A question fervently debated is what separates world-class performers from exceptionally good ones? Contemporary research has investigated the role thriving has to play. Elite athletes are some of the greatest at thriving. At overcoming obstacles, facing challenges head on, and concentrating their mind on the tasks ahead.  In comparison to professional athletes, the dizzying assortment of everyday challenges faced by business people makes their mental strength the key to thriving.

Today, we will explore reoccurring questions surrounding sustained success, unravelling what thriving really is and how elite athletes thrive. In this blog, you will discover the transferable mental techniques applied in elite sport you can use to thrive in the business world and thus how to become a corporate athlete.

Leading researchers define human thriving as the joint experience of development and success [1].  Development and success occur in tandem through experiencing a high level of well-being and high level of performance. In an attempt to understand what thriving is, how people thrive and how best to promote it, these researchers explored thriving in sport, education, and business environments. Lead researcher Dr Brown, reported while “doing your best as a sportsman or women sounds simple, we’ve found a complex mix of factors which promote thriving” [2]. These factors can be split into personal and contextual enablers.

Personal Enablers

These relate to an individual’s attitudes, thoughts, and behaviours, including:

  • Proactive personality
  • Positive perspective
  • Psychological resilience
  • Knowledge and learning

Contextual Enablers

These relate to the characteristics of the environment an individual is in, including:

  • Challenge
  • Support

Let’s explore the research surrounding a selection of these personal and contextual enablers in greater depth to understand how we can utilise the research and enhance these mediators to elicit successful thriving experiences [3]. In doing so, we will unravel the mental techniques used by elite athletes and provide practical recommendations applying these to business.

Proactive Personality

The Research

Research has revealed that actively seeking opportunities to challenge and grow facilitates thriving [1]. Rather than reactive responses to demands, engagement in purposeful decision-making can enhance self-awareness and help individuals thrive and function at an optimal level. Research highlights the use of goal setting techniques to effectively direct behaviour and achieve optimal performance [4].

In Sport

The 23 time Olympic champion, Michael Phelps, attributes his success to his proactive ability to both set and create goals. From the age of 15, Phelps engaged in goal setting techniques which provided a clear and manageable process to guide his dream of winning a gold medal. Upon narrowly missing his goal of winning 8 gold medals at the 2004 Athens Olympics, Phelps re-evaluated his process goals to focus the next four years and ensure success at Beijing. Phelps created an environment which sustained engagement and amplified motivation towards his goals; “I have my goals where I can see them, so when I get out of bed I know I’m waking up to work on what I’m trying to achieve”.

In Business

Similarly to sport, yearly and monthly goals in business are fundamental in providing a road map to the year ahead. Weekly and even daily goals are often overlooked, which provide valuable steps and guide the process to achieving the longer-term outcomes. Proactively engage at work to consider breaking down goals into interim objectives which highlight appropriate milestones during your journey.

Positive Perspective

The Research

Research identifies that optimism, positive views of the future and hopeful expectations help individuals cope with demands and thrive [1]. The persistent rumination of negative thoughts and internal dialogue can be hugely detrimental to performance outcomes, diverting attention and knocking confidence [5]. Grounded in traditional cognitive psychological principles, rational emotive therapy is often encouraged to tackle these persistent negative thoughts and replace them with rational ones [6]. Within sport, a common psychological technique based upon these principles is self-talk through which positive statements reinforcing previous successful experiences and control over training help instil belief in outcomes [7].

In Sport

To mentally prepare for challenges, athletes commonly use positively framed phrases such as “give everything” or “you’ve shown you can do it”. Muhammad Ali is one of the world’s best at positive self-talk, not afraid to outwardly display his positivity in competitions, training and media interviews, exemplified through his notorious statement “I am the greatest”. During his 21 year career, Muhammad Ali became proficient at maintaining a strong mental focus, managing emotions and boosting confidence through rational, positive self-talk.

In Business

Positive-self statements can be employed by business professionals to increase energy levels and fuel motivation. Recognise and replace negative self-talk surrounding perceptions of ability with reminders of previous similar experiences and desirable outcomes to reinforce positive behaviour.

Psychological Resilience

The Research

Possessing resilient personality characteristics have been revealed to be crucial for thriving, improving the ability to adapt and remain flexible to the demands placed upon individuals [8]. Under times of strain, the capacity to remain flexible and adaptable is compromised as the body enters a survival response termed fight or flight, causing an increase in physiological symptoms, including increased heart rate and sweating. In order to return these symptoms to normal levels of functioning athletes engage in activation techniques to optimise their level of arousal before or during a competition. Commonly, relaxation procedures allow athletes to regain control over their bodily sensations, provide a strong attentional focus, boost confidence, and overall promote psychological resilience.

