Mindset of a champion building mental toughness

Written by
Changeboard Team

Published
13 Jul 2015

13 Jul 2015 • by Changeboard Team

1. Emotional intelligence for business success

As athletes competed in the greatest sporting show on earth this summer, the difference between winning and losing was measured in fractions of a second and millimetres. Mentally and emotionally, the difference was far greater.

Whether you’re an Olympic athlete, a business leader, or someone facing a life-defining moment, performing well under pressure requires a similar set of mental and emotional skills that separates high-performance from under-performance, and provides an opportunity to gain a significant competitive advantage.

Over the last decade of research, with thousands of elite athletes and senior corporate leaders around the world, our team of psychologists have identified a set of emotional skills that set high-performing athletes and business leaders apart from the rest. Or, as Stuart Lancaster, head coach of England Rugby explained in a recent conversation: “I recognised that it’s really the skills described by emotional intelligence that I’ve been using that make the real difference in performance.”

2. Pure self-confidence: the courage to succeed

What’s the single most important skill that allows an athlete’s ability to deliver an exceptional performance when it matters? Self-confidence. Pure self-confidence is a belief in your ability to rise above the pressures of the external environment and the artificial limits the environment threatens to place on you. Making the decision to like and believe in yourself and your ability is the surest way to generate the emotional energy necessary for sustained success. Easier said than done, I hear you say.

It’s interesting to me that many people think self-confidence is available through repeating affirmations or available through purchasing audiotapes. But it is a mistake to believe that you can purchase it or manufacture it, or simply adopt a pose. You can’t fake self-confidence; you have to earn it.

Coaching strategy: sharpen the picture

The first strategy in building your self-confidence is to commit to something bigger than winning or losing. Self-confidence is the reactor core of performance and is fuelled by the gratification you receive internally rather than from immediate success or the capricious, unpredictable feedback from other people. What sustains motivation for ultimate success is not just winning alone, or financial gain, or even external recognition, but rather the pure love of the experience and belief in its value.

From a psychological point of view, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the Olympic movement, was right when he stressed: “The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.” It takes enormous courage to take part and take on the challenge of chasing a dream. There are huge forces that threaten to break your will and shatter your confidence. If you only focus on the externals, the noise of the crowd cheering or jeering will drown out your own inner voice.

Athletes have long used the technique of visualisation to imagine the perfect sporting performance. Its power lies in the startling physiological fact that the brain cannot distinguish between real activity and an imagined one. Visualise yourself as the extraordinarily competent person you imagine yourself being. The thoughts and images that you repeatedly focus on have a remarkable way of becoming your reality.

This is not trite, pop psychology. After all, it was William James, one of the most respected psychologists in recent times, who commented that: “There is a law in psychology that if you form a picture in your mind of what you would like to be, and you keep and hold that picture there long enough, you will soon become exactly as you have been thinking.”

Sharpen the picture of the kind of leader you aspire to be and focus on it daily.

2. Self-reliance

A second and related skill in building the mind of a champion involves self-reliance. This is the emotional power to be self-directed and take full responsibility for your personal performance. It involves the decision to back your personal judgments and significant decisions. We all know that we can’t always change our circumstances, but we can change the way we respond to them.

To become more self-reliant we need to reinterpret past experiences that have provided the raw material for how our brain is wired today. These emotional habits increase our vulnerability to anxiety and negative thinking.

When you step up to the starting blocks, stand in front of a large audience to deliver a presentation, or take on a tough challenge, your biochemical and emotional state is aroused. This is normal but, for many, negative emotions like fear and anxiety become debilitating and hinder performance. This flight-or-fight response is a function of a mind-body interaction. When under stress, your brain processes information very quickly and often gets overloaded. Along with this reaction, most of your thoughts are often negative.

Coaching strategy: identify your 4 minute mile & take control

Elite athletes apply two emotional skills to combat external pressure and build their self-reliance. The first involves rising to the challenge of interpreting the past, present and future differently.

I’ve often told the story of Roger Bannister. Over 50 years ago, people believed that no human being could ever break the ‘4 minute mile’ barrier. But, in the 18 months after Roger Bannister broke it, 45 other athletes repeated that success. Why? Because people now knew that it was possible. It was this new belief that enabled people to do the impossible. What's your ‘4 minute mile’? What negative beliefs do you let define what's possible and impossible? It’s time to reinterpret the limiting beliefs that have held you back and take control of future possibilities.

The second skill involves taking full control of fear. Fear is often experienced in four different ways:

  1. Insecurity. Ask yourself: what am I most afraid of losing? (Self-respect, love, money, health, power etc.)
  2. Anxiety. Ask yourself: what am I most afraid of changing (self-image, lifestyle, income bracket, friends, social status, habits, etc.)
  3. Fear of failure. Ask yourself: in what ways am I most afraid of failing?
  4. Fear of rejection. Ask yourself: how am I afraid that I may be rejected en route to this goal? Whose rejection do I fear most?

Overcome the anxiety that sabotages your self-reliance by asking yourself: what do I need to gain greater control of in order to accomplish this goal? What do I need to let go of?

3. Achievement drive

Champion performers possess a third skill: achievement drive. This is about your level of passion and how you focus and sustain your energy to maintain performance when it counts. Achievement drive is the skill behind the force that keeps you moving towards your best work and reaching for higher ground. It’s also the essential stimulus that enables you to keep pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone to take on new challenges. This is the ideal performance state that athletes refer to as being ‘in the zone’, or what those of us in psychology refer to as ‘flow.’ We all experience this when we’re deeply engaged in an activity we enjoy doing. We’re able to concentrate effortlessly and our thoughts and actions seem to be on autopilot.

Coaching strategy: do what you love, or love the people you do it with

There are two components to achievement drive as an emotional skill. The first involves having a passion for what you do — loving your work and eagerly looking forward to each day and taking on the challenges of moving forward. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. Or, if that’s too much to ask, at least love the people you do it with.

The second component involves setting personally meaningful goals. Ultimately, to sustain high motivation you have to have a wide variety of interests and make sure your personal and professional goals provide focus for your abilities.

In contrast, many people struggle with maintaining motivation levels because their clarity of purpose and love for their activities is clouded by having only immediate, superficial goals rather than goals aligned to a bigger vision. All of us struggle to juggle family, job, finances, personal interests and the demands of daily life. The secret is to merge the two and balance commitment to high motivation and purpose with a commitment to achieve practical goals.

Emotional intelligence sports inventory (ESi)

Taken together, these first three skills are the raw materials of emotional intelligence that make up the mind of a champion. The great news is that we now have the technology to measure and build them systematically.

In part 2, we’ll discuss three additional skills that provide us with an inside view on how the mind of a true champion really works, including how to sustain the commitment to succeed, how to cope effectively with major setbacks and disappointments, and how to settle and focus the mind to make better decisions and deal more effectively with conflict.