Sports Psychology for Top-Performing Entrepreneurs

Jun 14, 2020

There are many lessons that entrepreneurs can learn from athletes, and vice versa. Sports psychology, and ideas like mental imagery, performance routines, and focus, for example, can transfer over perfectly to business.

If you’re an entrepreneur, a peak performer, a businessman, or someone interested in becoming one, you will most likely be familiar with a certain phenomenon that is popular in the business world: the connection between business, sports, and war.

The works from Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, Marcus Aurelius, Napoleon, etc. are discussed in the business world. Quotes from Mike Tyson, Mohamed Ali, Rafael Nadal, Pele, etc. are often used as motivation. Strategies used in the business world by Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Amancio Ortega, etc. end with the total destruction of rivals…

There are many connections, similarities, and common underlying principles between sports, war, and business. More than we could ever write in one single essay.

The main connection between the three is that they represent instances of peak human competition and rivalry. And when there is competition, there are winners and losers.

One of the key aspects that differentiate winners from losers, and one we can learn from, is mentality and psychology. Specifically, to how peak performers across different fields learn from each other and apply mental models from each field to their skill stack.

The losers of war generally do not survive nor do they have many learning opportunities that they can teach us from. And in business, you are probably already familiar with many mistakes and lessons from great entrepreneurs.

However, athletes are some of the greatest peak performers in the world, and they are both alive and have made many mistakes we can learn from. They have many more opportunities for iteration and feedback loops than the rest, which is why sports psychology is highly interesting.

The main lesson we can gain from them and that we can emulate is their mentality and psychology, which is what this essay will expand on.

According to Foster (1), there are five major skills related to sport psychology that transfer from sport to business. Some of these sport psychology principles and techniques can be applied in a large variety of business settings, leadership, and teamwork. These skills she identified in regards to mental training are:

  1. Mental imagery
  2. Performance routines
  3. Positive self-talk
  4. Activation control strategies
  5. Focus and sustaining attention

Some of these skills we have already mentioned before, or we have written about similar concepts in our essays, like Algorithmic Thinking for Top Performers and The Dangers of Attention Residue. We will now go through each of them, giving more time and explanation to those we consider crucial.

Mental Imagery in Sports Psychology

Athletes are not only physical beings, half of their work is mental. Mental imagery, also known as visualization, is mental rehearse of practice routines or different scenarios one can be subject to during the competition.

The greatest of athletes all have experiences with mental imagery as a key part of their mental training. According to Cohn (2), “Guided visualization or imagery is purposely rehearsing a skill, routine or performance in your mind’s eye to program your body for success […] visualization or mental imagery is a way of conditioning for your brain for successful outcomes.”

In fact, visualization and mental imagery have their scientific explanation as to why they work and why we should incorporate them into our skill stack as athletes do.

When we wrote the essay on Leveraging Neuroplasticity: How To Rewire Your Brain For Peak Performance, one of the books we read, Rewire Your Brain (3), showed that even thinking about an exercise activates the same neuronal systems in our brain as actually performing said exercise.

The reason being that “remembering something new is, therefore, rewiring the brain. By making connections between ideas or images, you also make connections between the neurons that encode those ideas and images. […] Thus, mental practice alone contributes to the rewiring of the brain.”

The purposeful practice and rehearsal of different mental situations applied in sports and in learning skills transfer perfectly well into the business world and entrepreneurial settings.

Instead of rehearsing for your pre-game walk-through, you rehearse your meetings with VCs for potential funding. Instead of mentally going through different scenarios of the game, you go through different scenarios for your business and team.

The fact is, visualizing the process (not the result) in our minds helps fire the neurons that are fired when actually engaging in the process. The possibilities of rehearsing and practicing mentally, every day, should be part of the self-mastered individual’s skill stack.

One of the key aspects of mental imagery or visualization is related to performance readiness and pre-performance routines, which we will now explain.

Performance Routines

A key mental aspect that athletes engage in that entrepreneurs can learn is related to performance and pre-performance routines. Pre-performance routines consist of personal routines that serve the purpose to optimize preparation for performance.

Performance routines shouldn’t be confused with superstitions, like entering the football field and touching the goal post for better luck. But they can include exactly that: entering the field and touching the goal post.

The main point behind performance routines is to add familiarity and a sense of control before engaging in the event. The sequence of steps and actions followed to allow for the athlete to enter the right mindset and focus on the activity at hand, something that is key in regards to sports psychology.

For the entrepreneur, entering a football field and touching the goal post doesn’t apply. However, the entrepreneurs and peak performers can have a checklist to go over before starting work, or mental rehearsing and breathing, or whatever personalized routine which works for them to add familiarity and focus.

In Algorithmic Thinking for Top Performers we wrote about creating your own algorithms and sequences of actions to better start your day, mainly by creating your specific morning routines. The underlying principles of performance routines and morning routines are the same, and we invite you to read our essay for a more in-depth explanation.

Positive Self-talk

Positive self-talk is a tricky subject to write about, mainly due to how easy it is to go off-topic and ignore reality. Correctly seeing the reality of a situation and being slight “irrationally confident” with yourself is a hard balance to strike.

Athletes’ self-talk is powerful. The conversation and dialogue that you have with yourself greatly determine your chances of success. In regards to sports psychology, any athlete that creates pre-emptive excuses about why they won’t make their shot successfully will most likely not make the shot correctly.

