Serena. Kobe. Neymar. Biles. What’s the X factor that makes great athletes great? According to Ryan Flaherty, Nike senior director of performance and a Nike Performance Council member who trains elite athletes, it’s not speed, strength, endurance or genetics. It’s the mind.
Flaherty has rigorously studied the mental habits and behaviors of hundreds of gold medalists, world champions and record holders up close and personal for 15 years, applying what he’s learned to help any athlete take their performance to the next level. Recently he teamed up with Stephanie Cacioppo, PhD, the director of the Brain Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine and a Nike Performance Council member, to connect the dots with neuroscience. “I’m blown away by how Ryan’s research lines up with the science,” says Dr Cacioppo.
These mental habits and behaviors aren’t just for future hall-of-famers, say Flaherty and Dr Cacioppo. Each of them can be put to work by anyone looking to run a faster mile, play a better game, or just live a better life.
01. Talk to yourself.
Don’t just listen to the voices in your head, talk to them. But in a strategic way experts dub “self-talk.” It’s something athletes use almost universally during challenging moments, and it can help give you the focus and confidence to perform your best, especially when you talk to yourself as if you were your own best friend. This might mean being supportive (“You got this!”) or instructional (“Take a deep breath”), but it’s definitely nonjudgmental (so no calling yourself names for missing that shot or getting passed up for a promotion). It’s also essential to phrase your self-talk in the third or second person, addressing “she” or “you” instead of “I.” This will help you get a little emotional distance and extend the same kindness to yourself as you would to a close friend.
02. See it, be it.
Many elite athletes mentally experience every single step of a competition the night before, from getting out of bed all the way up to accepting a gold medal at the awards ceremony. Visualization, or vividly imagining a positive action or outcome in great detail, primes your mind for the actual experience, improving reflexes, confidence and endurance when you’re actually going through the motions. Don’t just picture everything going perfectly; imagine all the things that could go wrong so that if an obstacle arises, you’re less likely to stress because you have a plan for how to overcome it. You can apply the practice to life-changing moments (nailing an interview to land your dream job or doing your first triathlon even though you’re not a strong swimmer) or everyday tasks, such as a workout.
03. Find your purpose.
You may not know this, but you have a seemingly bottomless pit of motivation that you can tap into at any time — as long as you’ve identified your “why,” a core purpose that lights a fire under you every time you take on a challenge. For elite athletes, the “why” is personal and often emotional. LeBron and Serena, for instance, both say their purpose is to inspire kids who look like them and come from where they come from to achieve greatness. You can start to pinpoint your purpose any time by identifying what fulfills you or what would make you proud. If you’re still at a loss, take your inspiration from the NBA and tennis greats who do it for the next generation and center your purpose on someone you care about. Focusing on the needs of others can keep you motivated and accountable, and it can even inspire you to work a little harder than you would otherwise.
04. Be gritty.
“Grit” is the combination of passion and persistence that helps someone complete their long-term goals. This fortitude is what every coach searches for in an athlete. The easiest way to assess your grit is to look at your follow-through. Do you finish the tasks you start? Do you remember what the task was in the first place? If you’re not sure how to answer those questions, set a small goal that takes you only a couple of days to accomplish (eat a meatless meal three days a week instead of going full vegan, for example). If you accomplish that, try it again and again, maybe adding another day to the week, then another, until the weeks turn into months and maybe even years. Regularly achieving small goals can improve your grit, which can make achieving your bigger goals more of a reality.
05. Get obsessed with the process.
Elite athletes often rely on near-obsessive daily routines to keep their tasks lined up and their goals in sight. In everyday life, creating an effective “process” might be as simple as keeping a rigorous planner. Look at your routine and ask yourself: Does it have consistency (tasks occurring at a regular cadence, so you can find reward from them)? Does it include repetition (tasks that are exactly the same, so you can learn automatically from them)? Does it include an action plan (short-term tasks that ladder up to long-term goals)? Does it emphasize focus (your “why” always being top of mind). And finally, are you implementing it with tolerance (never punishing yourself for failures)? That last one can help ensure you can stick with your process for the long haul.
06. Own it.
In the simplest sense, “ownership” means taking full responsibility for your own progress, without excuses or blame. It’s one of the big lessons that transforms great talents into great athletes, because they’ve recognized their performance is in their control. As with process, there’s an easy breakdown to help make sure you’ve got this one covered: Are you cultivating responsibility (taking charge of a situation when called for)? Are you doing this with accountability (a willingness to accept all the consequences, good and bad)? Are you bringing some reliability (ownership that’s day-in, day-out)? And are you practicing commitment (doing more than what’s merely expected)? Truly taking ownership means that you are a genuine leader. You’re dependable and deliver beyond what anyone expects of you, which is why mastering ownership won’t benefit just you, it also benefits your teammates, family, or friends, who know they can count on you in the clutch and always.