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Performance Enhancing Attitudes:
Lessons from Elite Athletes

by Nina Ham


I occasionally confess to my business colleagues that I'm an avid TV sports watcher, particularly of team sports. While my eyes glaze over and I look like the typical Sunday couch potato, I'm busy making subliminal connections between sports and business success. All those athletes I'm watching are in the upper echelons in terms of performance, and yet commentators will tell you they're not all equally talented. How have these "lesser" athletes gotten there? What else can they possibly contribute, at that level, that counts for as much as talent?

Daniel Goleman, in Working with Emotional Intelligence, points to "self-regulation" as a key competence in leadership and business success, an intangible of habit or attitude that brings added value to a particular skill set or track record. In the world of sports, three clichés come up frequently that refer to self-regulation in an athlete, mind-sets that contribute as much as actual talent to his/her success, and the team's success. 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 erased 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. There is no mind chatter to impede the free flow of his talent.

Question: Where could you benefit from mental toughness? How will you cultivate it?

Suggestion: Think of mental toughness as a muscle that you can strengthen. Very few people are born with it, or acquire 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 extend their excellence in that role with harder conditioning, sharpened skills, and constant alertness to enhancing their impact.

These players are 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 within your team or workplace? 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, usually someone in a leadership role, seems absorbed in her own game, and yet the level of play of her teammates elevates. Is this inspiration? Is it an intuitive understanding of the subtleties of teamwork? If a teammate is asked about it, she might say the player 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 Ken Norton 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 level of excellence of everyone involved.

Question: Whom do you know who raises the level of "play" of the people around him/her? How does it happen?

Suggestion: This quality probably draws on intrinsic, intuitive abilities rather than on preconceived strategy.

Whether we in management or are sole proprietors of our own 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, raising the level of our performance as well as the performance of those around us.


The Author


Nina Ham is a certified business and career coach and a licensed psychotherapist. Her company, Success from the Inside Out, offers teleclasses on business and career development. Visit her website at or contact her at

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Copyright 2002 by Nina Ham. All rights reserved.

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