Tactics for Peak Performance
This is an article written to introduce the idea of applying Tactics for Peak Performance used by elite athletes to the broader area of life experience – such as the business playing field.
“For they can conquer who believe they can.” – Virgil, Roman poet, (70–19 BC)
You need to be at the top of your game – perhaps for an important board presentation, or pitching a potential new client or completing a critical assignment. You want to be at your best and operate at the absolute pinnacle of your abilities. Are there tactics to ensure that you achieve your peak performance for these critical moments and events?
The experiences of athletes and their training techniques to achieve peak performance offer intriguing possibilities. Sports psychologists are important contributors to an athlete’s training and their mental preparation techniques – the intellectual, psychological and emotional preparation – is central to an athlete’s success.
Can the mental preparation techniques honed in the sports arena be applied to the business playing field?
Martin Hagger, professor of psychology at Australia’s Curtin University, thinks so. He is the author of Inside the Mind of a Winner , where he lays out the factors that are linked to success for athletes and that can be applied to many dimensions of life, including business achievement. What are those factors?
First, you have to be Motivated. There is something you want, something you desire – clearly, deeply want to achieve, acquire or accomplish and not something you are indifferent to or think ‘if it happens it would be nice’. You need to want it and then every other success factor builds from this powerful catalyst.
Secondly, Hagger says you have to have Confidence in yourself. This includes the confidence that you have the abilities to succeed, and the confidence that your training and preparation will propel you to accomplish your goal. Self-doubt is the fire extinguisher and much of the mental training is directed towards eliminating that defeating belief. You can if you believe you can.
Thirdly, you need Performance Knowledge, meaning the knowledge of what is required for success. You must know how to identify and measure the metrics which signify success – for both the incremental baby steps and the end objective.
The fourth factor is the use of well-drilled techniques to Prepare for the event – in particular imagery or visualization, self-talk, and relaxation. These techniques are designed to reinforce the previous factors of Motivation, Confidence and Performance Knowledge.
Finally, Hagger notes that you have to Manage Pressure and anxiety, which can rear up when approaching or even considering the important moment or event. Meditation, stretching, breathing exercises, listening to music and walks in nature are often helpful to offer respite from pre-performance angst.
From the Track to the Boardroom
All of these factors can be as easily applied to preparing for a 100-metre sprint as they can for a strategy presentation to the board of directors. Consider that situation.
You’re Motivated to demonstrate your competence to the board, reinforce their faith in your abilities, and convince them of a course of action which you deep-down believe is vital to the organization. There may career and financial rewards which arise from your successful presentation as well as personal and professional satisfaction. Your strong motivation is a commitment to achieving excellence.
You’re Confident. Numbers come easily to you and numbers are the language of performance measurement, the meat of the board’s preoccupation. Some work is involved and you sketch out what is required (preparation) – for example, quarterly financials, financial projections, perhaps some basic SWOT analysis related to opportunities, equity and debt financing options, consideration of qualitative implications related to branding, market positioning, customer satisfaction, information technology or human resource challenges. All of these metrics are your bread and butter – you are confident.
You’ve assembled materials for distribution, created a PowerPoint presentation, consulted with your collaborators and outside experts – and now is the time to rehearse (training).
You understand the Performance Knowledge factors to achieve success. Perhaps it’s the acceptance of your recommendation, your ability to answer any questions to their satisfaction, or the simple but powerful acknowledgement of a presentation well done from those gathered.
These factors are relatively easy for you to implement – at least on paper. So how do you ensure you excel in prime time? This is where the techniques of visualization, self-talk and relaxation – the athlete’s tools – come in to play.
Visualization as a technique has been around for some time and Dr. Maxwell Maltz was an early pioneer. A plastic surgeon, he pursued a means of helping his patients set the goal of a positive outcome through visualization of that positive outcome. In his 1960 book, The New Psycho-cybernetics, he specified techniques to develop a positive inner goal as a means of developing a positive outer goal. This concentration on inner attitudes is essential to his approach, as he concluded that a person’s outer success can never rise above the one visualized internally.
Many of the psychological methods of training elite athletes were based on the concepts in Psycho-Cybernetics. He cites a study where three groups of basketball players worked on improving their free throws. One group practised for 20 minutes for 20 days, one group didn’t practise at all during the period and a third group simply visualized free throws for the same duration as the first. The results indicate that those who visualized free throws improved almost as much those who actually practised.
Imagery of shooting
The University of Ottawa’s Terry Orlick, PhD, Founder of the Zone of Excellence, has helped many athletes achieve their pinnacle of performance.
In his book PSYCHED: Inner Views of Winning, he and co-author John Partington document the inner stories of some of Canada’s greatest athletes to give insight into their mental approaches.
Steve Podborski, the 1982 world cup downhill champion in alpine skiing, recounts his training for the 1984 Olympics:
“Another thing that is very important, that gets you to the point where you are one of the elite, is the ability to actually visualize not only the way it looks when you are going down, but how it feels. The ability to feel the muscle tension that you actually go through when you make the turns, and to experience what attitude your body is in is really important.
“I feel what things will feel like and see everything run through in my head. I have a moving picture with feelings and sensations. When I’m doing these mental runs, I’ll do the run and if I make a mistake, I’ll stop the picture and back it up. Then I run it through and usually get it right the second time. I run through the entire course like that.”
As Podborski recounts, visualization is more than just seeing but incorporates sensations and feelings. The emotional sensations are powerful and an important element of the process.
