Performance Enhancing Attitudes: Lessons from Elite Athletes

How to Get the Most Out of Your Talents

by Nina Ham

If you're a sports enthusiast, you may have noticed commentators occasionally describe a player who, in their opinion, is less physically gifted than others but is nevertheless a vital part of a team's success. This raises an intriguing question. Given the stratospheric level of competition in elite sports, what can possibly be as highly valued as talent? What do these athletes possess that secures a place in these upper echelons?

Daniel Goleman's work on emotional intelligence gives us some clues. He tells us that the skill of effective self-management under stress can strongly influence the level of success we achieve. So whatever the natural physical endowment of these athletes, they can leverage their value to their team by means of the attitudes they maintain in the heat of competition. Some clichés that circulate in the sports media provide insights into these attitudes. Each one has provocative implications for us in the business world.

"Mental Toughness"

Mental toughness is about focus and an absolute lock-hold on the present moment. In sports-talk, "He's got a short memory" is a high compliment. A top-ranked NFL cornerback has just missed a defensive stop, allowing a touchdown. The fans are booing. But in the TV close-up of his face, there is no scowl of self-attack, no muttering to himself or pumping himself up for the next play; in fact, there is no change of expression. The eyes are steady and intensely focused. His teammates know to leave him alone. He is utterly absorbed in the present moment, and the mistake is gone from his mind.

The mistake is gone, but the learning isn't. You watch his coverage on the next play and see him make that slight adjustment, instinctively recalculating when his receiver is going to break off his route to try for a catch. Mistakes, failure, stardom all dissipate in the singular focus of the moment. He can let his talent flow unhindered.

Question: Where could you benefit from mental toughness? How will you cultivate it? Suggestion: Think of mental toughness as a muscle to develop. Very few people are born with it, or get it without exercise.

"He/She is a role player"

There are some players who may not "have game" or be the best all-around athletes but have a particular skill or value to a team – a sharp-shooting hand, or come-from-behind leadership. Even with all the egotism that accompanies being an elite athlete, these role players have clearly perceived their "right size" and have perfected the necessary skills or qualities. Far from being content with being "just" a role player, the good ones continue to develop their excellence with harder conditioning, sharper skills, and constant alertness to enhancing their impact.

These players have to be exquisitely objective about themselves, able to see their abilities and their limitations as well as how they fit within the gestalt of the team. They don't succumb to a "less than" attitude or envy the marquee player. They seem to live in the paradox of accepting their place and maintaining relentless ambition to play their role even better.

Question: What is your role at work? How can you increase the positive impact of your contributions?

Suggestion: Ask for feedback. Like the athlete, the skills involved are carefully honed, but playing your role may be largely instinctive. Others may be able to describe positive contributions of your role that are invisible to you.

"He/She makes other players better" This mind-set has an almost mystical quality. An athlete, let's say a WNBA point guard, seems absorbed in her own game, and yet the level of play of her teammates elevates No one can precisely explain why. If a teammate is asked about it, she might say the point guard has confidence in her, and she simply rises to meet the level of expectation. Or she might say the player's certainty about winning is contagious. But it remains mysterious. One observation from this couch potato is that when those players are interviewed, whether it's Jason Kidd or Dante Culpepper or Kate Starbird, there are many more "we" pronouns used than "I".

As mysterious as this quality is, it's worth musing on. In business terms, it leverages the performance level of everyone involved.

Question: Whom do you know who raises others' level of "play"? How does it happen?

Suggestion: This quality probably draws on intrinsic, intuitive abilities rather than on a technique.

Whether we manage a team or are sole proprietors of our business, there is a broader dimension of teamwork about everything we do, at work and personally. These lessons from athletes can inspire us to be as rigorously intentional about our impact as they are.

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About the Author

Nina Ham is a certified business and career coach and a licensed psychotherapist. Her company, Success from the Inside Out, offers individual coaching and teleclasses on developing the skills, attitudes and habits for sustainable success. Visit her website at or subscribe to her E-Letter at

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