ON YOUR MARKS, GET SET… WORK!
When you feel like work is akin to running a marathon, it may help you to learn that mental endurance strategies used by top athletes can come in handy in the office too. BY CHERYL LEONG
In sports, if you don’t keep your eye on the ball, it could cost you a win. At work, if you snooze, you lose. That’s why Edgar Tham, a sports and performance psychologist, says sports can be a metaphor for work: “Many mental resilience skills that high-performance athletes use are relevant in a corporate environment.”
This “5C model” of mental toughness helps not just sportspeople to cope in competitions, but also those who work in high-stress jobs.
When you’re facing deadlines and multi-tasking, your muscles tense up unconsciously and you may feel edgy. To perform better, you need to manage your stress and anxiety.
Edgar says one way to stay cool under pressure is to centre yourself through meditation. This technique, known as “progressive relaxation”, is what Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps used as part of his pre-race routine since he was 12. “Every night before he went to bed, his mother would read him relaxation scripts, guiding him to tense, then relax, the muscles in various parts of his body. Soon, he was able to do it by himself,” says Edgar. WHAT YOU CAN DO: A five-minute centring exercise. Take a slow, deep breath, pushing the air down towards your abdomen. Hold for five seconds. When you exhale, consciously relax your muscles. Pause for six seconds. Repeat four to five times.
Many mental resilience skills
that highperformance athletes use are relevant in a corporate environment.
“This means remaining focused on what needs to be done now. Thinking too far ahead or being only resultdriven can distract you from the task at hand,” says Edgar. To overcome this, establish a consistent “preperformance routine” – a set of mindbody exercises to help you focus and deliver your best.
Edgar explains: “Whenever I ask sportspeople to revisit their greatest moments and tell me what they were thinking of or feeling just before, they always say they felt relaxed, calm and ready. And they usually have a routine – a physical or mental exercise – to help them get in the zone.” WHAT YOU CAN DO: Think about three occasions when you’ve written a great report or delivered a smooth presentation, and remember what you were doing just before. It may be something you tell yourself (legendary boxer Muhammad Ali famously said he was “the greatest thing that ever lived”) or do – for example, taking two minutes to chat with your husband or kids – to get your mind wholly focused on work.
When you believe in your ability to perform, you’ll gain confidence. Even so, there’ll be days when you doubt yourself. Edgar says it’s normal. “When you find yourself doubting your competence, think about your best performances as proof of your abilities – you would not have done well if you were not capable in the first place.” WHAT YOU CAN DO: Keep a positive self image. If you need a reminder, print out this quote from tennis star Serena Williams: “I believe in my game, and I believe in me. At the end of the day, I’m my biggest fan.” Stick it where you’ll see it.
Coping with challenges
Being able to cope with challenges ensures you won’t fret about things you can’t control. “I smile at obstacles,” golfer Tiger Woods once said. If you can’t handle workplace demands, you’re headed for a burnout, warns Edgar. WHAT YOU CAN DO: Don’t get disheartened by missed opportunities. Instead of wallowing in perceived failure, set small, daily goals you want to achieve, to help you build your confidence.
Edgar says that when we’re stressed, our bodies release cortisol, which keeps us constantly tense. Your best remedy is to get enough rest and eat a balanced diet. Most importantly, have a bit of downtime every day – reading or exercising – to recover from the day’s work.
“Many organisations emphasise teamwork and appreciate employees who work well with others, so having the emotional skills to manage relationships is very important,” says Edgar. As basketball player Michael Jordan puts it: “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.” When a team works well together, jobs get done faster, more ideas are shared and the support system becomes stronger. WHAT YOU CAN DO: Put yourself in your colleagues’ shoes to understand them better. Edgar says it also helps to rationalise their actions. For example, if your boss is being harsh, don’t immediately get defensive – perhaps he’s not feeling well or has just been scolded by his boss, too.
Understanding the dynamics of your team can help you learn how to work well with them. You should also participate in team-building activities – it’s a great way for everyone to let their guard down and build real friendships.