Category Archives: Sports

How Much Can You (Mentally) Bench? Six Ways to Build Your Mental Toughness with Ron Howard

When discussing the characteristics of successful leaders, one trait is often overlooked. It’s not the need for charisma, confidence, or communication skills, we talking about those incessantly. No, it is the need for mental toughness. Famed filmmaker and actor Ron Howard discussed this undervalued attribute during a recent conversation on the podcast Off Camera with Sam Jones:

I was talking to a friend of mine who’s a Wall Street guy, and he’s always been a bond trader. He said that when he recruits young talent, they have to understand math, but he loves to get men and women who are athletes, highly competitive athletes. And I said, ‘Oh, it’s because you are trying to win, right? It’s kind of a zero sum thing.’ He said, ‘No, they know how to lose. They know how to lose and get back up and go, and go hard. No one reaches that caliber of athletic achievement without losing a helluva lot more than they win. And they learn how to cope with that.’ And I think if we’re doing this type of work and you want to make it your life’s work, you have to have that mental toughness or at least that understanding.

Mental toughness is the ability to respond resiliently to pressures, setbacks, adversities and challenges. It involves remaining emotionally steady and focused while continuing to make rational decisions under pressure. Like Ron Howard’s friend, mental toughness is often associated with athletes. After all, they spend a significant amount time in high-pressure, highly competitive situations, with arenas of onlookers and the objective to achieve a specific goal within a compressed period of time.

This unique atmosphere compels athletes to learn how to conquer fears and evade despondence in their quest for victory. For instance, a recent study examining professional baseball players found that players with greater mental toughness performed better in on-base plus slugging, a key performance metric that reflects a player’s ability to get on base and advance base runners (and is considered among the most predictive metrics of team wins). They also performed better under stress, kept their emotions in check, and were able to bounce back quicker when things did not go well.

Obviously, star athletes must have some innate, natural ability—coordination, physical flexibility, anatomical capacities—just as successful senior executives need to be able to think strategically and relate to people. But the real key to excellence in both sports and business is not the ability to swim fast or do quantitative analyses quickly in your head. Rather, it is [mindset] mental toughness.—Grant Jones, Sports Psychologist and former consultant to Olympic and world champions in seven games

This is not just applicable to the sports world. In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, psychologist Angela Duckworth’s research shows that this skill set is more reliable than cognitive or technical skills when predicting success. If this sounds like an overstatement, consider the results of her study. Focusing on new cadets at West Point military academy, Duckworth examined the student’ high school rank, SAT scores, Leadership Potential Score, Physical Aptitude Exam, and Grit Scale (which measures perseverance and passion for long–term goals). What she found was that while intelligence, strength, and leadership potential were beneficial, those scoring highest on the Grit Scale were 60% more likely to successfully finish the initiation program than their peers.

These results were replicated in a number of other studies:

In the Journal of Managerial Psychology, researchers concluded, “mental toughness can be a significant indicator of potential for level of achievement and managerial position attained.”

A study in the Journal of Management found that leaders exhibiting mental toughness are more successful in obtaining their followers’ trust, respect, and buy-in. They are also more likely to be perceived as influential, while less resilient leaders who appear ambivalent or emotionally-unfulfilled are less likely to be seen as persuasive.

In a nationwide survey conducted by Price Pritchett where CEOs were asked to name the most important traits of their company, the top answers were staying power, can-do attitude, and resilience, all characteristics associated with mental toughness.

And good news! Research has found that mental toughness can be developed. Professional athletes regularly engage in training their psychological readiness. Jason Selk, author of Executive Toughness and director of mental training for the St. Louis Cardinals, coordinates daily “mental workouts” with players, including such practices as controlled breathing, visualizing a personal “highlight reel,” and imagining successes that are going to happen in the next game. You can also consider:

Practice self-control. To be mentally tough, we need to be able to manage our thinking and emotions. This means not allowing the business environment or the opinion of others to control our decision making. To do so, when experiencing pressure, immediately stop, take a few deep breaths, and assess the situation.

