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Compete only with yourself, demand relentless feedback, and don’t forget to celebrate, says this sports psychologist and executive coach.

by Graham Jones

Until 1954, most people believed that a human being was incapable of running a mile in less than four minutes. But that very year, English miler Roger Bannister proved them wrong.

“Doctors and scientists said that breaking the four-minute mile was impossible, that one would die in the attempt,” Bannister is reported to have said afterward. “Thus, when I got up from the track after collapsing at the finish line, I figured I was dead.” Which goes to show that in sports, as in business, the main obstacle to achieving “the impossible” may be a self-limiting mind-set.

As a sports psychologist, I spent much of my career as a consultant to Olympic and world champions in rowing, swimming, squash, track and field, sailing, trampolining, and judo. Then in 1995, I teamed up with Olympic gold medal swimmer Adrian Moorhouse to start Lane4, a firm that has been bringing the lessons from elite athletic performance to Fortune 500 and FTSE 100 companies, with the help of other world-class athletes such as Greg Searle, Alison Mowbray, and Tom Murray. Sport is not business, of course, but the parallels are striking. In both worlds, elite performers are not born but made. 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 mental toughness.

Elite performers in both arenas thrive on pressure; they excel when the heat is turned up. Their rise to the top is the result of very careful planning—of setting and hitting hundreds of small goals. Elite performers use competition to hone their skills, and they reinvent themselves continually to stay ahead of the pack. Finally, whenever they score big wins, top performers take time to celebrate their victories. Let’s look at how these behaviors translate to the executive suite.

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