As a sports psychologist and mental performance consultant, I’ve worked with elite teams and performers from a range of domains, including the NBA and NFL, Olympians, Army Special Forces, Fortune 5 Companies, and Venture-Backed Startups.
In this article, I will delve into the strategies employed by professional athletes—individuals accustomed to thriving in high-pressure environments. By befriending stress and leveraging it as a catalyst for success, we unveil four powerful tools that startup founders can integrate into their toolkit. These insights provide a roadmap for not just managing stress, but turning it into a valuable asset on the journey to entrepreneurial excellence.
Principle 1: Change your stress mindset
Mindsets are our beliefs or assumptions about a domain that orients us toward particular attitudes, expectations, and goals (Crum, 2021).
In research with Navy SEAL trainees, Dr.Crum found that top performers have a stress is enhancing mindset. When performers embrace stress and learn to see it as a challenge and opportunity, they’re better able to manage and control their thinking, feeling, physiology and behavior, and offer better support to their teams. The end result is higher individual and team performance.
The way we change this mindset in athletes is by encouraging them to explore the opportunity ahead of them under stress by asking themselves questions like:
- What’s the challenge ahead of me?
- What’s my opportunity here?
- What skill or strength can I demonstrate?
By learning to look at stress as an adaptive benefit, athletes are better able to perform under pressure and rise to the occasion. By training yourself to see stress the same, founders can leverage a new stress mindset to boost their performance over time.
Principle 2: Focus on what you can control
The best athletes in the world are experts at focusing on what’s squarely within their control – things like good preparation, fitness, diet, and mindset. They’re also great at finding what they can influence, and doing their best to shape those, too, including how their teammates behave and how their coaches give them feedback. The rest they let go of.
Any challenging performance is going to be riddled with things that performers can’t control. In the NBA, it’s the calls the referees make, who’s available for a game, or whether or not the plane landed on time the night before for a good night sleep. In business, it’s aspects like the larger economic conditions, or whether or not the investor your pitching got enough sleep last night to really understand your business.
If you spend too much time worrying about what you can’t control, you’ll drain precious mental resources and energy that you need to perform well, consistently. Rather than fretting about the things they can’t change, the best athletes redirect attention to what they can control and influence and actively practice letting go of the rest.
For example, your personal well-being is a high-value controllable that, if taken care of, can elevate the quality of work you do and the value of the business. You can also influence things like team performance and morale which, over time, make a big difference in the culture you create and the performance of the company.
Principle 3: Develop high performance habits
Much of our day-to-day behavior is on autopilot, a series of ingrained actions we take to help ease the cognitive load we’d otherwise experience if we actively and consciously planned every little thing we did. We also tend to take many of these things for granted and leave the habits that promote health and high performance to more deliberation than necessary. These habits include things like exercising regularly, meditating or engaging in a spiritual practice, actively recovering, thoughtful eating and sleeping habits, and more.
Though many of these things seem like a given for professional athletes, what you’d find is that the best athletes in the world are methodical in the way they adopt these habits into their lives.
For example, the best professional athletes go to great lengths to first discover what works for their diet, and then build a system to sustain that diet over time. The same is true with figuring out which recovery activities work best for them. The pros experiment widely, settle on a solution, and get to work making it a feature of daily life.
The key insight from these practices is that stress can be proactively managed if the right habits are adopted. It’s not uncommon to meet performers who meditate only when they feel stressed, instead of meditating daily to keep stress at bay. As John F Kennedy said, “the time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.”
Principle 4: Celebrate Small Wins
If you never take the time to recognize the progress you’ve made and to celebrate it, you’re missing out on a great opportunity to boost your mood, team morale, and optimize your performance. That’s why, after every win in an NBA season, as soon as the last player enters the locker room, there’s a little party that takes place.
These parties are about more than just having a good time. They signal belonging, send a message about an important accomplishment, and acknowledge and appreciate the hard work that goes into meeting a significant milestone. Each of these features helps to sustain well-being and stave off stress over time.
To make that happen, practice celebrating your wins like pro athletes. Give yourself and your team 24 hours to appreciate a job well done, and then refocus on the task at hand. By building in markers of progress and acknowledging the success of your team, you’re both increasing the odds of future success (dubbed “the winner effect”) and keeping chronic stress at bay.
About the Auther:
Dr. Alex Auerbach is a performance psychologist with over 10 years of experience working with professional athletes, Olympians, elite military units, and start-up founders. He’s also the Chief Medical Officer of the Founder Mental Health Pledge, a non-profit dedicated to helping founders improve their mental health. Dr. Auerbach received a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology and is a Board Certified Coach and Certified Mental Performance Consultant.