Be inner-driven. Mentally strong people harness their internal motivation so they can decide how/why to push themselves. They do not allow negative outside forces to hijack their thoughts and emotions.

Practice flexibility. Do you know why the Caribbean has so many palm trees? Because they bend in a hurricane. Just like the palm tree, success in our dynamic work environment depends on our readiness to adjust quickly. To remain mentally elastic, approach new situations with a creative mind, be aggressively curious, and be open to alternatives.

Seek challenges. You cannot become mentally tougher if you are not inserting yourself into situations that test your intellect, skill set, or ego.

Don’t be an expert. One trap of ambitious professionals is believing they’ve reached “expert status.” Experts fall into a routine; they see things a certain way and stop considering alternatives. Retain your probing, creative mindset and don’t let experience blind you from new possibilities.

Embrace uncertainty. Mental toughness is not synonymous with being all-knowing. But it does mean that we cannot allow ambiguity to cloud our judgment or spur panic. Think through the options and act on them. Avoid knee-jerk responses and keep your sights on the end-goal.

While we may not be able to compete with professional athlete on muscle strength, we are capable of being contenders in mental strength. Don’t let adversity thwart your confidence. Practice resilience so when the next challenge transpires, you can flex those skills and tough it out.

The Business Case for Team-Based Incentives with Atlanta Falcon’s Owner Arthur Blank

You getting Super Bowl fever? As a perpetual supporter of the underdog (unless my Steelers are playing), I’ve been reading about Atlanta Falcon’s owner Arthur Blank. Even if you aren’t into football, you will appreciate that before purchasing the Falcons in 2002, Blank was co-founder of The Home Depot.

It may seem commonplace today, but when it was first introduced The Home Depot revolutionized the home improvement business with its one-stop shopping, warehouse concept. Blank then spent 19 years as its president before becoming CEO and co-chairman.

In learning about Blank, an interview last week exhibits one particularly admirable aspect of his leadership philosophy that gives strong hints as to why he has been as successful as he is. After the Falcons won their spot in the Super Bowl, Blank announced that he is flying all 500 Falcon employees to Houston for the game. When asked, “How big is that bill?” he responded:

It’s not about money. It’s about these associates, who were the ones that support our players, our coaches and our franchise… We are a family of businesses that share a set of values and we want to be able to celebrate this with everybody. All the Falcons associates are going because they’re all a part of what it takes to produce a winning team on the field.

This is motivating to the staff on two fronts. Monetarily, they are each receiving a one-in-a-lifetime experience that is far beyond most people’s budgets—between the flight, a ticket to the game (pricing starts at $3,500 per seat), hotel, and food it could easily cost $8,000 per employee.

More impactful, however, is the message of shared success that Blank is conveying. If the team does well, we all do well. These team-based incentives reinforce a company culture of collaboration and cooperation. As a result, team members are more likely to prioritize the shared goals and values of the organization over their personal agendas.

Not convinced? A 2010 study found that employees receiving team-based incentives are more willing to put extra effort into their tasks because they don’t want to let their teammates down. Armstrong and Ryden’s research found that companies with long-term, team-based incentive pay resulted in significantly lower than average employee turnover. And another study found productivity increases of 9-17% relative to companies with individual incentives.

If team-based incentives sound costly (and you aren’t able to send your team to the Super Bowl), don’t worry. Research shows that team-incentive schemes are 26-29% more cost effective than individual incentives. I’m no economists, but spending less and getting more for your money sounds like a competitive advantage.

As leaders, we need to make shared success a part of our culture. Impart the attitude that “we’re all in this together.” Make it a regular part of your communication and back it up with tangible incentives and rewards. The quicker you start, the quicker you’ll be on your way to your national championship.

