In top level tennis the difference between winning and losing between any of the top five or six players in the world is largely mental. They have all honed their skills with many hours on the practice court and many years experience playing matches. In the men’s game all the top players have phenomenal self-belief, though even that can be fragile. They all have the technical tools to play at the highest level but have developed mental approaches that vary.
It would be unfortunate to go out to compete or work with self-belief but crash and burn because we lack the technical ability. There are no lucky successful attempts by untrained mountaineers on the North Face of the Eiger, whatever one’s level of self-belief (or folly) such a venture will likely end in death or hospitalisation.
We need to develop the relevant technical skills to whatever role we fill, or venture we undertake, whether in a work or sporting context and these skills need to be practiced. Once developed, just as in the sporting context, mental skills are also important but how do we develop them and practice them?
It needs to be pointed out that practice, like performance, needs preparation and that requires time, which we often feel we don’t have. Make time to practice and your performance will benefit.
So, what are the skills we need to practice?
We’ll look at three areas which are inter-related and outline how they might be practiced, which are:
- Goals and vision
One of the sayings that I use frequently is that ‘while we can not always control what happens to us we can choose our attitude’. So we can choose how we respond to circumstances. Much like the tennis player who is beaten by a phenomenal winner we can blame ourselves or acknowledge the skill of the other player and recognise that it is only one point in a game of many. Of course, a common response when that happens, or we make a mistake, is the negative self talk that emerges.
In a work context these issues invariably relate to our dealings with other people, whether peers, those who we work for, or those we manage. We can prepare for our interaction, both at the start of the day and at intervals during the day. At times we will be aware of the potential impact on us ahead of time, at others it will hit us. In the former we can think through how we might react, including how we might feel and subsequently reflect on what actually happened. In the latter it is slightly more complex.
2. Goals and Vision
Rafael Nadal has a very deliberate routine prior to matches, some of which we see when he comes out on court, placing equipment, drink bottles, etc, very deliberately. However, what we don’t see is what happens prior to his appearance on court. One exercise that he reputedly goes through when he is playing on a court for the first time is to go through the walk from changing room to court earlier in the day, actually taking the walk and then getting a feel for the court itself. Where he is familiar with the court he will spend time visualising the time from changing room right through to practice and starting to play the match, as well as working through a mental plan of how he wants the match to go. Of course when it doesn’t go his way he stays in the moment and, like all top players, doesn’t panic and works through what he needs to do to win. Hence when being hit off the court by Federer, as he was at the start of the Frnech Open in 2011, or the Australian Open in 2012, he is able to respond. Similarly, skiers will mentally visualise the run they are going to make ahead of a race, going through every turn and bump from start to finish. While our interaction with work colleagues may be a little more complex, if we work through how we want it to go and reflect on the actual events we can improve over time.
Being able to take time out to think through your goals at the start of the day, or before a meeting and visualising how you will achieve them will improve the way you work. Then take time out after to reflect on what actually happened and how you can continue to improve.
Energy is not limitless, while we may not be running during the working day, we do expend mental and emotional energy. If we fall into the trap of negative self-talk following a mistake or incident our energy and motivation levels drop.
Mental energy is dependent on our exercising it. Like our muscles practice improves resilience.
Spend time not only practicing being present but also being self aware – how are you feeling, are you feeling drained or invigorated? Recognise when it’s time to take a time-out and do it, it might be macho to keep going but it hinders performance and the quality of decision making.
In all these areas it is important to recognise that change takes time, practice with the aim of improving but don’t expect dramatic improvements immediately.