Work Culture

Are you really prepared to work? 4 tips from pro athletes


Published on July 05, 2017

We’ve long used sports metaphors to describe business situations: “they dropped the ball,” “we hit it out of the park,” or a project launch is “down to the wire.” But, unlike sports, where every other team has to lose in order for one to win, the modern business environment is more about innovating and creating better value for customers than it is about crushing the competition. But the world of sports still has a lot to teach us about how to approach the work itself. Elite athletes and sports psychologists stress the importance of mental preparation to making gains in performance—and achieving excellence. As the inimitable Yogi Berra put it, “baseball is ninety percent mental. The other half is physical.” Just as with athletes, all the skill, talent, and drive in the world won’t translate into success without a positive mindset and psychological strategies. The right mental preparation can help you take high-pressure situations in stride, feel more focused and confident, and work more efficiently. So how can you translate the practices that athletes use to greater productivity in your 9-5 life? Here are four expert tips to get your head in the game:

1. Imagine success

Visualization is a powerful tool. So powerful that merely imagining a workout can actually increase muscle strength—though not, sadly, as much as actually going to the gym. That’s why top athletes use visualization to mentally prepare for competition. You can use the same principle—to psych yourself up before a big presentation, perfect your elevator pitch, or achieve a major goal. Psychologists say the key is to use all your senses to create a very real picture: imagine your surroundings in great detail, rehearse your responses to potential client questions, smell the chai latte in your cup, feel your confident-yet-relaxed posture. Visualization is also useful as a daily practice. Take five minutes before you leave the house to imagine a focused, calm, productive day—or whatever represents your own personal vision of success.

2. Create a pre-performance routine

Many successful athletes have pre-game rituals. Serena Williams has to bounce the ball five times before her first serve. Mia Hamm gets anxious unless she ties her shoelaces right over left. And while rituals like these may be more superstition than science, having a daily morning routine can help get you into the zone—and prep your brain to be more focused and productive throughout the day. Many productivity gurus recommend against diving into email or voicemail first thing, because it puts us into a reactive mode, one that focuses on other people’s priorities. Instead, take 10 minutes to plan your day, create a realistic list of goals, and break complex tasks into concrete actions. And, for greater efficiency, tackle the hard stuff first.

3. Connect to what motivates you

Motivation is what keeps athletes—and the rest of us—going in the face of pain, boredom, setbacks, and self-doubt. Sports psychologists distinguish between internal motivation—like pride in a job well done, or the desire to improve—and external motivation, which includes things like praise, recognition, and tangible rewards. The more you know about your own personal motivations, the easier it is to put the hard parts of work into perspective and help you see a dreaded task as just a stepping stone to a larger purpose. Employees who derive meaning and significance from their work are more engaged, more productive, and report 1.7 times higher job satisfaction. So make a list of the positive aspects of your job that link to your personal goals. What new, transferable skills are you learning? What kinds of rewards does it offer? How is your work helping you to achieve your longer-term goals? And if the answers don’t seem satisfactory, you might consider the advice of Steve Jobs. In his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, he said, "For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: 'If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?' And whenever the answer has been 'no' for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something."

4. Add meditation to the mix

Professional athletes might seem like the least likely among us to sit quietly and watch their breath. Yet coaches and players, even whole teams, are getting on board. LA Lakers Assistant coach Chuck Person sums up the benefits of regular meditation for the team: “You feel relaxed, you feel rejuvenated, and you have a rejuvenation period that carries forward onto the court.” While your job likely doesn’t involve shooting hoops, meditation can help you improve focus, boost productivity, and reduce stress. Will these tips garner you the millions that elite athletes command? Probably not. But they can help you to focus on your own career with more intention and purpose—and let you take advantage of the brain science and psychological research that’s helping athletes get to the top of their games.
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