The Chicago Cubs, Theo Epstein, and the Rebuilding of a Legendary Franchise

chicago-cubsThe Chicago Cubs are in the World Series. If you aren’t a baseball fan, this may not seem like a big deal, but consider that the team hasn’t won Major League Baseball’s sought-after championship in 108 years. This is the longest championship drought in North American sports history.

Many fans blame the Cubs’ losing streak on being cursed. You can choose from the 1945 curse of the Billy Goat, the 1969 black cat incident, or Steve Bartman’s unfortunate 2003 interference with a critical foul ball. While one of these curses may have led to their problems, we can credit solid leadership (and a league-best regular season record) with getting them out.

In 2012, the Cubs lost 101 games. As part of their rebuilding process, the Cubs’ new president of baseball operations, Theo Epstein, decided it was time to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch. Epstein stressed that while acquiring talent is essential, it is meaningless without a culture based upon a winning attitude.

To establish this new culture, they created the “Cubs’ Way,” a written set of guiding principles that standardize the organization’s philosophy. With it’s three core goals—Be a good neighbor, Preserve historic Wrigley Field, and Win the World Series—the Cubs’ Way applies to everyone, from Epstein to the players, to their minor league scout, to the ticket office attendees, to interns.

The Cubs’ Way really boils down to the people. The players, obviously, but then all the scouts, all the people in the minor leagues, here in the big leagues. It’s more than words on a page. It comes down to how deep we dig to get connected to players, to teach the game the right way, how much we care, how committed we are, how we treat each other in the front office, the coaches, the players, how hard we work.—Theo Epstein

With a new organizational philosophy came new recruitment criteria. In a recent interview, Epstein emphasized one of his prime hiring gauges, knowing how players handle failure. This is key in a game where even the best hitters fail 70% of their time at bat. To find these players, Cubs’ scouts must produce three detailed examples of how prospective players faced adversity on the field and three examples off the field.

In the draft room, we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player. What are their backgrounds, their psyches, their habits, and what makes them tick?— Theo Epstein

Since Epstein’s focus is on the big picture, he needed a Manager who could uphold these values in the bullpen. In 2014, he hired veteran Joe Maddon. While Maddon’s responsibilities include those of the typical manager such as determining team strategy, the lineup, and in-game decisions, he has a few irregular habits that have significantly benefited the team’s on-field performance. After every win, the team holds a 30-minute impromptu dance party in the locker room, which includes a disco ball, lights, and a fog machine. After each loss, players are given 30 minutes to mope. Once the half hour of celebration or sulking passes, it’s time to start preparing for the next game.

Try not to suck.—Joe Maddon

Turning around a floundering organization begins with turning around its culture. Success follows culture; culture never follows success. Like the Cubs, you may have a deep roster of talent, but without properly cultivating its capabilities, you and your team will never reach the championships. Lead the charge to set your version of the Cubs’ Way to get your culture on track. The sooner you start, the better chance you have of avoiding a century-long losing streak.

Is Your Culture at Risk of Extinction? How Sports Can Help Us Remain Current

bull jumpingHave you ever watched a game of bull-leaping? You know, the sporting event where girls (painted white) grip the horns of a bull while trying to catch the boys (painted red) who are acrobatically leaping over the bull. What about the Mexico-based sport ōllamaliztli? It’s similar to racquetball expect it ends with a player being sacrificed on the temple’s altar.

These sports amongst hundreds of others no longer exist. In Minoan Crete and Aztecan Mexico, respectively, they were a cornerstone of their culture, but an inability to remain current expunged them to the point where today historians are only scarcely aware of their existence and no one has the knowledge necessary to accurately reenact the game.

While there is no need to long for the days of ritualistically executing athletes, it is worth considering how we can learn from these all-but-forgotten sports to ensure that our organizations and well-constructed cultures avoid disappearing into obscurity.

