– how business leaders can harness the mental approach used by Olympians to transform their own (and their organisation’s) performance

The British Olympic and Para Olympic team certainly punched above their weight at the Rio Olympics. To see a small island like ours ranked second in the world in the medal tables justifiably filled us all with pride. There were also several moments in the games where individual performances shone through, transcending the hours of practice and training that all professional athletes do by rote. It became apparent that being an Olympian, producing your best performance, breaking records and winning medals isn’t only about putting in the hours – or, as Adam Peaty the gold medal winning swimmer described, getting out of bed in the cold every morning and training.

As a leadership coach for nearly 30 years I have seen that, more than anything, outstanding performance is a function of our state of mind. Which begs the question, “What is the key to our mental state?” In other words, how can we alter our mental state to optimise performance?

Conquering adversity

Olympic 10,000 metre gold medallist Mo Farah was accidentally tripped by friend and competitor Galen Rupp in the early stages of the race in Rio. It could have had a devastating effect on the defence of his Olympic title. However, he got back to his feet and went on to win the race, later describing his fall as “emotional”. This somewhat bare description gives us a clue to Farah’s mental processing, something perhaps, we can all learn from. To be a successful leader, whether as a parent, teacher, leading a business or wherever one finds oneself leading, the important question that we each need to answer is, “How can I manage my emotions?” Creating an Olympic mindset – how business leaders can harness the mental approach used by Olympians to transform their own (and their organisation’s) performance 1

Emotion, or ‘affect’ as psychologists call it, is caused by complex chemical changes in our brains over which we may have little or no conscious control. The effects of these changes are felt in our bodies. Meeting with a leopard on a jungle path causes a practically instantaneous ‘fight or flight’ response, putting the body into a state of arousal that has stood the human race in good stead. It is not a ‘learned’ response, but programmed into our genes to ensure survival. What is less well known is that the physical feelings we experience are subsequently contextualised into the linguistic categories of emotion. “I have these feelings. There is a leopard. What I am feeling must be fear” or “I have these feelings. I’m about to go on a fair ground ride. What I am feeling must be excitement.”

In fact, the physical level of bodily arousal for both fear and excitement are practically identical. The context in which we feel the arousal gives rise to categorisation. What is interesting in Farah’s account is his refusal to categorise his feelings in a negative way. This enables him to use the emotion positively – to do what he always does so well. He doesn’t blame, he doesn’t feel anger or despondence. He remains calm and focussed. He runs. He wins.

In another Olympic moment, Jason Kenny, gold medal cyclist, remains calm and seemingly unaffected as he waits to hear if he is to be disqualified. As spectators, we waited with our hearts in our mouths, yet as the minutes ticked by, the calmest man in the arena was Jason Kenny. He had taught himself to stay relaxed and focused and it was this – not just the endless hours of training he had put in beforehand – that helped him win the gold medal. Every athlete spends years training hard to reach their peak physical condition, the crucial difference for Jason Kenny, as for Mo Farah, was their state of mind.

In his article ‘Level Five Leadership, The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve’, Jim Collins the Stanford business professor, describes someone he refers to as a Level 5 leader. This person is endowed with two very unusual characteristics; humility, and the fierce desire to win. In almost every case I saw this characteristic in the outstanding performances of our amazing athletes. I could see it most clearly in the medal winners as we listened to them speak.

Remaining calm and focused

Emotions like anxiety, fear, excitement, can at times be totally overwhelming. How then, when our emotions bubble to the surface, can we find a way to remain calm and focused? When you are a leader of 200, 1,000 or 100,000 people, how do you keep yourself and an organisation in an Olympian state of mind?

It is possible to create an organisational or divisional state of mind. It is not easy, but the key is in managing our emotions and staying focused.

We have much to learn from the eastern philosophies and Jewish mysticism. Mindfulness, for example, is a technique derived from Zen-Buddhist philosophy that has recently become scientifically validated as a useful tool for managing emotion, helping control chronic pain, assist in treating depression, anxiety and a number of other physical and psychological conditions. Mindfulness is about ‘being in the moment’, noticing what is happening in our bodies without labelling or categorising those feelings. We can validate what we feel, without ascribing negative connotations to those feelings and thus develop more effective coping strategies.

The Kabbalah, an ancient Jewish tradition of mystical interpretation, describes an inner, hidden opponent in life. This opponent is called Sutan – later changed into Satan. In Kabbalah Sutan is not a bad or evil force, although it may well, at times, feel as if it is. Sutan is simply the force of the opponent in our lives, inserted into the very fabric of life, to test and challenge us, to become the best version of ourselves that we can be.

Playing the Inner and Outer game

W. Timothy Gallwey, author of the ‘Inner Game of Tennis’, describes something very similar. There is an Inner and Outer game we must learn to manage. The Inner Game we first discover when we notice that there is an opponent inside our heads who can be more formidable than the one across the net. This opponent is made up of self-doubt and anxiety, causing us to question ourselves, our abilities, and our purpose in life. Learning how to manage our Inner Game is the most important lesson we can ever learn. It separates our Olympians certainly, but the gift it brings to each of us in this fast moving, and often uncertain world, is arguably even greater; this ability to learn to develop Relaxed Focus in the midst of chaos. Can we teach business leaders to use these techniques? Yes!

Coaching is amazingly powerful in helping to change the internal state from a problem state to a solution state. Coaches do this through listening deeply and asking questions that help their clients to shift focus and discover that there are options, which they can choose. Learning techniques like Mindfulness to achieve the calm, focussed attention seen in our Olympic champions can be hugely helpful. Mindfulness can work for everyone.

Being in the moment

Veteran actor and trainer Bathsheba Garnett, who regularly runs training sessions in London at the Actors Centre, worked as an assistant to the legendary Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, New York, and worked with many Hollywood greats. She has had amazing results teaching an acting system she developed during that time. She calls it ‘Simplicity’. It’s all about ‘being in the moment’. Instead of getting performers to use the traditional ‘method acting’ techniques of emotion memory, she encourages her trainees to focus their attention on what is actually happening on stage. What is being said to you, how that makes you feel. What happens is truthful, focussed performances that are mind-blowing in their honesty and power.

There is much we can learn every time we see great performances, whether on stage, in sport or in business. It shows us what is possible. It reminds us of our own inherent, considerable potential. The amazing performances of all the athletes at the games can inspire us all. The greatest motivation for me is in recognising that we can all become Olympian in our daily mindset and attitude. That each and every day we have an opportunity to resist the debilitating sense of being overwhelmed and instead learn to turn and face our inner opponent and discover new techniques and skills that enable us to choose ways to respond differently.

These are not simply theoretical concepts. The opportunity to choose better responses than our initial, emotional response comes into play day in, day out throughout our lives. Recently, whilst on holiday in Spain, my wife was rushed into hospital with a severe gallstone induced pancreatitis. She spent five days in intensive care and two further weeks in hospital before being repatriated back to the UK. Thankfully she came through and is now gaining strength and recovering well.

But I was told at the time that pancreatitis can be fatal and my wife’s condition was very severe. Imagine the level of emotions churning around inside of me at that time. It was a moment to moment challenge to stay focused, and not to allow my emotions to overwhelm me. I saw that it was indeed an opportunity to grow – if I could just stay calm and remain focussed.

It reminded me that we all have the potential of playing and winning the ‘Inner Game’ and transforming our own whirlwind of emotional chaos into an ocean of calm, Relaxed Focus