A Competitor’s Guide to Sports and Business Success
“The mental traits involved in achievement and success appear transferable from one sport to another and to business as well,” Fox writes in his new book The Winner’s Mind: A Competitor’s Guide To Sports and Business Success. “They are generalized attitudes and mental approaches to problem solving that certain individuals employ in whatever realm they wish to become successful. These individuals are rare. Fortunately, the rest of us can learn how to do it by observing, analyzing, and emulating the tricks used by those who are naturally good at it.”
In short, if you’re not a natural winner, find someone who is and copy his/her strategy.
The Winner’s Mind provides a thought-provoking analysis of the nature of competitiveness. Fox — himself a former world-class tennis player, coach and successful entrepreneur — has written a book that goes far beyond the typical “sports metaphor” genre. He has interwoven intelligently written theory and practical advice with a tapestry of stories from the realms of sports, entertainment, history, and the business world.
The first half of his book delves into the genetic and biological roots of the drive to win as well as the struggle between ambition and fear that paralyzes us and keeps us from giving the game our all. As Fox explains, “unconscious fear of failure nullifies the will to win by distorting perceptions and causing competitors to refuse to compete, lie to themselves, make excuses, blame others, procrastinate, fail to finish tasks, and panic on the verge of victory.”
Some few people are naturally good at winning in whatever arena they compete. But what if you’re not naturally one of them? What if you’re a laid-back type who just doesn’t enjoy the fight? Do you have to settle for always coming in second best? Of course not, says Fox. You simply need to watch the natural winners and do what they do. And that’s the point of the second half of The Winner’s Mind. It explains what makes some people champions — what they think, what they do, and how they think about what they do — so that the rest of us can pick up enough of their tricks to get more of what we want too.
Here are just a few examples:
Be extremely sensitive to actions that succeed and fail. Winners pay extraordinary attention to what works and what doesn’t. They concentrate intently on the task at hand, learn quickly from their successes and failures, and adjust their behaviors accordingly. The losers make the same mistakes repeatedly and are slow to make what would appear to be obvious adjustments. What blinds them?
Fox answers, “Constantly refining one’s techniques to become more efficient or effective takes mental effort, and thinking is hard work. Most people prefer to do their jobs on mental autopilot. It’s less stressful and simply easier. Thinking, planning, and adjusting takes work and may even involve some risk. The losers tend to keep their heads down and just plug along, so they lose to the people who are alert.” The lesson is: Stay attentive to what’s working and what isn’t. Lowering your eyes and simply grinding in the general direction of your goals is apt to be inefficient. You must make a conscious effort to work with your head up — observant so as to soak up and assimilate every bit of available information. At the same time, be especially wary of a natural urge to ignore or discard facts that: 1.) are at odds with your preconceived notions, 2.) cause you to change your plans, or 3.) force you to do things you don’t like. Absorb and employ ALL information so that you work not just hard, but “smart.”
Be alert to problems. When you find one, assume that there is a solution. Successful people are vigilant in confronting problems. They understand their own weaknesses. They want to find out about them because they want to fix them. The losers, on the other hand, are insecure and don’t really believe they can fix problems, so they adopt the “head in the sand” approach. They avoid dealing with problems by not hearing about them. Fox illustrates this point by telling the story of Lew, an acquaintance who had, after 27 years, worked his way into the upper middle management of a growing oil services company. He was content with his comfy job and intended to tread water until his pension came due.
“If Lew was a basketball team, he would have been slowing down the game in order to run out the clock,” Fox says. “He hated problems. If subordinates came to him too often with unresolved problems, Lew became resentful and irritated. To avoid his temper, people learned to stay away from him and live with their problems. In 1996, when the price of oil began a relentless decline, companies in the industry began looking for ways to cut overhead. Unproductive employees who get large salaries are tempting targets. Needless to say, Lew no longer has his cushy position.”
How can you avoid becoming a “Lew?” Quite simply, seek out and identify problems, never avoid them, and tackle them immediately and energetically. But most important of all, adopt the core assumption that there is a solution for any problem. This attitude is the key to everything. It will keep you going if your first solution doesn’t work. It will lead to an optimistic attitude that will help clarify your thinking and open your mind to novel ideas. You will find that believing in this assumption will make it come true.
