When I started my own performance psychology business, many well-wishers encouraged me with a version of this chestnut: “with your background in Olympic sport, you’ll have work coming out your ears. Everyone LOVES sport!” Turns out that’s not exactly true, even in sport-mad Australia. I was reminded of this fact when pitching what I do to a successful professional who turned her nose up at my Olympic background. Describing herself as a more of a “jewels and heels type,” she challenged me to convince her why she should care about what athletes do. So I thought I would take this opportunity to share some lessons I have learned from my time working in elite sport that could translate to anyone seeking to improve their performance, even if they could care less about sport.
Preparation is not just an art, but a professional duty.
Sport takes preparation for big events seriously. Or at least elite athletes who want to win do. And since everyone’s opponents are also preparing hard, it raises the preparation game across the board and has truly professionalized what used to be the “art” of training. Elite athletes know where to turn their preparation focus, how hard to train, and for how long. They also understand the value of systematically taking their foot off the gas to recover between hard training bouts. Elite athletes also understand a few truisms that can escape the rest of us at times: Practice the things you are not good at (and therefore hate to work on) as much if not more than the things you are good at. Practice under performance conditions and then you get to perform as you practiced. Embrace what is uncomfortable until it stops being so.
What might this mean for non-athletes? If you are going into a job interview, do your research, and practice your answers. Put yourself under performance pressure. Assuming that you only get one crack at a question, practice answering each question only once. In your interview gear. With a stern-faced practice interviewer in front of you who doesn’t make eye contact. Elite athletes understand that it is through exposure to what makes you anxious — over and over again — that most helps you overcome it.
When you are chasing the performance edge, failure is not only inevitable but (almost) desirable.
One of the things that has always awed me about working in elite sport is the privilege I feel watching young humans willingly put themselves on the line to do something difficult, the outcome of which is uncertain, and the results are immediate and highly public. Athletes learn to accept the prospect of failure as both a reality and as a useful marker of progress. Rather than getting buried in recriminations or character assassination, great athletes go to, “did I improve and what did I learn?” As important, “did I give everything I have at this point?” knowing that “everything” is always relative if you are constantly refining and improving.
It also helps that failure is so public and obvious…athletes have lots of failing role models if they care to look. Learning to fail cleanly, quickly, with grace, while honoring your opponent are some of sport’s more underrated lessons. How is failure treated in your domain? Is it a shameful secret? Is no one “supposed” to fail where you work? Are there regular and accepted processes to recognize failure, support those who made the mistakes, and quickly metabolize that experience into learning?
It’s all about the basics.
A lesson almost every athlete learns is that it’s not the fancy, high-flying moves that separate the good from the great, at least not over time. It’s the unfailing and meticulous attention to basics, be it about repeatedly training the basic (dare I say boring) movements, being on time for every training session, stretching and hydrating appropriately, or regularly cleaning up one’s mess in the locker room.
These unglamorous practices and others like them form the physical and character foundations on which athletes build to new heights of performance. No athlete advances from good to great if their basic practices aren’t rock solid.
What are the performance basics for you in your life? Those non-glamourous daily routines that you know make you better, but sometimes omit. Are you sacrificing sleep and paying the price? Are you skipping exercising or eating for comfort rather than performance? Are you caring consistently for the ones you love? Your basics may well be different from others’. You know them for the boost they give, the feeling that you are being consistent about something you know is important for you and your ability to perform. People who don’t think of themselves as performers will sometimes leave these things to chance or impulse. Performers do not make that mistake. Are you a performer and do you treat yourself accordingly?
Performers intentionally cultivate their minds to be equal to the demands of high performance.
With advances in neuroscience allowing us to better understand the impact and importance of mental training, athletes and coaches are prioritizing these practices. Performance mindsets allow athletes to experience both success and failure lightly, rather than overidentifying with either the big win or the unexpected loss. Great athletes understand and work with their minds to think better and relate more wisely to their emotional experiences. They learn to quickly accept reality as it is even when they don’t like it, and can more effectively focus their attention on what matters. Minds that can resist the pull of strong emotion, discern helpful from unhelpful thoughts, and focus on what’s important in the moment are more ready to match up with the demands of high performance.
Consider that 50 years ago, physical training was novel and looked at with some skepticism but now is accepted practice as a way to promote physical health. We now know that our brain networking is almost infinitely malleable and that we can train the mind to focus better, think more clearly, and be less reactive to circumstance. How are you looking after your mind and brain? Are you ready to start training like the performer you are?