Listen to an interview by successful athletes and they all are confident in themselves, their skill, and their preparation. And they are confident precisely because of their preparation and their will to succeed, which allows them to train hard, smart, and pursue smart goals.

In fact, their self-belief and self-talk are so overly confident that it borders irrationality. They all have stories of many who doubted them while they were training, only to be finally redeemed once they win.

However, we all know of people who are extremely confident and have positive self-talk that has no tie to reality and is based on nothing, just delusion. The athlete is confident due to the training and preparation. Without it, their belief is not true to anything real or tangible.

It is hard to strike “the correct” balance between positive self-talk and reality. Be it, athletes, or entrepreneurs, nobody is divorced from reality. Nobody is independent of the laws of physics, the economy, or the price of food at the supermarket.

For the entrepreneur, positive self-talk and self-belief need to be similar to athletes’ self-talk: based on preparation, talent, skill, and determination. The entrepreneur who believes in himself has to work hard to make the rest of the world believe in him just as much as he does.

Affirmations are popular in the self-improvement literature of the Internet. They can work for some in getting the ball rolling, as not everyone starts at the same point. Their value resides in eliminating negative self-talk and substituting them with positive messages.

These messages do not have to be irrational nor divorced from reality. In fact, they do not need to be tied to results, but to systems. Like we wrote in Managing Oneselfgoals thinking vs systems thinking is a great mental model to study, internalize, and put into practice.

When we adopt positive self-talk, we can properly start to set the systems in place to achieve all the goals we desire. For the athlete, the positive self-talk leads to training, because the athlete believes that he or she can achieve success, setting the systems needed to achieve said success.

For the entrepreneur, positive self-talk leads to trying things out, setting up a business, to learning new skills, etc. This positive self-talk and self-belief lead to the creation of various systems and routines, which can lead to eventual success.

Activation Control Strategies In Sports Psychology

As mentioned above, one of the core benefits of visualization or mental imagery is related to performance readiness plans.

Performance readiness plans consist of planning for various different scenarios that can occur during a match, performance, duel, competition, etc. of an athlete. To quote Mike Tyson, “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” (didn’t we mention above that athlete were being quoted in many different settings?).

Athletes who have mastered sports psychology prepare for many different scenarios because nothing ever goes to plan. Whoever plans and trains for the scenario that ends up happening on the playing field has a higher chance at success than who doesn’t.

For the athlete, this means to train for in situations of disadvantage, to plan for offensive and defensive strategies, to study the rival or the competition and create counter plans, etc. For the entrepreneur, performance readiness plans can be applied to a wide array of situations.

Entrepreneurs do not have the luxury of playing a game with defined rules and a closed environment like athletes do, which means their performance readiness plans cannot be as detailed or specific.

No one can have a plan for every value the stock market will have, nor a plan for every price of every component of your business, etc.

Like in our introductory essay on Complexity Science, rather than prepare for every outcome and tweak every variable, the entrepreneur can prepare for a few, core underlying principles. Usually focusing on the extremes and on the core ideas behind their business.

While we cannot have a plan for every price of the stock market, we can have a plan or two of worst-case scenarios of the economy. Or a plan for when a pandemic occurs and we have to be locked inside for a few months. We can even also have a plan for when things do not go according to plan…

The point is, the entrepreneur does not have a set of rules for the game, but the entrepreneur can plan, get ready, and prepare for different scenarios as the athlete does. If for the athlete almost nothing ever goes to plan, why should it be different for the entrepreneur?

Focus & Sustaining Attention

Focus and sustaining attention is crucial in sports psychology. But they are also for everyone who seeks to achieve self-mastery and peak performance. We wrote extensively on focus, attention residue, and deep work in our The Dangers of Attention Residue essay, while we wrote about smart goal-setting and long-term planning in Why You Should Choose a North Star Metric.

Athletes are masters of focus and sustaining attention, as well as achieving long-term goals. How they approach every training session determines how they will perform on the day of competition. How they maintain the discipline to not miss a day of training, to not miss a day of proper diet, or to not miss a night or enough sleep and recovery are examples of the sacrifices they make to achieve their goals.

Motivation is not something that lasts for long. Discipline does. For athletes to keep sight and not lose focus on their long-term goals they need discipline and systems. For the entrepreneur, it is no different.

In our North Star essay, we explained how a long-term goal adds clarity when we need it. If our current actions and systems do not take us closer to that long-term goal, chances are that they are actions and systems that we should not be engaging in.

An entrepreneur needs just as much discipline and focuses as the athlete, if not even more. Way too many projects end up in failures due to lack of focus. Way too many talented people end up wasting their potential due to lack of focus and direction.

There are many lessons that entrepreneurs can learn from athletes, and vice versa. Being some of the top peak performers in the world, athletes train both their body and mind to excel and perform at the highest level for long periods of time.

For entrepreneurs, every slight edge over the competition can become crucial at the later stages of the game. Applying mental models and systems from athletes can be just that difference that makes or breaks a business.

Sources

  1. Foster, S. (2002). Enhancing peak potential in managers and leaders: Integrating knowledge and findings from sport psychology. In R. L. Lowman (Ed.), The California School of Organizational Studies Handbook of Organizational Consulting Psychology: A Comprehensive Guide to Theory, Skills and Techniques (pp. 212–231). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
  2. Cohn, P. Sports Visualization: The Secret Weapon of Athletes. Peaksports.com
  3. Arden, John B. Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to A Better Life.
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