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Mental Skills Every Business Leader Can Learn From Athletes

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When I went before the New Agents Review Board, my instructors expressed concern that I was not athletic enough to become an FBI agent. I stood a strong chance of being washed out of the FBI Academy.

My first response was, “How are 50 pushups going to help me be a better investigator?” Agents don’t use their physical muscles to puzzle their way through the facts of an investigation. Instead, they use their mental skills.

Only later was I able to recognize that while brawn would not make me a better agent, my athletic training was creating a set of mental skills that I would utilize throughout my 24 year FBI career.

As entrepreneurs and business owners, you will need these same mental skills to keep moving forward when you hit a roadblock or an unexpected obstacle stands in your way.

In a recent study of athletes who successfully completed sport injury rehabilitation, it was determined that the top 3 mental skills reported were Goal Setting, Positive Thinking, and Imagery.

I was not surprised by this list because these mental toughness tools can produce the right attitude to move everyone toward success. Here is a closer look at the mental skills every business leader can learn from athletes:

1. Goal Setting

Setting a goal is not only identifying something you want, but also something you are willing to persevere in order to achieve. 

Setting a specific goal makes you more likely to achieve it, and that is especially important when you want to make a change in your career or business, or if you run into an obstacle on your journey toward that goal. 

Tip #1 Set Goals For The Right Reason

Stop fantasizing about winning the lottery or making $10 million. Instead, set goals that align themselves to what really matters to your happiness and future well being.

Tip #2 Set A Direction

Set your life in a direction so that the pursuit of it will produce the life you want. If the journey is the right one, don’t worry if goals change or evolve with time.

Tip #3 Change The Goal If It’s Not Taking You In The Right Direction

Use mental skills to focus on the right thing—the direction you are moving. Don’t make the mistake of getting married to your goal.

2. Positive Thinking

There is a big difference between being an optimist and being a positive thinker.

Positive thinkers are not necessarily happy or optimistic.

Instead, positive thinkers are blunt realists who look misery right in the eye and confront the most brutal facts of their day without expecting things to change. They adapt to their circumstances without ever losing hope.

Positive thinking is a mental skill that will help get you through any setback that comes your way.

Tip #1 Find 5 Positive Thoughts To Counter Each Negative Thought

The brain is naturally wired to pay more attention to negative rather than positive information because negative alerts us to emergencies and threats to our life.

When confronted with something that feels overwhelming, you will need to find 5 positive thoughts to counter each one negative thought that comes to mind. Sometimes it’s hard to find something positive in your situation and you have to look really hard.

Tip # 2. Reflect On Each Positive Thought For 20 Seconds

Take the time to really think about each positive thought. Let it soak in, don’t gloss over it. 

Negative thoughts are like velcro; they stick.

Positive thoughts are like teflon; they slide away easily.

Tip #3 Stop Using The Word “Can’t”

This is the only 4 letter word I never heard in the FBI.

Every time you say “I CAN’T” you create a negative feedback loop in your brain that keeps getting stronger and stronger. Synaptic connections thicken the brain tissues over time, wiring in that negativity. 

3. Imagery

The benefits of using imagery and visualization is an incredible tool to develop mental toughness. This mental skill is based on solid science. By visualizing your successful performance repeatedly, your brain stores that information as a success.

Tip #1: Visualize Your Success

When we give our brain a detailed portrait of our end goal, our brain releases dopamine, a powerful mental toughness tool to steer us toward success. This is the chemical that becomes active when we encounter situations that are linked to rewards from the past.

Dopamine enables us to feel good about our experiences and gives us confidence to move toward those rewards. To boost this brain response:

  • Imagine how events will unfold. 
  • See yourself winning or achieving your goal. 
  • Hear yourself being positive about the challenge before you. 
  • Form a clear mental picture and do it several times a day. 
  • Create a positive frame of mind. 
  • Find images that represent your goal and post them where you’ll see them regularly.
     

If you don’t see yourself as a winner, neither will anyone else.

Tip #2: Differentiate Between Visioning and Fantasy

Visualizing is not fantasy or wishful thinking. Fantasies can actually lessen your chance for success. Your brain can tell the difference, and looks at fantasies as a threat!

If people fantasize about their future, they are less prepared and more stressed when things don’t workout they way they had hoped.

Tip #3: Move Ahead With Fearlessness

Use imagery and visualize how you will succeed in various situations you might encounter in the future. For example:

  • Visualize how you will react and respond when criticized by a colleague
  • Predict your performance in the morning meeting
  • Be prepared for the hard questions that will come from your boss.
  • Rehearse your response to situations/conversations that might come up.
     

This is enough to get that important shot of dopamine. It can help take you beyond your self-limiting beliefs about yourself and move you beyond your current circumstances.

Which one of these mental toughness tools have you used to keep moving forward?

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