Let your intellect trump your emotions. Champions have control over their emotions rather than the other way around. They respond to problems with their logic systems rather than their emotional systems. Competitive situations in business and sport generate a host of strong emotions, some of which can hinder or even demolish one’s ability to reach one’s goals. Fear of failure is the major culprit, accompanied, in many cases, by its usual counterproductive cohorts — insecurity, discouragement, frustration and urges to increase one’s importance and fortify one’s fragile ego.
In sports, the losers become immersed in these emotions, are swept hither and yon, and their performance deteriorates. If they are playing well, they feel good. If they are playing badly, they feel bad. This is an unstable situation in that bad play generates bad emotions that, in turn, generate further bad play. When champions are playing badly, they are practical and use their emotions to help them play better. Jimmy Connors, for example, used to psych himself up when he got behind by thinking aggressive, positive, courageous thoughts to induce a flow of adrenaline. He often gestured to the crowd to gain their support, because he knew when they screamed for him he felt brave and good, and when he felt that way, he played better. He used whatever he could to generate the emotions he needed to help his performance, rather than what most tennis players do, which is to let their performance determine their emotions.
Make sure you understand your own emotional inclinations, and be suspicious of your quick decisions if emotions are involved. Emotions are often of short duration and changeable, and the facts may appear very different with the passage of a day or two. Take your time and weigh the issues carefully before making important decisions. Are your emotions mixing into the equation? If so, try to identify them and set them aside. As best you can, work only with the real issues. If you can’t do this by yourself (and most of us can’t), discuss your ideas with a friend or business associate to gain perspective. And really listen. Don’t argue or try to convince your friend or your business associate that your position is correct.
Be willing to work hard and long without immediate reward. For champions, success does not have to come right away. They have the acuity to see past the plateau to the peak beyond, and even when no return is visible on the near horizon, they can keep working with high intensity. Champions are not dependent on immediate reinforcement to drive their efforts. By contrast, most people need tangible success relatively quickly, lest they lose motivation, become disheartened, and stop working.
In The Winner’s Mind, Fox describes a study done by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel on four-year-old children. They were given a choice. They could have one marshmallow immediately, or, if they were willing to wait 20 minutes, they could have two. The children who could sit at the table for 20 minutes — sometimes hiding their eyes so they wouldn’t have to look at the alluring treats — were clearly displaying the ability to delay gratification. Twelve to fourteen years later, these children (now adolescents) were tracked down. The dramatic result? The children who delayed gratification scored 210 points higher on their SAT tests than the ones who didn’t!
“Most bright, ambitious people entering a business are able to learn 95 percent of the necessary and available information in the first year or two,” says Fox. “After that, the work becomes largely routine and repetitious, the pay level doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to rise, and most aspirants begin to wonder if they are just wasting time and going nowhere. What they don’t realize is that the missing five percent of the information is where all the significant money is made. And this five percent takes another five to ten years to gather and assimilate. The moral of the story is this: when you’re working toward a business goal, stick around for the final five percent. Stick around for the extra marshmallows.”
Still worried that you don’t have the “right stuff,” that you weren’t born a winner, that you might have been one of the “two marshmallows now” kids in the experiment? Don’t be. Fox points out that those of us who are forced to learn success strategies (as opposed to being born with them) are often better off than those genetic winners we may envy.
“It is not uncommon for individuals whom we identify as “champions” in their chosen fields to be blindly and excessively driven such that they neglect personal relationships and end up empty and unhappy,” he writes. “Single-minded focus poses its dangers. Yet people need some degree of success and achievement to feel good about themselves. For this reason, one may be better off learning the strategies that bring success in competition and achievement somewhat later rather than being one of the born super-competitors and achieves who has never behaved in any other way.”
“Balance, perspective, and a thoughtful approach to all of life’s difficulties provide the likely path to ultimate fulfillment,” he adds. “And getting a few more wins and the odd bit of extra success won’t hurt the process either.”