The biggest challenge I had in graduating from the FBI Academy was meeting the physical fitness standards. I was a slow runner and found pushups very difficult. I did not have a competitive advantage. As a result, I failed the interim FIT test and was almost washed out of the Academy.
Instructors and coaches at the FBI Academy expressed concern that I was not athletic enough to become an agent. My first response was, “How is running 2 miles in 10 minutes going to help me be a better investigator?”
This was my reasoning was this: Agents don’t use their physical muscles to puzzle their way through the facts of an investigation. Instead, they use their mental skills. Only later was I able to recognize that brawn would not make me a better agent. My athletic training, however, had created a set of mental skills to give me a competitive advantage that I would utilize throughout my 24 year FBI career.
Research and common sense tell us that top athletes have a competitive advantage because of their physical talents and dedication to training. However, they also succeed because of their ability to deal with the psychological pressures of their sport. Mental toughness is extremely important for any athlete aiming to be the best.
The real question of coaching in sports is this: Are you mentally tough enough to compete?
There was a recent study of athletes who successfully completed sport injury rehabilitation. The study determined that the top 3 mental skills reported were Goal Setting, Positive Thinking, and Imagery.
I was not surprised by this list because these mental toughness tools can produce the right attitude to move everyone toward success. The same mindset is needed by leaders, entrepreneurs, and business owners who need to stay ahead of their competition. Here is a closer look at why mental toughness gives you a competitive advantage:
1. Goal Setting
When you set a goal, you identify something you want, and also something you are willing to pursue in order to achieve.
Setting a specific goal makes you more likely to achieve it. This becomes important when you want a competitive advantage so you can take your sport to the next level, make a change in your career, or overcome an obstacle on your journey toward that goal.
TIP #1 SET GOALS FOR THE RIGHT REASON
Stop fantasizing about winning the lottery or making $10 million. Instead, set goals that align themselves to what really matters to your happiness and future well being. This is what will give you the competitive advantage you need in life.
TIP #2 FOCUS ON A DIRECTION
Set your training in a direction so that the pursuit of it will produce the life you want. If the journey is the right one, don’t worry if goals change or evolve with time.
TIP #3 CHANGE THE GOAL IF NEEDED
You will have a competitive advantage when you use mental skills to focus on the right thing—the direction you want your life to move. Don’t make the mistake of getting married to your goal. Often, goals need to change as our circumstances change. Goals are the steps to reach your vision, what really matters to you.
2. Positive Thinking
There is a big difference between being an optimist and being a positive thinker. Positive thinkers are not necessarily happy or optimistic. Instead, positive thinkers are blunt realists who look misery right in the eye. They confront the most brutal facts of their day without expecting things to change. They adapt to their circumstances without ever losing hope.
Positive thinking is a mental skill that will give you a competitive advantage and help get you through any setback that comes your way.
TIP #1 FIND 5 POSITIVE THOUGHTS
The brain is naturally wired to pay more attention to negative rather than positive information because negative alerts us to emergencies and threats to our life.
When confronted with something that feels overwhelming, you will need to find 5 positive thoughts to counter each one negative thought that comes to mind. Sometimes it’s hard to find something positive in your situation and you have to look really hard.
TIP # 2 REFLECT ON EACH POSITIVE THOUGHT FOR 20 SECONDS
Take the time to really think about each positive thought. Let it soak in, don’t gloss over it. Negative thoughts are like velcro; they stick. Positive thoughts are like teflon; they slide away easily.
TIP #3 STOP USING THE WORD “CAN’T”
This is the only 4 letter word I never heard in the FBI. Every time you say “I CAN’T” you create a negative feedback loop in your brain that keeps getting stronger and stronger. Synaptic connections thicken the brain tissues over time, wiring in that negativity. Negative thinking will never give you a competitive advantage.
The benefit of using imagery and visualization is an incredible tool to develop mental toughness. This mental skill is based on solid science. By visualizing your successful performance repeatedly, your brain stores that information as a success.
TIP #1 VISUALIZE YOUR SUCCESS
When we give our brain a detailed portrait of our end goal, our brain releases dopamine. Dopamine is a powerful mental toughness tool that can give us a competitive advantage. This is the chemical that becomes active when we encounter situations that are linked to rewards from the past.
Dopamine enables us to feel good about our experiences and gives us the confidence to move toward those rewards. To boost this brain response:
- Imagine how events will unfold.
- See yourself winning or achieving your goal.
- Hear yourself being positive about the challenge before you.
- Form a clear mental picture and do it several times a day.
- Create a positive frame of mind.
- Find images that represent your goal and post them where you’ll see them regularly.
Visualizing is not fantasy or wishful thinking. Fantasies can actually lessen your chance for success. Your brain can tell the difference, and looks at fantasies as a threat! If people fantasize about their future performance, they are less prepared and more stressed when things don’t workout.
TIP#2 MOVE AHEAD WITH FEARLESSNESS
Use imagery and visualize how you will succeed in various situations you might encounter in the future. For example,
- Visualize how you will react and respond when criticized by a competitor.
- Prepare for the hard questions from your supervisor.
- Rehearse your response to conversations that might come up.
This is enough to get that important shot of dopamine. It can give you a competitive advantage so you can move beyond your self-limiting beliefs about yourself and current circumstances.
© 2018 LaRae Quy. All rights reserved.
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I’m giving you a virtual fist pump! Love this. When I coach clients on goals, they’ll sometimes bring something like, I want to write a book or I want to change jobs. That’s great and they can do both things but they have to know why. What’s on the other side that matters. Like you wrote here, it’s about creating the life that they want, not the single action that they can take.
Also, appreciate your tip to stop using the word “can’t.” I also have a friend who reminds everyone around her to stop using the word “try.”It’s like letting yourself off the hook before you even get started.
Thanks for this, LaRae! Will share!
Another wonderful and informative post LaRae! All three mental skills are essential to high performance and success. I think that visualization in particular is so powerful to attaining our goals and can also help us clarify our direction. Your tip about preparing for the hard questions is what strong leaders always follow. When preparing for meetings or presentations I encourage myself and colleagues to be ready for the “unusual” or the “frustrating” questions. When we know our purpose and our mission and practice ways to share it we will always walk down our best path.
I appreciate what you said about dopamine and how it gives us the confidence to move toward a reward or goal. I think that participating in mental training is a great way for an athlete to improve their performance. My wife and I are avid marathon runners, so it’ll be a great idea for us to taking part in mental training in order to build mental toughness.
I agree, Sam. Athletes understand better than most the power of dopamine, a natural chemical in our brain. As a runner myself, I know how much mental toughness it takes to get going on those days you’d rather be doing something else!