Sports Psychology and What It Can Teach Us in Business
Have you ever wondered how Olympic athletes, tech entrepreneurs and professional musicians perform under high stress environments and not only perform, but flourish and excel? Have you ever prepared for a presentation or a difficult conversation where at the critical moment, you couldn’t find the right words? High performance psychology is the training of mental skills that allows us to excel in any environment where stakes are high and mistakes are costly.
In their 2014 Super Bowl football win, Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and sports psychologist Dr. Michael Gervais credited the mental game as key to their success1. High performance psychology is the training of mental skills that allows athletes to perform at their best, despite pressure and noise of the crowd. It includes understanding who you are, how you understand others and then how you maintain calmness and conviction in every environment.
For me, in a noisy and changing world, I needed something that would help me and others thrive, and even enjoy things, under any condition. Mental skills have helped me and my teams persevere in the toughest moments and the great thing is, anyone can develop this. Here’s what worked for me.
What you stand for and how you articulate it
The first step in Seattle Seahawks training1 is to say, in 25 words or less, what drives you and what sits under how you think, how you feel about things and then what you do. It is getting to the heart of how you understand yourself, and others and the reasons why you do things.
For me, it is to “Dare Greatly” inspired by a speech in 1910, Sorbonne, Paris by Theodore Roosevelt2. It is swinging for the fences and giving it your all whether you succeed or fail. As he would say, it’s not the critic that counts, that points out how the person stumbles or what she should or could have done. It’s the person in the arena whose face is marred by dust and sweat and at best succeeds, and at worst, if she fails, she fails while daring greatly. This has carried me through how I approach things despite risk of setbacks or pressure.
Being an Asian female leader has been an incredible journey both in understanding myself and how I’m perceived by others. Numerous scientific studies still show multiple standards for women and the identical assertive leadership behaviors demonstrated by male counterparts are judged differently in women, even more so for minorities. While this can feel like a tightrope, I’m not discouraged by it. This is because I know that I, and the others around me, need to be part of the change that allows women to be their powerful and authentic selves. Understanding who I am, when faced with the pressure of other people’s perceptions, allows me to trust myself because I am clear on what I stand for, and this allows me to help others around me.
Keep going because it’s going to work out
Inevitably, when you swing for the fences, there are times when things aren’t going to go your way. How do you, and athletes maintain confidence after losses, to face their next game with the same calm and conviction? At the heart of it is optimism, the belief that things are going to work out and you have the ability to impact the outcome – every time.
On what optimism means, Dr. Gervais says, “this isn’t about putting an airy-fairy positive spin on things but it’s the idea that we’re going to play one play at a time, and we’re going to capture our collective best at each play. Even when things aren’t going according to plan, we are going to stay with it1.”
For me, this core belief that we can change what happens next is critical. This allows me and lets me help others to reach further and to stay with it, even when it’s hard. For the Seattle Seahawks1, training the mind to be calm and confident under every condition is no different than training the body. For them, it’s practice and understanding certain ways of thinking and the good news is, anyone can learn it.
“If you own your story, you get to write the ending” Dr. Brene Brown3
The challenge is that in life, there is no score or clock to tell you you’ve won or finished the race. I once read an interesting story about Surya Bonaly, a trail-blazing French figure skater as one of the most athletic competitors in a sport that can be subjective and style and artistry can be in the eye of the beholder. She was a pioneer that carved her own path, strived for her ultimate best, made mistakes, experienced failure and kept on persevering.
“You don’t have to win a medal to make your life different,” Bonaly says. “We are all humans, we all have different styles.” Whether it’s as an athlete or as a leader, we can’t always change or control what happens around us, but we can change how we respond and we can change the impact we make. Whether you win or lose, have set backs, have moments of courage and moments of fear, this is your story and you own what happens next, and because of that, you have the power to write the ending.
1. Based on the book Compete to Create, by Dr. Michael Gervais with Pete Carroll
2. Based on Theodore Roosevelt’s speech on April 23, 1910 in Sorbonne Paris
3. Quote from Dr. Brene Brown, a researcher and leadership consultant to Pixar, Google and U.S. Special Forces
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
is the Head of Digital Commerce at TD Merchant Solutions which offers leading point-of-sale and online payment solutions for businesses. She is on Women in Payment’s Global Community Council and is a past recipient of Money 20/20 Rise Up leadership program. TD Merchant Solutions is part of TD Bank Group, a top 10 North American bank that has over 80,000 employees worldwide. TD was named one of Canada’s Top Employers in 2021 and one of Canada’s Best Diversity Employers in 2020.