You Are What You Think

You Are What You Think

By The Center for Creative Leadership

Want to boost your confidence, mental toughness and resilience? Enhance the performance of your team? CCL's Bill Adams says the mental models used by elite athletes can be used to manage your mind for peak performance at work.

"Your thoughts affect your performance — and the performance of the people around you," says Adams. "Olympic athletes as well as superstars like Michael Jordan, Jack Nicklaus and Sugar Ray Leonard understand this connection well."

A former career military officer, Adams directed the Center for Enhanced Performance at West Point for five years, developing the full potential of more than 4,000 student-athletes and leaders through applied performance psychology training. At CCL, Adams' focus is designing and delivering leadership programs for senior military and government officials.

According to Adams, improving performance begins with the idea that your thoughts — the words that you say inside your head day in and day out — are the cause of your performance, not the result of your performance.

"Let's say early in your career, you flubbed a presentation," says Adams. "You now have a train of thought that says, I get so nervous giving big presentations, it's a weakness, I'm just not good at them."

"These thoughts stir up negative emotions before every big meeting or presentation, including a physical reaction: blood pressure goes up, muscle tension increases, you feel flushed," Adams continues. "Those reactions hamper your performance, and the negative cycle continues."

So how do you stop a negative, self-fulfilling prophecy? You start by replacing the storyline in your mind.

"When you change your thoughts, you turn the self-fulfilling prophecy around. You can actually use the cycle of thoughts-emotions-performance to your advantage," says Adams.

Putting the self-fulfilling prophecy to work for you requires practicing four skills.

  1. Selective perception. Focus on what you do right. Develop a mental filter that allows you take in errors, setbacks or criticism (as well as praise, success and achievements) and then focus on lessons learned. Give your attention to events within your control. Look for the small successes in everything you do. Write a list of your strengths — physical, mental and interpersonal abilities — and build on this list every day.
  2. Controlling self-talk. The narrative in your mind runs at 600 to 800 words per minute. Known as self-talk, this storyline is typically subconscious, evaluative and usually negative. So what can you do about it? Adams says, "Stop. Cope. Take control." When you become aware of negative thoughts — I hate meeting with clients — do something. Snap your fingers, clap your hands, tap your wrist. Next, take a deep breath and let it out slowly. This releases anxiety and stress. Then argue with those negative thoughts and change them to positive: I am well prepared for this client meeting.
  3. Affirmations. Talk to yourself about what you want as if you have already achieved it. Identify a goal you want to achieve or a change you want to make. State it as an affirmation that is personal, powerful, positive, present-tense and precise: I am a marathon runner. I lead the No. 1 sales team. Then write down your affirmation at least 10 times every day.

Adams tells the story of a young woman who trained to compete as a runner. She told herself every day, I am an Olympic athlete. She pushed herself, stayed motivated and ran her personal best at two Olympic qualifying finals. She narrowly missed making the Olympic team. Adams later asked her how she coped with not reaching her goal. She saw that her mental training allowed her to perform at her very best and have the experience of running with some of the best in the world. She then set her sights on another goal: I am an orthopedic surgeon.

  1. Visualization. Picture yourself succeeding. Imagine yourself giving a presentation, solving a problem, negotiating a difficult agreement, gaining recognition or accomplishing your goal. See it, hear it, feel it. "Rehearsing" an important event helps you build technical skills, practice responses to changing circumstances and achieve emotional readiness.

Adams recognizes that trying these four practices may seem awkward or unnatural or silly. "But they work!" he says. "These ideas are not new. We just understand the process better than we did years ago and can boil them down to specific skills that truly improve performance."

Permission granted to republish by the Center for Creative Leadership as released in the “Leading Creatively e-Newsletter July 2011”. http://www.ccl.org/leadership/index.aspx

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