Wednesday, July 9, 2008

How the best of the best get better and better

I confess:  I'm not a regular reader of the Harvard Business Review.  But my sister is and she recently passed along to me an article from the HBR by a former professor of "elite performance psychology."  

According to the author:

"The real key to excellence in both sports and business is not the ability to swim fast or do quantitative analyses quickly in your head; rather, it is mental toughness.  Elite performers in both arenas thrive on pressure; they excel when the heat is turned up. Their rise to the top is the result of very careful planning—of setting and hitting hundreds of small goals. Elite performers use competition to hone their skills, and they reinvent themselves continually to stay ahead of the pack. Finally, whenever they score big wins, top performers take time to celebrate their victories."

Based on his work with elite athletes, he outlines how the "best of the best get better and better."

1.  Learn to love the pressure.   "Top sports performers don’t allow themselves to be distracted by the victories or failures of others. They concentrate on what they can control and forget the rest."

2.  Set long-term goals, then outline short-term objectives and action steps.   "Much of star athletes’ ability to rebound from defeat comes from an intense focus on long-term goals and aspirations. At the same time, both sports stars and their coaches are keenly aware that the road to long-term success is paved with small achievements.  The trick here is to meticulously plan short-term goals so that performance will peak at major, rather than minor, events."

3.  Compete against the best in order to improve.  "If you hope to make it to the very top...make sure you train with the people who will push you the hardest."

4.  Seek constructive criticism, feedback, and advice.  "How do you motivate yourself to embark on another cycle of building the mental and physical endurance required to win the next time, especially now that you have become the benchmark? [Elite performers have] an insatiable appetite for feedback.  They have a particularly strong need for instant, in the moment feedback."

5.  Work hard; play hard.  "Elite performers...put almost as much effort into their celebrations as they do into their accomplishments.  Celebration is more than an emotional release. Done effectively, it involves a deep level of analysis and enhanced awareness. The very best performers do not move on before they have scrutinized and understood thoroughly the factors underpinning their success.  Dwelling on success for too long is a distraction and, worse, leads to complacency. Celebrate—but push on."

6.  An intense desire to compete.  "What drives all elite performers is a fierce desire to compete—and win. That’s what truly separates elite performers from ordinary high achievers. It takes supreme, almost unimaginable grit and courage to get back into the ring and fight to the bitter end."