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The secrets of success: The mental toughness game


mental_toughnessFor all those gripped by Olympic fervour, and to celebrate the fact that team GB has won some medals, here's Annie Hayes feature on the secrets of success that can be learnt from the playing fields and sporting arena.

The reality of sporting and business life is not the moments of glory – winning the race or securing a pitch - but the humdrum day-in-day-out work, from the sales person that plugs away at the cold calls to the athlete that endures gruelling training day after day, many of the disciplines and sacrifices are the same.

Jeremy Cross a senior consultant at Lane4, a leading global performance development consultancy that was recently awarded 12th position in the Sunday Times best small companies to work for in the UK list is living proof that sports success can offer valuable lessons to business.

Cross, who started out as a tennis coach and sports psychologist joined Lane4 four years ago and believes that there are shared values that are constructive.

Common ground:
"The term 'mental toughness' has been bandied around quite a lot – sports psychologists over the years have picked at it and there are four areas that hold common ground," Cross says these are:

  • Belief: this is the most important element for success – the ability to bounce back from defeat

  • Handling pressure: business people need to learn to cope with the background pressures as well as those that are more apparent

  • Motivation: an intrinsic value

  • Concentration and focus: learning to manage distractions and focus either moment by moment or week by week

Rob Robson, founder of says the key to unlocking the power of people, whether they're a leader in business or sports is through understanding them first, then building action upon that strong foundation.

"Once you get into the talent field the parallels grow – most of the time in a job it's not about the moments of brilliance, you're plugging away 90% of the time and then you do one presentation and you've made it and it's like that in sports – the key is not getting bored," says Robson.

"The specifics are very different between sport and business, but when you get to the nub of the constraints, mostly about self belief, they're pretty similar."

Joanna Carritt, a structural engineer and long distance triathlon competitor.

Joanna Carritt, a structural engineer who also competes in long distance triathlons also believes that the principles of success are the same for sports as they are in business: "My experience is that there are patterns of belief, leading to attitudes, leading to behaviour, which is written into our subconscious. Coaching uses techniques to change these beliefs, and enables us to perform without constraints. The specifics are very different between sport and business, but when you get to the nub of the constraints, mostly about self belief, they're pretty similar."

Jeremy Lazarus, who ditched his job as financial director of Yo Sushi 10 years ago to take up business coaching - Carritt is amongst his clients - believes there are also lessons to be learnt from the way stress is managed in sports and business: "Generally people don't perform well consistently when they are stressed out and sports coaches also need to recognise when their athletes are doing too much. Everyone is human and has the occasional off-day. Allowances need to be made and it's the same in business even more so with growing pressures and longer working hours."

Sacrifice can form part of that stress equation and for most business and sports people it is part and parcel of getting to the top. Lazarus says there is a subtle difference, however: "A sporting career is relatively short so are the sacrifices therefore but in business you are working up until your 60s usually so there are sacrifices to be made throughout your life."


There are more differences too. Cross points to feedback: "If you're on a tennis court the feedback is immediate, with business coaching the client usually goes into a room and is given time to reflect so it's not the same."

Robson says that there are distinctions the higher up the field you go too: "Early on in an athletes career it's more about 'telling' but when you get to a higher level it's more of a partnership and you're looking to repeat your successes. The coach becomes a mirror – they might use video-footage to demonstrate ways to improve for example."

"There is a stigma in business that a coach is only for those that are not improving but that is slowly changing – people are slowly realising that you can use a coach to move yourself from being ‘good’ to being ‘great’."

Jeremy Lazarus, business coach.

Whilst it is usual to use a coach for sporting success, Lazarus says it's almost impossible to be a top-class athlete and not have a coach. In business, it is not always as accepted. "There is a stigma in business that a coach is only for those that are not improving but that is slowly changing – people are slowly realising that you can use a coach to move yourself from being 'good' to being 'great'."

The future

Coaching does not always occur at the individual level and some corporate heavyweights are starting to catch onto the advantages of using coaching to improve organisational success. Cross says it does tend to work better where there is a sporting analogy such as in retail organisations that are focused on numbers and performance.

Businesses that are sporting sponsors of the 2012 Olympics are also now looking to internalise the sporting messages: "Lloyds TSB are sponsoring the Olympics and they're now focusing on tying in that strategy to their learning and development. 2012 is being used as benchmark," says Cross.

Cross says that business and sporting personalities are additionally learning that they can combine a dual-role. "Look at Paula Radcliffe, she got a first from Loughborough and she's a top athlete. It's not healthy to be exclusive in one thing, if you fail in one identity you feel like a bad person – developing skills that are complementary is the best way of balancing roles."

It's a lesson that Carritt knows well, talking about her coaching sessions with Lazarus she says: "We have discussed long term sporting goals, and explored the value of these goals (in the context of the balance between career and other areas of my life) which has enabled me to fully commit to the hard work required. We have used visualisation and various other NLP practices to work on specific areas of concern that I have had with aspects of my racing and training, even injuries. Talking around subjects Jeremy uses his coaching skills to present situations from different angles, always putting me in control of potential problems."

There are clear parallels to be drawn between learning to be a winner in sports and succeeding in business. Using the tools of the sports psychologist, including goal-setting, positive thinking and imagery training, is proving to be hugely valuable in both disciplines. Mental toughness, whether in the boardroom or on the athletics track, may sometimes be down to luck and raw talent but fine-tuning existing skills is the realm of the coach and moving from 'good' to 'great' is the stuff of success.


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