The process of visualization is to ‘see’ in your mind’s eye the event unfolding and the results you desire before you actually physically do it. Get comfortable and relaxed – either sitting in a chair or on the floor, hands laying in your lap and eyes closed.
Picture the event, like a movie, playing out as you wish. Focus is important as you are absorbed in the process – seeing, hearing, touching and feeling as if the visualization were real. Experience the joy and happiness as the results desired are achieved.
Create your ‘movie’ for your Board presentation with this process in mind. Focus on the big picture where you are the lead actor and on the details – like smiles on faces, the warmth of a handshake, the confident and clear tone of your voice, your posture and movement as you speak, the nods of approval, and words from Board members congratulating you. Feel the joy of success. Repetition gets the movie locked in so set aside time each day to perform your visualization.
Dr. Maltz famously concluded that “our self-image, strongly held, essentially determines what we become.” Self-talk is the internal dialogue – that inner voice which reflects our self-image at any time in any circumstance. Since confidence is one of our success factors, our self-talk should use words to fortify our self-confidence. When doubt and negativity creeps into that inner dialogue, it weakens us and reduces our likelihood of success.
Positive reinforcement is the armour against self-sabotage. Build your self-image with statements like ‘I have the skills and abilities to be successful’, ‘I am an excellent communicator’, ‘My board presentation will be smooth, effective, and wonderfully appreciated’, and ‘I am confident in my financial skills, knowledge and wisdom’. These positive reinforcements are referred to as affirmations and you should create your own playlist. Play it often and counter any negative thoughts or dialogue which creeps in with your personal positive affirmations.
One of the earliest uses of affirmations was by French psychologist Dr. Emile Coué (1857-1926) who created the saying “Day by day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” He advised his patients to say this as often as 20 times a day but especially at the beginning and the end of the day. Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway human transporter, begins his day with the statement “Today I am going to make the world a better place.”
Harvard Psychologist Ellen Langer showed just how powerful our self-beliefs are with a series of studies in the early 1980s. Her most famous study is the 1981 Counter-clockwise study where she took two groups of men, in their 70s, to a monastery transformed back in time to 1959. The décor was 1950s, the magazines and newspapers were from 1959, the television was black and white and played programs from the 50s, as did the radio.
The first group was instructed to pretend they were young men again, living in 1959. The second group, brought at a later date, were told to stay in the present period and simply reminisce about that era.
Before and after the experiment, both groups of men took a battery of cognitive and physical tests, and after just one week, there were dramatic positive changes across the board – they had age regressed. While both groups changed positively, the group which pretended and believed that they were actually younger men living in 1959 showed greater improvement.
Her conclusion from this and her other related studies – “It is our mindset about our own limits, our perceptions, that draws the lines in the sand.”
Managing Anxiety – Meditation for Relaxation
Most of us have experienced anxiety – the sudden heart palpitation, the sweaty hands, nervousness, and a dose of self-doubt. For athletes before a race or for financial executives about to begin a presentation to a board, anxiety could sabotage months or years of effort and preparation.
Stretching and breathing exercises and meditation and connecting with nature have been mentioned as tactics to deal with this condition, and they are all effective – but meditation has steamrolled into the business community. Stories and anecdotes abound of prominent business leaders swearing by it.
In a study conducted by Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs entitled Leadership Agility, they found that half of the top leaders were committed to meditation as a regular practice to assist with their attention and focus. These top leaders “cultivate the ‘power of presence,’ a subtle form of power and agility that comes from being centered in the present moment.”
They added “Even in the early months of meditation practice, bringing increased attention to challenging circumstances can help you develop the mental and emotional capacities you need for increased leadership agility.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn is the creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. A leader in the Mindfulness Meditation movement, he describes it in his book Mindfulness for Beginners as – “Mindfulness is awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way in the present moment and non-judgmentally. Rather than ruminating on the past and worrying about the future, mindfulness is paying strict attention to what is happening right now. ”
Meditation is not unlike the visualization method but instead of making your movie with conscious intention, you allow your mind to relax and simply be. Kabat-Zinn says “Society is suffering from attention-deficit hyper-activity disorder. It’s all about doing. Mindfulness meditation is about silence, stillness and self-reflection. No doing – but being. ”
Similar to visualization, to engage in mindfulness meditation you get comfortable and relaxed, sit in a chair or on the floor, relax your hands on your lap and close your eyes.
Then, Kabat-Zinn advises us to “hold this moment in awareness. Senses are still working. Feel yourself breathing without intentionally affecting the breath – let the body breathe itself. Feel the breath. Ride the waves of the breathing.
Whenever your mind wanders from your breath, let your awareness take note of what is on your mind. Reconnect with the breath – no judging. The breath is a means of connecting with awareness.
The mind is so unruly and wanting to be entertained. Meditation is simple but difficult to execute. Practise.”
The result of this intention-absent, non-judgemental mindset, with a focus on breathing is a relaxation and calming sensation which dissipates anxiety.
You Can Because You Believe You Can
Will these tactics of visualization, self-talk and anxiety management help you achieve success for a dearly-held goal? You already possess all the equipment you need – your mind. Each one of these tactics springs from your powerful mind – the ability to use your mind’s eye to see success, to think positive thoughts and engage in self-affirming internal dialogue, and calm the self with meditation.
You want it. You know how to do it. You know you can do it. You will be successful.