How the mind of a champion works
In the first part of this two part series, I described the first three skills that provide an inside view of how the mind of a champion works. Whether you’re an Olympic athlete, a business leader or someone facing a life-defining moment, it’s mental and emotional skills such as self-confidence, self-reliance and achievement drive that enable you to produce your best performance, remain self-motivated to attain your highest goals, and perform under pressure.
In part two, I describe three additional skills that elite athletes cultivate to build mental toughness. These three skills enable you to take emotional control in response to frustration and disappointment and stay mentally alert and focused in order to deal with distractions and stress. Collectively, these six skills are components of emotional intelligence (EI) and they are the building blocks that make up the mind of a champion.
Optimism sustaining the commitment to succeed
In more than two decades of research in psychology, what is the single strongest predictor of success? Optimism. Not ‘the glass is half full’ kind of optimism, but optimism as a strategy; a way of dealing with difficulties, sensing opportunities and generally maintaining a positive mood. Elite athletes and high-performing individuals look for opportunities even in the face of adversity and maintain an overall positive attitude and high expectations of what they can achieve despite the challenges involved.
Think of optimism as a constructive response to stress. It doesn’t mean that no matter what happens you are happy and cheerful all the time. Stress is inevitable — but the only thing over which you have any control is how you respond to these stressful events. This is not just ‘whistling in the dark’. The roots of this experience go much deeper than just attitude or personality.
Neuropsychology has taught us that our view of the world is shaped by what we pay attention to. Over time we have learned to focus on certain things and ignore others. Our view of the world and our emotional responses to it become a well-formed map. It’s a construction of our own making and, with careful attention, it can be continually redrawn.
The trick is to learn to pay attention by responding to life in a constructive way wherever possible rather than simply reacting out of habit. Every thought, action or attitude will either strengthen your mind or weaken it. Ask yourself: “Is what I’m paying attention to strengthening or weakening me?” When your mind is calm and clear, you will be more creative and alert. You will also be more likely to see alternative ways to solve problems and keep moving towards accomplishing your goals.
Coaching strategy: look for the benefit, seek the lesson, focus on the task
From a psychological point of view, elite athletes and optimistic people are characterised by three attitudes. Wherever possible they look for the benefit in situations; especially when they experience setbacks. No matter what happens, they are committed to finding answers and possess a confident expectation of success. Secondly, optimists seek the valuable lesson in every problem or difficulty. Instead of focusing all energy on ‘mistakes’, the game point or the deal just lost, the optimist thinks about what to do differently the next time around. Thirdly, optimistic people focus on the task to be accomplished rather than on negative emotions such as disappointment or fear.
When you experience a disappointment of any kind, your natural reaction is to feel stunned emotionally. You feel as though you have had the wind taken out of you. You feel hurt, let down, disappointed and discouraged. No matter what happened, and no matter how disappointed you are, if you are immediately able to say: “Every experience has value if I view it as an opportunity for growth and self-mastery,” this statement will assist you to exert control over your emotions and thereby build the mind of a champion. Of course, this can sound a bit trite, especially when life presents some serious disappointments. But, according to Viktor Frankel, Holocaust survivor and author of the classic Man’s Search for Meaning: “The great human freedom is the freedom to choose one’s attitude.”
To cultivate the mind of a champion you must develop the habit of paying attention to the big picture and communicate realistic confidence in being able to obtain the prize.
Resilience mental toughness
A fifth and closely related skill in building the mind of a champion involves developing resilience — the ability to cope effectively with major setbacks and disappointments. In sport, as in life, a strong will to succeed and the ability to bounce back from performance setbacks is a critical survival skill.
Renowned sports psychologist Jim Loehr refers to resilience as ‘mental toughness’ and insists that it is a learned capacity to produce a unique emotional response in competition. Producing the right emotional response during competition is an emotional skill involving the courage to apply and re-apply emotional energy in the face of persistent challenge such as: tanking, giving up on the inside, anger and negativity, choking, and performing poorly because of fear.
Coaching strategy: failure; the opportunity to begin again
When things don’t work out and go ‘pear-shaped’, you’re a grown-up and not about to rock in the corner with a shot of Jack – are you? But equally you also want to avoid acting as if nothing happened either. Despite the exaggerated upbeat rhetoric you sometimes hear from elite track athletes, all elite athletes understand that failure is an inevitable part of their journey to success and so they embrace it.
