Mental Health

Want to train your brain for success? Think like an athlete

An athlete in starting position on a track

Focusing on your mental outlook can help you perform competitively. Image: Pexels/ nappy

Derin McMains
Author, Quartz
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  • Focusing on our mental outlook can help us perform better in all areas of life, according to a sports professional.
  • The corporate world is a lot like the sports world, in that it requires us to set targets and develop the right mindset to reach our goals, he explains.
  • Here he outlines a mental preparation and readiness routine, based on sports training, designed to help people achieve their potential in any context.

If we want to be high performers, we can borrow ideas from professional sports—and use them to execute better.

People think training your mindset—or focusing on your mental outlook as it can help you perform competitively—is only for sports. Actually, it’s for anyone who wants high performance. With sports, though, we can watch that performance in real time. We see it on the field and on the court. We can see the effort. We can see resilience. We see a team’s ability to communicate effectively and their ability to work together. We see their ability to execute and their desire to win.

But sports can teach people at all organizations how to mentally train, prepare, and execute. I’ve spent 22 years in professional sports, first as a professional baseball player and professional baseball manager, and later a mental conditioning consultant to Major League Baseball players and National Football League players. I’ve built out mental conditioning programs for the San Francisco Giants, the Seattle Mariners, and the University of Notre Dame.

The corporate world is a lot more like the sports world than you’d think. They both have a defined purpose and require employees and players alike to embrace their roles, prepare, and execute on said purpose. At ReliaQuest, my cybersecurity company with often high-stakes incidents to address, we take the connection between sports and business performance seriously (we even sponsor a sports bowl in our local Tampa Bay). And there are plenty of ideas that organizations can borrow from the world of sports to improve the performance and well-being of their own employees.

Create your own scoreboard

With sports, it’s obvious who wins and loses: stats don’t lie, and neither does the scoreboard. In business, sometimes we have to be more intentional to define what clear targets look like. But, once you get that, you can really narrow in and focus on the mindset you need to develop to hit those targets. Promoting accountability then gets easier, as does operating with a sense of urgency. That’s how we “score.” Protecting the ball or a company’s assets is vital. Helping our teammates and protecting the customers that we serve is a huge win, and is a huge motivator for future progress.

On my team, we use mindset moments to take score, be present, and to focus on the task at hand. We do this at the beginning of all team meetings. It’s an opportunity for leadership or anyone for that matter, to set the stage by introducing a mindset principle, telling a personal story, and then asking questions to see how it resonates with others. It’s a time for our teammates to be open and vulnerable if they want, promoting psychological safety and connection, which all great teams have. For us, it’s created a more proactive company environment that’s more conducive to its people.

Develop a mental-prep routine

How do you deal with failure? It’s the nature of the job, right? Rejection shows up a lot. Everything that goes along with the product—from building it to selling it—is a process that can be overwhelming. Having the ability to focus on literally one step at a time, one day at a time is vital. A mental prep and readiness routine can help people feel ready for anything and everything.

In baseball, a game averages 280 pitches thrown—but its outcome is determined by only 8-12 of them. Players have to treat every pitch with the same importance, just like employees need to treat every incident with the same readiness. In our own operations center setting, for example, we encourage employees to develop a mental-prep routine that helps them lock in and treat every ticket that comes through like it’s supreme. Specifically, I help them identify the three steps in this process: get control of yourself, develop a sound plan, and commit to executing.

Build resilience with your support network

When watching sports, a lot of times all we see are the athletes on the field. We don’t see the strength and conditioning coach, the assistant coach that worked with a player before the game, the nutritionist that helped set up the meal plan, or the athletic trainer that helped prepare teammates to play that day. We don’t see the entire team.

Resilience is built from the full support network in sports—and in business. This support gives our people the power to react and respond to achieve the business’s desired outcomes. All organizations need to invest in similar networks that give employees the tools they need to thrive and perform, such as mentorship opportunities, generous benefits, and access to mental health support. A strong mindset that cultivates a strong culture is the winning combination.

Performing like a pro

My work in sports and business led me to realize success is achievable in both with the right growth mindset. It can help individuals and teams overcome obstacles; it can help develop new skills and accept new challenges. It also offers an opportunity to run toward new opportunities and new ways of doing things to achieve maximum performance.

Derin McMains is the director of mental performance at ReliaQuest.


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