I was lucky enough to speak on a panel recently alongside mental conditioning coach Trevor Moawald where the topic was about how entrepreneurs and startup founders can build an “elite” mindset. Whatever their definition of “elite” is, my take is this: being “elite” in anything isn’t just reserved for professional sports teams or special operations units. What holds people back from becoming elite is how they “see” elite.
I see the same mental compartmentalization when I coach leaders and their teams. They put mental toughness into two different buckets based on job description:
Those who “need” to be mentally tough, such as soldiers or athletes
The problem is, if you’re not in the military or compete professionally then it’s easy write-off–not just the need for mental toughness but the value of it.
But the truth is, athletic events are short-term. Your “game” might last 10 seconds if you’re an Olympic sprinter or 60 minutes if you’re an NFL player. In corporate America, your “game” lasts at least eight hours a day, and if you’re an entrepreneur it might even be double that.
The point is, no matter what industry you “compete” in, you still need to be able to think and handle yourself under pressure, solve problems and endure. Too many leadership development programs focus on individual competencies such as better negotiation skills, better listening skills or better public speaking skills. While skillsets are certainly important building blocks, what’s missing is building the capacity to focus, to self-manage and to persevere under austere conditions while you’re negotiating, listening or speaking.
Before I started coaching, I served as a Navy SEAL for 13 years. While I certainly learned a lot about mental performance from training and selection, the most important lessons I learned came after I left service. Namely, that mental performance is industry agnostic. Everybody needs to be able to focus. Everybody needs to be able to think under pressure. Everybody needs to be able to self-manage. And more specifically, there are seven conditions that enable mental performance. Here they are:
While I’m not a fan of SMART goals (they’re just so boring) they are effective. The power of goals has been well documented so I won’t regurgitate them here. I will say, though, that if you don’t have a goal then you don’t have a focus. When everything is a priority, then nothing is. Set a goal and don’t let anything get in your way. Period.
This is the little voice in your head that pops up and says things like “I’m a terrible presenter” or “I really don’t want to do this” before you begin speaking publicly or making small talk. The problem with negative self-talk is that the brain doesn’t know the difference between what’s real and what isn’t; it’ll believe whatever you tell it. There’s no trick to adopting better self-talk other than to identify the triggers or situations in which negative self-talk arises, and actively replace it or reframe it with something positive. One tip Trevor suggests is speaking out loud because that way you engage more senses (i.e. hearing). Sure, other people might think you’re weird but think of it this way: it’s probably not the only time (that’s a joke).
Here’s why visualization works. One research study examined three different basketball groups. The first group practiced free throws every day for 20 days. They improved 24%. The second group practiced free throws on the 1st day and 20th days only. They didn’t improve at all. The third group practiced free throws on the 1st day and the 20th day but also visualized free throws every day in between. They improved 23%.
You can use visualization for how you want to show up at your next meeting, how you want to perform in your next job interview or how you see the next difficult conversation going with your colleague. Remember that the brain will find the answer to any question or any scenario you pose to it, so make sure you visualize right. Meaning, don’t imagine all the errors or mishaps that could happen. Instead, imagine what flawless execution looks—and feels—like.
4. Focus control.
I can’t tell you how many clients of mine struggle with this—especially in the fast and furious competitive environment of today. Focus control is your ability to choose a single focus and stay on track. More often than not, what this really comes down to are two things:
Setting the environment to eliminate distractions
Single-tasking rather than multitasking
Of course, a third addition to the above two “things” is having the self-awareness to know when numbers one and two are off track and a plan for getting back on (track).
5. Stress management.
You don’t perform well (i.e. produce work) if you don’t feel well. While the effects of exercise on the brain have been well documented, what’s less apparent is the cost of stressed-out employees.
In The Stress Effect: Why Smart Leaders Make Dumb Decisions–And What to Do About It, the author cites how stress costs an estimated $300 billion a year in absenteeism, lost productivity, accidents, and medical insurance claims. A few more fun facts the author mentions:
Stress causes 75 to 85% of all industrial accidents
Stress is linked to the six leading causes of death in the United States
Stress accounts for 66% of all visits to primary care physicians
Stress contributes to more than 60% of long-term disability
Stress is the leading cause of lost work hour
How do you manage stress? Exercise is one way, another is through focus. Focus on what you can influence, change or control, and disregard the rest.
While the above five practices are critical components of mental toughness, the next two are what make the previous five happen.
If you’re not clear on what’s important to you then chances are nobody else is either. Think of values as the guardrails that enable decision making. When you share your values with your team, you set standards of behavior. And when you’re clear on what your boss values then you don’t have to waste time trying to figure them out for yourself. Clear company values inform who gets hired, who doesn’t and serve as cultural drivers that guide behavior.
Are values a component of the mind? That’s debatable. But one thing’s for certain: if it isn’t clear why achieving your goal is important to you, then you won’t be pursuing it for long.
I hesitate to claim belief as the single most important factor out of these seven because I don’t believe in absolutes, but if I had to choose the most critical of these seven, I would choose belief. The bottom line when it comes to belief is this: if you don’t believe you’re the type of person, type of team or type of organization that’s capable of achieving your goals, then you’re probably right. I’ve seen people achieve extraordinary endeavors because they believed in themselves. Indeed, belief is a powerful weapon.
Building an elite mindset is a daily task in progress; something that never actually gets achieved, only sharpened. The power of the aforementioned seven practices isn’t in what they bring to table individually, but in how they relate to each other and get applied together as a system.