In fact, if athletes teach us anything, they teach us to respect failure. And remember, it was a patent clerk who overcame failure on his college entrance exam and changed our perception of the universe. His name was Albert Einstein. A nearly half-deaf man with no more than three weeks formal education overcame his disability and invented motion pictures and the electric light bulb. His name was Thomas Edison. A couple of struggling bicycle mechanics named Wilbur and Orville Wright inaugurated the era of manned flight.
Ok, that’s all very motivating, but we must be careful here to distinguish between two kinds of failure: the bad kind that springs from laziness or carelessness and the good kind that suggests you were pushing yourself, not content to play it safe, and determined to do something with your life and your talent. If you’re going to build resilience then you’ll need to fail now and then — think of it as practice.
So to build the mind of a champion, decide to let go of mistakes quickly if things do not go to plan. Look at setbacks as stepping-stones for future achievement and refuse to see them as dead-ends. They are an inevitable part of competition in sport and in life — use them as learning experiences and recommit yourself to applying what you’ve learnt.
Taken together, optimism and resilience in the face of adversity are the greatest long-term predictors of success.
Focus clarity of mind
A friend of mine has a mantra that he takes perverse joy in reciting to me each time he senses that I’ve taken on too much: “Energy follows focus.” Of course, he’s right and champion athletes know how to direct their energy and maintain a single-minded focus on their performance during competition. By contrast, most of us who have to juggle the demands of family, a job and financial pressure find it much more difficult to remain on task. These daily demands create enormous physical and emotional stress on our lives and intrude on our ability to concentrate on achieving our vision. And yet, developing the ability to direct your attention and sustain a focus on the challenge in front of you without being distracted by past failures or future anxieties is a real key to success.
Coaching strategy: mindfulness and emotional balance
The ability to focus attention is best cultivated through the practice of ‘mindfulness’. Although an ancient practice found in eastern philosophies, mindfulness has recently become a hot topic in modern psychology. ‘Mindfulness’ can be described in a variety of different ways, but one of the key components is the ability to sustain attention on different aspects of your experience. Think of it like a gym workout for the mind. Rather than spending useless mental and emotional energy allowing your mind to drift and become preoccupied with worry about things that went on in your past or anxiety about what might be coming up in your future, mindfulness is cultivating the ability to live purposefully in the present moment. By constantly remembering to bring your attention to what’s happening around you in the present moment strengthens your mind.
Scientific studies over the last decade documenting the benefits of mindfulness have been nothing short of startling. But, perhaps the most important benefit of the ability to focus is an increase in emotional balance and the development of a peaceful mind.
Two tips for cultivating mindfulness
- Pay attention to what is going on in your body. This means relaxing your muscles and deliberately paying attention to the sensations throughout your body. As you do this your heart rate drops and your mind settles. Once your breathing has slowed, your body is more relaxed, your mind is calmer and you are ready to return to your responsibilities with a more peaceful and focused mind.
- Next, pay deliberate attention to your breathing; not trying to change the rhythm, simply observing it. This is the very simplest form of settling your mind and it’s something that you can do anytime; waiting in line at an airport, at a red light in your car, or while you’re listening to a presentation. The most important thing is to do this regularly, every day. You are actually starting to change rhythms in your nervous system, so consistent practice over time is the key.
Reaching highest levels of achievement
The physical tactics and techniques for becoming a champion athlete are demanding but relative to the mental and emotional components, they are the simple part – pushing the pedals, running the track, and swimming the laps. The really challenging part that separates champions from the rest is more than genetics or a strong work ethic. It is the mental toughness that results from developing emotional intelligence. This is also true for those of us who aspire to high levels of achievement in our personal and professional lives.
Whether it’s an Olympic race or the rat race, in the boardroom or the living room, cultivating the mind of a champion through building the skills of emotional intelligence is the key to releasing your talent and developing peak performance.
Emotional intelligence sports inventory (ESi)
Taken together, the six skills we’ve looked at over this two part series are the raw materials of emotional intelligence that make up the mind of a champion. Just think of sporting champions like Usain Bolt or inspiring leaders like Richard Branson or Anita Roddick and you’ll immediately recognise these skills personified.