What does an Olympic athlete have in common with a business leader? A lot more than you would think, according to Graham Jones, a psychologist who specializes in helping athletes and business executives perform to their highest abilities. Both must perform consistently under pressure, he points out, a skill that requires mental toughness.
Jones, a founder of Lane 4 Management Group, an international firm devoted to leadership development and organizational performance located on Wall Street, will present “Thriving on Pressure: Mental Toughness for Real Leaders,” on Thursday, December 3, at 9 a.m. at the Paul Robeson Center, 102 Witherspoon Street. This event is open by invitation only. For more information, call 609-759-8929.
At the highest levels of performance, whether in business or sports, mental toughness is the final ingredient for consistent success, says Jones. Growing up in Wales, he first became interested in psychology, particularly as it related to sports, through his own participation in field hockey and cricket, which he played for his country.
Despite a natural ability, he was unable to consistently fulfill his potential on the international field. Deciding he wasn’t going to make it to the top in either of his sports, he headed to academe at age 19, to study sport science. This included sports psychology, a relatively new field at the time.
He received his Ph.D. in performance psychology from the University of Wales in 1986, where he later became professor of elite performance psychology.
Jones has worked with a wide variety of elite performers, including world champions and Olympic medal winners, professional golfers on the European tour, the 1996 Great Britain Olympic team, the Wales Rugby Union team, the British Bobsleigh Association, the Great Britain Hockey team, and the Royal Marines.
He has also worked with individual world-ranked performers from a variety of sports, including squash, swimming, soccer, judo, ice skating, track and field athletics, motor racing, cricket, snooker, and trampolining.
Jones himself had to be persuaded that the techniques he taught to athletes could be transferred to the business world. He had spent almost two decades coaching international level athletes when he was approached by an executive at 3M in the United Kingdom to run a training workshop for his executives. “I’d never been in the world of business,” he says. He agreed to try it however, and the first workshop turned into a several-year relationship.
About the same time, while coaching UK athletes for the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta, Jones met UK Olympic gold medal swimmer Adrian Moorhouse, who with several other well-known athletes had begun giving motivational speeches to a variety of groups.
“The athletes could talk about what they had done, but there was no meat,” Jones says. “I was asked to join the presentation to explain how this could be translated into someone’s daily life.”
The collaboration was the basis for Lane 4 Management Group, which Moorhouse and Jones founded in 1995. The group now has offices in England, Switzerland, and Australia, and includes performance psychologists, former Olympic champions, organizational development experts, and high performance coaches.
Jones, the author of a number of books, has titled his current workshop after his most recent book, “Thriving on Pressure.” He describes the four areas of mental toughness shared by elite athletes and senior business leaders share.
Staying in control under stress. We are all familiar with the outward signs of stress. A feeling of nervousness, sweaty palms, a slight muscle tremor. That’s beyond the doubts and feelings of frustration.
There are several techniques for managing stress, including visualization of your goals, and managing your thoughts. “Most stress is self-imposed. The trick is to control your thinking,” says Jones. “Ask yourself, ‘Is it really this bad?’”
He says that one of the best ways to minimize the pressure during a stressful situation is to maximize your support systems and “tackle the source” of the stress head-on.
Stay focused. Jones calls this “controlling the controllables.” In any situation there are dozens of details that are out of our individual control; by looking at the areas where we do have control we can stay focused on success.
“I’ve found that a lot of people have trouble pinpointing what really matters,” he says. This can lead to feeling overwhelmed or bombarded by too many things at once.
To help people prioritize he suggests a well-known rubric — classify tasks into four areas. These are: “urgent and import,” “not urgent but important,” “urgent but unimportant,” and “not urgent and unimportant.”
Many people find themselves swamped by those urgent but unimportant details of life, such as returning phone calls or writing memos, rather than looking at the more important tasks that need to be accomplished. This is only a way to increase stress, rather than decrease it.
Make motivation work for you. Jones suggests four questions that should be asked about your motivation:
1). Am I in control of my motivation? At the highest level of competition, athletes are really competing against themselves, attempting to better their own past performance; this is internal motivation.
2). Do I enjoy my motivation? A good way to tell if you are really enjoying your motivation is what you think about when going to bed, suggests Jones. Do you go to bed thinking that something or someone is depending on you to succeed? Or are you looking forward to what you are doing?
3). Do I give a damn? Many people find themselves trapped working for something they do not care about, says Jones. This is often a symptom of burn-out and leads to feelings of helplessness and “no matter what I do I can’t change anything.”
4). Am I doing this for the right reasons? This, according to Jones, is the difference between “real leaders” and “safe leaders.” To be a real leader you have to put yourself out there, he says.
Maintain your beliefs. When athletes ranked a variety of qualities important for winning, belief was ranked number one, Jones says. “If you can’t believe in yourself, you’ve had it.”
“For every success there are dozens of failures. You have to constantly remind yourself how you got to where you are. It takes skills and experience to achieve anything,” he says. The best way to jog your memory about your successes is to write out a list of your achievements that so that you can remind yourself when you are down, about what you have already accomplished.
It is easy to be a leader when things are going well, it is more difficult in today’s tough and highly pressured business environment. “Leadership is demanding in any economic climate but current conditions are crying out like never before for leaders to step up to the plate,” he says. There is a risk, though. “Visibility makes leaders exposed and vulnerable, which means real leadership can be a lonely and highly pressured place.”