Meeting rooms, emails and memos are rife with a mix of metaphors that compare business situations with sports scenarios. That last-ditch effort to win a new contract was a real Hail Mary. The unlucky team that struck out will review what happened to see how they dropped the ball, while the winning team knocked it out of the park with a slam-dunk presentation.
Business leaders, teams and individuals readily identify with their counterparts in the sports world who compete for individual accomplishment and for team victory, which explains why companies so often take a page from the playbook. Drawing on sports scenarios reflects the fact that mental stresses relevant in the sports world are present in business settings, too. Motivation, confidence, focus, ego and teamwork are all concepts that apply as much to business professionals as they do to athletes.
In recent years, companies have begun to wholeheartedly embrace the concept of performance psychology, a developing field with direct ties to mental coaching and support in sports. Like athletes, top performers in all professions and at all levels of business need to demonstrate assertiveness, leadership ability, quick decision-making skills, sound judgment and the willingness to take risks, all of which are mental capabilities, not physical skills.
If performance psychology really can confer a competitive advantage, why is it just now gaining acceptance? It may be because programs related to mental wellness and performance have been difficult to quantify objectively, compared to other workplace enhancements that can be easily measured. You might be able to readily build a business case for a new phone system by demonstrating how its features would reduce on-hold time for customers, leading to improved customer satisfaction. It would be harder to prove, by the numbers, that performance coaching designed to improve service staff interactions could have the same result.
Mental exercise regimen
But those numbers are coming, thanks to new science-based evidence that is helping define what constitutes the winning edge. From Economist Films, a movie entitled All in the Mind examines the role of mental preparation and its effect on athletic performance. Research at Loughborough University London is looking at the physiological shifts that occur in athletic performance and tying that to mental state. Their work shows that athletes who have a positive “challenge” response to stressors demonstrate better performance than those who experience a negative “threat” response.
This realization is helping sports psychologists understand more precisely the cause and effect that explains how athletes’ mental state can influence their performance. With that link established, counselors are better able to suggest a mental exercise regimen that can help athletes shift their thinking to improve their performance.
As in sports, companies often find themselves neck and neck with competitors that offer a similar product or value proposition. Winning new business or keeping a client on board may be decided by a nose. It all comes down to the team that can summon its best mental effort, that is, the one that can bring its A-game. Performance psychology can provide the edge it needs to make it to the winner’s circle.