In Sport

Roger Federer is the personification of gracious sportsmanship, with an ice-cool demeanour which oozes mental resilience. In a sport which requires immense concentration, sustained over a long and indefinite period of time, Federer has mastered the art of controlling emotions, regulating physiological symptoms and optimising levels of arousal to achieve remarkable performances. Nonetheless, as a junior Federer’s mental resilience showed weakness as he would frequently erupt in bursts of anger with a volatile display of his temper and over-arousal. Through consistent practise, Federer uses deep and slow breathing techniques which allow him to adapt to changes in play and be flexible in his responses.  Federer demonstrates how his on-court physical coolness diffuses from his internal mental composure to allow him to thrive.

In Business

Identifying ways to enhance resilience and promote thriving becomes ever more important in a business world filled with change and unpredictability [8]. Relaxation can therefore provide a useful tool to control emotions and efficiently help individual’s return to an optimal state of arousal. Adopting simple, slow breathing techniques in anxiety inducing situations, such as performance reviews, can help bring awareness to your bodily sensations and assist in returning physiological levels to normal functioning.

Knowledge and Learning

The Research

Researchers have established that the perception of success as a product of knowledge, learning and hard-work, as opposed to success as a product of fixed, innate traits, plays an important part in motivation, performance, and thriving [1].  This is encapsulated in Dweck’s growth mind-set which recognises our performance is influenced by whether we perceive intelligence as malleable or fixed [9]. A key mechanism through which knowledge is acquired and learning opportunities are provided is through task-specific feedback provided immediately after behaviours. In sporting environments, feedback is abundant from coaches, physiotherapists, nutritionists and other support staff to provide learning and knowledge surrounding the variety of influences on goals.

In Sport

Let’s consider Toni Minichiello, who coached Jess Ennis-Hill from a raw beginner to an Olympic champion. Toni reported Jess’ competitive nature drove her need to thoroughly understand, learn different ways, and improve her performances.  As an advocate of creativity, Toni encouraged Jess to take risks in training, which fuelled her knowledge base of effective training mechanisms. Remaining receptive of different ways of training, learning how best to physically maximise her sessions to develop and challenge her body resulted in Jess’ remarkable comeback after pregnancy.

In Business

Knowledge and learning can be supplemented through seeking feedback from managers and colleagues. When seeking feedback, specify a context and content of the behaviour you would like to improve and aim to ask as soon as possible following on from the action. Thriving can be further encouraged through self-reflection and evaluation of performances, making note of what was valuable and areas for improvement.

Contextual Enablers

The contextual enablers of challenge and support will be focused upon concurrently due to their intertwined relationship and influence in business and sport.

Challenge and Support

The Research

Research highlights the role that challenge and difficultly can play in facilitating thriving.  An environment which is perceived as too difficult can threaten an individual’s sense of control and hinder their innate desire to grow and improve [10][11].  Conversely, with realistic and attainable challenges, individuals appraise these as having potential for gain and growth therefore encourage thriving.  Moreover, strong support networks have been found to create an upward spiral of productivity and growth to facilitate thriving [12]. By developing diverse working relationships and deeper human connections this allows for broader knowledge sharing which positively influences task motivation, decision-making, and feelings of competence.

In Sport

The Tour de France epitomises a sporting challenge. Team Sky successfully attained an optimal balance of challenge and support to achieve victory with Team Leader Sir Bradley Wiggins on the 2012 Tour. Breaking down the overall challenge into manageable and attainable tests, Team Sky appreciated the strengths of each team member to reinforce their sense of competence. Accompanying this, the extensive support structure was fundamental to the success of the team and final triumph by Sir Bradley, thus in true Gestalt psychology principles the whole was greater than the sum of its parts [13].

In Business

A balanced environment of challenge and support is crucial for thriving. In business environments, too much challenge and not enough support can lead to burn-out and lack of job satisfaction while too much support and not enough challenge can reduce motivation and job engagement [14]. Therefore, remaining mindful of the personal appropriate levels of challenge and support experienced at work will help individuals develop and succeed.

Conclusion

This blog demystifies the elusive state of thriving, with cutting-edge research on the factors which elicit development and success. Having drawn your attention to the parallels of thriving in sport and business, it is hoped this blog has enlightened you on the psychological techniques elite athletes use to thrive and outlined practical recommendations with range of transferable psychological skills to train your mind to thrive in business.