intentionally spend from 5 to 15 minutes at a time visualizing themselves achieving them, including detailed imagining of how they would appear to themselves and others, having already achieved their goal. Kemp asserts that with practice, you can fine-tune aspects of the visualization to improve your performance at the goal task.
The business and performance worlds are fraught with internal and external adversity, failure, injury and stress. A study conducted at the University of North Carolina surveyed 2000 college sports coaches to discover how they built team and individual resilience – the ability to learn and recover from mistakes and to resist fatigue and stress. The coaches identified certain character traits that they associated with resilience, including grit (perseverance and passion to achieve long-term goals), maturity, solid character, work ethic, team dedication, calmness under stress, ability to learn from mistakes, and adaptability to rapidly changing circumstances.
Applying some of the techniques described below may help you build resilience to enable you to avoid and/or recover from obstacles.
• Assess your resilience. Use the same assessment tools you used to recruit your team to assess your own resilience. 360 degree reviews can also help you identify strengths and opportunities for improvement. Develop a plan to address gaps.
• Focus on individual and team accountability. Own up to your shortcomings, and take responsibility for overcoming them by fostering open discussions, inviting feedback, and following through on commitments.
• Prepare for crisis. Develop your coping skills by practicing responses to simulated adversities. Team, building exercises, case studies, and computer-simulated situations can help you acquire and drill skills before you need to apply them in real crisis situations.
• Manage the external environment to the extent you are able by negotiating deadlines and asking for the resources you need, including time to train and pursue development.
Sustaining peak performance is as important (and elusive) as achieving it. In sports and performing arts as well as business, achieving success can actually lead to burnout and failure. The coaches in the UNC study identified the causes of burnout as complacency, loss of focus, decline in motivation, internal and external pressure, and failure to learn and grow. Here are some techniques they found successful that you can use to sustain success.
• Set new goals. After celebrating success, it is important to identify the next challenge. Resting on your laurels for too long can get you “out of shape” for peak performance.
• Build a legacy. Like a college team that vows to bring pride to its community by winning the championship ten years in a row, set future visionary goals that will sustain you over the long term. Identify interim goals along the way to keep you encouraged as you move toward the horizon.
• Focus on process, not just outcomes. Sometimes it is necessary to go “back to the basics” by focusing on the behaviors needed in the moment and tactics that are proven to be successful. Legendary basketball coach John Wooden said, “Little things make big things happen,” and “Don’t look at the scoreboard.”
• Create a new sense of urgency. It is easy to lose sight of the big picture when you have been in the trenches. To get re-energized, Remember why you are there in the first place.
• Change, learn, and grow. In contrast to “back to the basics,” sometimes it is necessary to turn away from what has worked in the past and try something new. Use the lessons of the past to look to the future.