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Harnessing the mindset of an athlete for success

07 October 2015

As leaders we can learn a lot from the world of athletics. It took 20 years for the Australian women’s 100m sprint record to be broken. Melissa Breen ran the 100m in 11.1 seconds in 2014, shaving 0.01 seconds from Melinda Gainsford-Taylor’s 100m record set in 1994.

So what lessons can leaders in the business community learn from the world of athletics to improve their own performance and set their own performance benchmarks?

1. It all starts with the mind

Strength, speed and drive may all be words usually associated with an athlete. However, perhaps it is mental training that is the key determinant of consistent peak performance at the elite level. In the same way for leaders in organisations – it is our state of mind that helps determine our levels of resilience, our ability to lead with confidence and our ability to achieve high performance.

2. Choosing to maintain a positive attitude

Knowledge, skills and passion may secure a great role – however it is a positive attitude that will sustain the athlete on the track or in the commercial environment.

Happy employees have about 31 per cent higher productivity and three times more creativity, according to Shawn Achor in the Harvard Business Review article. In this article, (available here), Achor outlines how to train the mind to concentrate on the positives instead of the negatives in daily life.

3. Set high realistic goals

Goal setting is one of the most important skills taught to help achieve optimal performance. The goal-setting process helps athletes understand where they want to go.

The following link offers some great insights and fact-sheets on SMART goal setting that applies to all of us not just champion athletes. In this context SMART stands for:

  • ·       Set Specific Goals
  • ·       Set Measurable Goals
  • ·       Set Attainable Goals
  • ·       Set Relevant Goals
  • ·       Set Time bound goals

4. Deal effectively with people

Skilled leaders of people are critical to an organisations success. Just likes a great athlete is supported by a great coach. The role of coaches in a business environment is important. A question that all leaders should consider in their role as coaches, “How can I get excellent performance out of my team members while helping them grow?” More is available on the steps to stimulate learning and development in a Harvard Business Review article here.

5. Positive self-talk

Positive self-talk may benefit an athlete by being used for greater confidence, adopting a healthier lifestyle and reducing stress. Positive self-talk is: “any thought you think, or any speech you say to yourself that uplifts your social, moral, spiritual well-being and results in improvement.”

6. Positive mental imagery

Whenever we imagine ourselves performing an action in the absence of physical practice, we are said to be using imagery. There is no correct way to practice mental imagery. It is all left up to individual preferences and the present circumstances. Successful athletes may use imagery during competition to prepare for action and recover from errors and poor performances. Srini Pillay, Assistant Clinical Professor at Harvard Medical School and a teacher on the Executive Education Program at Harvard Business School, suggests that visualisation can be a method to guide people and teams to success. He says, “Rather than simply having a business plan, they make a mental movie of a business plan.” To read more see here.

7. Concentration

Athletes have found several strategies to help them stay motivated and focused during the years they spend in training for events. They are the epitome of people who crave high stimulation but focus exceptionally well to achieve their dreams and goals. Equally leaders in any organisation can learn from athletes on focusing on what’s most important in any given moment.

Following some of these tips may help you find that extra edge to reach your peak performance.

Adapted from an article written by Lali Wiratunga first published in Pro Bono Australia