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Tips for mental toughness – How to cope under pressure

Q&A with Dr Cory Middleton, partner, rogenSi

1. How do you define someone who is ‘mentally tough’?

Scientifically, mental toughness is “an unshakeable perseverance and conviction towards some goal despite pressure or adversity”.

Dr Cory MiddletonMental toughness is a fascinating and complex process. This process is often marked by significant and determining moments—moments where our mindset triumphs over adversity or pressure. Ask any champion and you’ll hear – adversity and pressure are unavoidable factors in the achievement of excellence. It is the capacity to endure and triumph over adversity and pressure that separates the tough from the rest. Mental toughness describes those moments where we endure, triumph and even thrive despite adversity or pressure.  We harness our best pattern of thinking to perform at or near our best, when it really counts. Mental toughness is the thinking that drives the quality of our actions under pressure.

2. How important is mental toughness in today’s business world and why?

Mental toughness is as vital today as ever.  Mental toughness is not just about surviving – it’s also about thriving. To survive alone is probably more akin to the term ‘to be resilient’ (i.e., the idea of bouncing back).  To bounce back with resilience is not enough in today’s environment. The economic challenges of the recent times have driven the agenda of change. Organisations have been compelled to clean house and reshape the way they do things. Leaders have taken the opportunity to relook at best practice for their business.  To bounce back to old ways just won’t cut it in today’s business world. Board executives are eager to set their organisations up to thrive with new thinking, new approaches, a focus on getting the right culture, and new leadership. Mental toughness is critical in engaging with this change and ultimately in being able to deliver successful change.  Many of the executives we speak to label mindset as the determining factor for their success. Their people need to be nimble, self-assured, and purposeful in action to successfully adapt and deliver value to shareholders.

3. Do you think, particularly in business terms, that people’s mental toughness has been eroded or bolstered during the recent challenging economic conditions?

Success requires adversity. Every champion performer I have spoken to was able to look back in their career and clearly identify an adverse experience that shaped who they are today and their ultimate successes.  These adverse experiences taught them what they needed to know about applying themselves in the moment.  The recent economic conditions for many have provided a toughening experience that has built strength and wisdom, whilst for others has lefty them feeling a little broken.

Talking to leaders and employees in several businesses, in several industry sectors, the feedback I am hearing is that in the most part their people have grown from the recent economic experiences. Many leaders identify with the uncertain times they and their teams experienced. They talk about the significant restructuring and reshaping of their businesses that occurred as a result. What these leaders report is that the shared experience has almost united the team, bringing them much closer together. People have banded together to support each other and grow through the experience. Leaders are seeing their people move from a battle to survive to the desire to thrive. Universally we are hearing employees challenging their leaders for direction, clarity and purpose.  People are hungry for strategic, strong, effectively communicated leadership. People are not broken. They are ready to engage with the task of rebuilding their business.

The challenge moving forward will be burnout. People are finding themselves having to do more with less. On the flipside of this admirable appetite to get on with the job of rebuilding their business, we are hearing employees talk about unrelenting workloads. Talent retention could very well be the next big challenge for leaders should these workload pressures not be met with increased human resources.

4. Do you think that some people are naturally optimists and others are pessimists and therefore some are more mentally resilient than others?

We are not born with optimism or pessimism. These are patterns of thinking we have learnt over time.  We learn these patterns of thinking from significant others growing up – for example our parents, family, culture.  They habits we’ve picked up that are neither hardwired nor unchangeable. Indeed I’ve worked with many individuals who have had real ‘breakthrough’ moments – almost enlightening moments – when they’ve realised how their current pattern of thinking has been causing them pain for so long. Once people have had this experience and then are taught practical strategies to drive a more empowering pattern of thinking, their mindset and their resilience changes for the better.

It’s important to note that resilience is the result of a number of qualities coming together – our motivational style, our beliefs, our coping style (of which the explanatory styles of optimism and pessimism reside) and our focus. Pessimism or Optimism alone will not determine your resilience. Often where people are challenged in one area, they will make up for it with strengths in their mindset in other areas. For example, you may have the pessimist who is incredibly driven, has great belief in their potential, and puts their head down and bulldozes through their work with immense amounts of resilience. We need to appreciate how each person generates their own resilience. We need to coach the fullness of people’s pattern of thinking. Accurate measurement therefore, is vital to prescribing the appropriate mindset strategies.

5. What are your tips to help people cope under pressure and perform to their very best? And why?

  • Focus your energy on the things you can control; Focusing on your inputs puts you in the best possible place to achieve the desired outputs
  • Continue to ask yourself ‘what is possible?’  Let the curiosity of this question fuel you. Look to step it up regularly.
  • Judge your success by the quality of your execution rather than the result itself.
  • Purposefully step outside your comfort zone to build a bank of toughening experiences.
  • Confidence comes from preparation. Use a structured approach to plan your out a thorough preparation.
  • Take the time to choose your response rather than reacting to circumstances; reactions are based on emotion, responses are based on considered thought.
  • Watch your language. Actively move away from the language of blaming towards ‘aiming’ clearly at what you want instead.
  • Chunk it down. Break bigger tasks down into smaller bite size components. They are more manageable, less anxiety provoking, and focus us on mastery of our inputs.
  • Adopt a learning mindset. Continue to be a student of your profession. Thrive on every learning experience (positive or negative).
  • In the heat of the moment, thrive on the question ‘what could be good about this?’

[Next: About Dr Cory Middleton and rogenSi]

About Dr Cory Middleton

Cory Middleton BA (Sports Science; Sports Coaching), BA (Psychology), University of Canberra, Psychology Doctoral candidate, UWS, is a provisionally registered psychologist in ACT and provides psychological services to athletes at the ACT Academy of Sport.

He also has a background in coaching elite athletes, with nine years experience coaching athletes at the ACT Academy of Sport. In 2002 he was awarded a highly prestigious Australian Postgraduate Award (Industry) to pursue an investigation into the conceptualisation and measurement of mental toughness in athletes.

This research formed the basis of his PhD, which he completed at the Australian Institute of Sport (the industry partner). In addition to this project, Cory has experience working with chronic pain sufferers in private practice, providing treatment to improve resilience and the physical well-being of chronic pain sufferers.

About rogenSi

rogenSi has over 40 years of consulting and training experience and is the global consultancy for exceptional performance. It has helped cities win Olympic bids, companies to add billions of dollars to their bottom line, to merge and grow; to change the way they communicate and to achieve the highest level of leadership effectiveness.

rogenSi provide practical, personalised solutions that create impact for their clients through focusing on the critical areas that drive results – financial, cultural, operational, team engagement, individual motivation, sales and customer satisfaction.

Their work is built around the core principal that Exceptional Performance comes from a combination of superior business knowledge, high level skills; and effective, applicable processes – all leveraged by the creation of a mindset giving individuals the will to succeed. This (EP) formula Knowledge + Skill + Process X Mindset = Exceptional Performance underpins everything rogenSi do and provides an unrivalled solutions based approach to raising the performance of an individual, team, leader or business.

Founded in 1968, the Australian based Rogen International merged with London’s Si group in 2006 to create a breadth of offering that is unsurpassed in the marketplace.  Today, rogenSi operates in 10 countries throughout Europe, North America, the Middle East and Asia Pacific and coaches more than 25,000 people a year.

To find out more please visit www.rogensi.com

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