The Olympics is one of the few internationally embraced sporting events. People like to taut its long, illustrious history, but besides the name and four year frequency, it bares little resemblance to its Greek origins. Until it was revived in the 1890s, the Olympics had not been held for 1,500 years. Once resumed, the Olympic committee discarded a few of the more archaic rules. They invited the whole world to participate (versus just the Greeks), women were welcome (versus holding their own event), athletes wore clothes (versus competing naked), races were now timed (versus just marking the winner), and they standardized the distances of races (versus changing topographies and venues).

Those in charge of the Olympics did not just modernize it by a millennium; they set a precedent where events can change or be discarded. At one time, Tug of War was a major draw. There has also been swimming obstacle races, solo synchronized swimming, and ski ballet.

pirates moundThe Olympics are not the only ones updating their regimes. Before every season, Major League Baseball rolls out new regulations. This year they set a time limit on how long the manager and pitcher can gather at the mound during a game and limited breaks between innings to 2½ minutes.

The National Football League also initiates annual updates, sometimes by choice and other times due to public shaming. For instance, in the midst of a public relations nightmare, they instituted additional precautions to protect the physical health of their players. Independent certified athletic trainers have been designated to notify game officials to stop the game if a player exhibits signs of disorientation and have that player evaluated by the medical staff.

The athletics of yesteryear show us what can happen when we don’t remain current. Until they vanished, these sports were played for hundreds of years. They were heavily entwined with religious rituals and were at the core of their society. In their heyday, no one could have ever suspected that they would no longer exist. Your culture is just as susceptible.

How many companies dominated their industry and are now disregarded? Remember Pan Am Airlines? Tower Records? Circuit City? Blockbuster Video? Like the extinct sports, these companies were going to be around forever…until they weren’t.

Take a page from the Olympics, don’t be afraid to discard practices that are no longer anticipated. Learn from Major League Baseball, adapt to meet the changing needs of your customers and staff. And follow the National Football League, be mindful of changes in social moray so your culture remains current. The other option is to dig in your heels, but that will just make you yesterday’s Fox Tosser (a 17th century competition to see who could through a fox the highest).

Weekender: Michael Phelps on Achieving Greatness

michael phelpsWelcome to another edition of leadersayswhat’s the Weekender, a wading pool of inspiration to start your weekend on the right track. Why just a wading pool (versus a Olympics-compliant lap pool)? Because it’s the weekend!

With everyone in the midst of Olympic fever, I am always inspired by the athlete’s stories of overcoming obstacles to attain greatness. Some had rough childhoods or family situations, while others had to overcome themself. I recently read about Michael Phelps and all he’s experienced in the last few years.

After becoming the most decorated Olympian in history after the 2012 games, Phelps’ personal life began to unravel. After another DUI and successfully completing rehab, Phelps had a new sense of clarity and maturity. In an interview with his agent and friend Peter Carlisle, Phelps was quoted as saying, “I’ve never really given it everything I have.” 22 Olympic medals and he didn’t feel like he had been fully dedicated.

Phelps isn’t the only one to experience this. Lenny Krayzelburg, who won four Olympic medals and roomed with Phelps at the 2004 Games, says, “Sometimes you look back on your career and say, “Did I ever swim my best race? Did I ever really maximize myself?”

This epiphany led Phelps to attempt one more Olympics, Rio 2016. Instead of “slacking” like he had in the past, Phelps committed to an intense preparation schedule where he did not miss a single practice. He also vowed not to drink alcohol until the Games were finished.

Haven’t had a single sip and will not have a sip. My body fat has dropped significantly, and I’m leaner than I’ve ever been. The performances were there because I worked, recovered, slept and took care of myself more than I ever had.

If you want to go from good to great (or in Phelps’ case, great to greater), consider what’s holding you back from reaching your potential. You then need to stop it, mitigate it, or learn how to work with it. Either way, retain the insight to see the issues and the discipline to remain vigilant against it’s negative influence.