Sports psychology: go for gold

Fierce competition, wining by the smallest margins, achieving goals and
targets, establishing long-term and short-term tactics, hard work, perseverance,
determination, teamwork, dealing with success and recovering from failure, are
all key elements common to both the sport and business environments. But how
much do they actually have in common, and can businesses realistically learn and
apply anything from elite sporting performers?

Underpinning success in both sport and business is the ability to continually
move performance to higher levels – what you achieve this year is never going to
be good enough next year.

Goals and standards move onwards and upwards, resulting in an incessant
demand to find means and methods to ensure the delivery of performance curves
that at times can seem tantalisingly out of reach. These constitute the
essential ingredients of pressure, and achieving sustainable high performance
under pressure requires you to be mentally tough.

Our research shows that the environment is just as important in the business
world as it is in a sporting context. We come from a world where extraordinary
talent, skills and sheer bloody-mindedness are insufficient to deliver high
level performance on a consistent, sustainable basis. If you place an
outstanding performer in an environment that fails to meet their needs then,
over time, that performer will digress towards ordinary status. By creating the
right environment consisting of a clear vision and providing support and
challenge, that person will flourish.

Most of us find that pre-performance pressure creates a negative impact on
performance, with symptoms such as apprehension, doubt, butterflies, and even
nausea. We have all been there. However, elite performers both in sport and
business actually find that pre-performance pressure has a positive impact.

Our research suggests that there are four pillars of mental toughness:

1. Keeping your head under stress, i.e. remaining composed,
focused and objective to the challenge ahead.

2. Staying strong in your self-belief, i.e. not doubting
that you can perform to the expected level.

3. Making your motivation work for you, i.e. making sure
your desire and determination is positive and constructive.

4. Maintaining your focus on the things that matter, i.e.
shutting out the distractions and doubts and concentrating on the job in hand.

It is easy to see how these four pillars make a difference in whichever
environment you operate. However, changing your approach and attitude to improve
your mental toughness isn’t quite so easy. A staged approach to change is key.
This starts with acceptance of the need to change. You then need to explore
various strategies and techniques and see if they make a difference and if you
are comfortable with them. Once identified you need to commit to putting them
into practice.

Finally, you need to accept that mental toughness needs continuous growth to
further develop and fine tune.

Adrian Moorhouse is a former Olympic Gold Medallist and world number one
swimmer and is now managing director of business performance development
consultancy Lane4. Together with co-founder Professor Graham Jones, he is the
author of Developing Mental Toughness: Gold Medal Strategies for Transforming
Your Business Performance, ISBN: 978-1-905862-02-3, £14.99.

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