5 lessons in resiliency from top athletes

It’s a rainy Sunday afternoon and as I watch the French Open I’m thinking about what it takes to be an athlete at the very top of the game. It strikes me that the most critical factor must be resiliency. When your opponent is pummelling you, what keeps you going? Resiliency. When you’ve injured yourself, but you keep training? Resiliency. When you triple bogey the 17th hole only to come back and birdie the 18th? Resiliency.

Similarly, resiliency is a critical factor in business. Mistakes happen, projects go badly, economic factors challenge us and it is the resilient that survive and thrive.

So how do top performers stay cool under pressure? Here are 5 things we can learn from the world of athletics:

  1. Take a break. As I write, I’m watching Roger Federer miss a backhand winner right down the line by Gael Monfils. Federer asked for a moment to change his racquet. Did he really need a new racquet? I suspect rather he needed a mental break. It was only a moment but he came back with a renewed focus. This can work well in the office too. When feeling stressed or unfocused, take a break. Go for a walk, have a friendly chat with a colleague or even doodle for a minute. Anything that gets your mind off the current problem momentarily can help get your focus back and keep you moving in the right direction.

  2. Take one step at a time. The Irish golfer Padraig Harrington once said in regards to match play: “If you’re down, your goal is to win the hole. Get one hole, then the next”. This works in business too. Thinking all the way to the end of a difficult initiative can be too overwhelming. Instead focus on the very next step. This doesn’t mean you don’t plan ahead. You just don’t need to focus on the full plan all at once. Write it down, then get it out of your head and think in only bite-size chunks.

  3. Visualize your success. My high school basketball coach, Mr. Parker, was the first to teach me visualization. When I was having trouble with free throws he stood beside me and said “picture the ball as it leaves your hands, picture the arc as it floats to the basket, hear the sound of the swoosh as it sinks in the net without even a brush of the rim”. It was magic! I took Mr. Parker’s words into business with me. When stressed or feeling a lapse of confidence, I would close my eyes and visualize what success would look like. This would often open my mind to potential solutions and bring back my confidence. Try it!

  4. Check your perspective. Those that perform at a high level, whether in sports or business are usually their own worst critics. When an athlete has a bad day/game/hole they work at putting it in the proper perspective. Watch Tiger Woods when he is interviewed after a disappointing round. His analysis is clinical. He knows what went wrong and why and he’s not emotional about it. He doesn’t let it discount all the outstanding rounds of the past. No doubt, he and his coach also discuss, put in perspective and get back to work on training for the next tournament. Next time you feel like you haven’t performed at your best, take the Tiger Woods approach – analyze, discuss, learn and move on with your confidence intact.

  5. Ask for help. Great athletes know when they need help. Asking for help whether from a manager, a colleague or a coach (athletic or business) is a sign of strength.

The next time you are struggling with a setback, channel your inner Federer/Williams, Woods/Sorenstam (or the athlete you admire most) and try their methods to boost your resilience and get you back on track.

French Open update – the Federer/Monfils match was delayed Sunday due to “fading light”. After an overnight break, Federer went on to handily take the last two sets and move on to the quarterfinals. Resiliency!

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