Positive thinking is a critical leadership attribute during times of change. Positive thinking is more than just focusing on the good. It’s about resilience and mental strength, tendencies that are crucial to navigating difficult transitions with confidence.
However, we often try to cultivate a positive mental attitude after the going gets tough. We realize the value of positive thinking once we have suffered setbacks. Often p
That’s like reinforcing the foundation of a house after the walls have been severely cracked. Like those home improvement shows when the homeowners finally realize that a cosmetic upgrade just won’t do the trick, and they begin to accept that they desperately need a complete overhaul.
Mental attitude is like the foundation of a house. Imagine if one were to build the foundation right the first time, strong and sturdy. The foundation would not only withstand forces of nature, but it would also provide a tenacious frame to support future growth and success.
The greatest revolution of our generation is the discovery that human beings by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.― William James
Turn to any book on personal growth and development and you are bound to find inspiring stories of athletes. Athletes who have beaten the odds to achieve a major feat, athletes who have redefined their sport by pushing the boundaries, athletes who have overcome the heartbreaking loss or debilitating disease and not just regained their former glory but exceeded their personal best.
I am fascinated by these stories. As I read these books I wonder…
What sets these elite athletes apart? What makes them strive for and achieve the impossible? What is their underlying mental attitude and how does it contribute to their success? What can we learn from their stories that will help us transform our lives?
Many research studies have been conducted on athletes on topics such as motivation, optimism, and excellence. While studying athletes in rehabilitation, researchers identified 6 distinct patterns at the core of a positive mental attitude.
Each case of successful rehabilitation exhibited these 6 characteristics. When researchers analyzed other successes – executives, entrepreneurs, and visionaries – they found the same mental patterns to be prevalent. Success it seemed was directly proportional to forming and sustaining these patterns.
Today’s post covers the 6 pillars of a positive mental attitude used by athletes. Each on its own can make a big difference; used in conjunction they can transform a life.
I have embedded powerful coaching questions in each section to help you examine your own mental attitude and to spark insights.
Pillar 1: Inner Motivation
The first pillar of a positive mental attitude, inner motivation, is a key factor in creating lasting change. Inner motivation, often, manifests as a keen desire to move towards a compelling future. In the case of recovering athletes, the motivation to get away from their current state offers an equally powerful motivation.
Athletes employ both, a pull towards their vision (approach) and a push away from their current reality (avoidance), to reap maximum motivation. This inner motivation provides the impetus to progress even when they face agony or defeat.
Neuroscience studies indicate that PFC activation differs based on whether a person is approach-motivated or avoidance motivated. Setting goals so they align with a person’s default direction is one of the most powerful ways to ratchet up the motivational intensity of the goal.
You can’t put a limit on anything. The more you dream, the farther you get.— Michael Phelps
Anyone can use this powerful mechanism for change by focusing on the pain and pleasure motivation, calibrating them appropriately to attain the desired goal.
If you are attempting to accomplish a specific goal or an outcome, ask yourself this:
- What do you really want?
- What would it feel like to attain that goal? Imagine the outcome with all of your senses – see, hear, smell, taste and feel the achievement of the goal.
- What might be an undesirable consequence if that goal is not achieved?
- How might your discomfort or suffering be alleviated, if you achieve that goal?
Pillar 2: High Standards
Professional athletes settle for nothing less than their best. Athletes rely on the second pillar, high inner standards, to elevate their performance, often striving to exceed their personal best.
Researchers working with recovering athletes have found much the same. Their subjects are not only eager to regain their strength but want more, they expect to be even better than they were before their injuries. Far from being stressful, this desire to achieve ultimate results amplifies their inner motivation, pushing them to work harder at their recovery.
Athletes pursue these high standards of their own volition. The desire to improve with every shot, practice, and game comes from their love of the game. It is fueled by the determination to win.
Set your goals high, and don’t stop till you get there.— Bo Jackson
Last year, I dreamed of rebooting my website. It was effort-intensive because of my consulting and coaching commitments. But the vision of a new site, aligned towards my focus of brain-based change, inspired and motivated me. With deliberate intention, I built a new writing routine. I returned to the blank page with renewed enthusiasm.
As you are working on your own goals, be it getting fit, writing consistently or becoming proficient in a new technical skill, do not be afraid to set high standards.
- What are your current standards for your goals?
- If it was guaranteed that you could not fail, how would those standards change?
- What is stopping you from elevating your standards?
Pillar 3: Chunked Goals
The third pillar of a positive mental attitude is the ability to “chunk” goals, to work on your goals one step at a time.
Athletes overcoming an injury, even while setting high standards, focus their attention and effort on “bite-size” achievements. They have to overcome pain before they can move their limbs, stand before they can walk, walk before they can run, run before they can compete in their sport. Not only does this demand rigorous discipline, but it also engenders heightened levels of gratitude and positivity.
Chunking enables the athletes to focus on the smallest task they are able to do now. It generates satisfaction in completing the smallest tasks to the best of their ability. Each task becomes a milestone on their journey to recovering their full strength.
The strategy of chunking is supported by neuroscience. The brain can retain 4 to 7 pieces of information in working memory at any time. By breaking down goals, one can focus on and accomplish a chunk at a time. Chunking also works alongside the reward mechanism. When chunks are mastered, the brain receives a dopamine reward which motivates one to work on other chunks.
Push yourself again and again. Don’t give an inch until the final buzzer sounds.— Larry Bird
If you are feeling frustrated in your own journey towards a vision, ask yourself this:
- What might be the milestones on this journey?
- How can you “chunk” your goals?
- How can you celebrate each small step?
Mind Maps are a fantastic tool to visualize goals in exquisite detail. There is nothing like posting a beautiful Mind Map in plain sight to motivate you to work on those chunked down goals.
Pillar 4: Flexible Timeframes
The fourth pillar of a positive mental attitude is the capacity for temporal manipulation (i.e., viewing time differently). Athletes are known for being able to operate successfully in the present moment while envisioning the fruition of one’s goals in the future.
The mind is the limit. As long as the mind can envision the fact that you can do something, you can do it, as long as you really believe 100 percent.— Arnold Schwarzenegger
Athletes are able to participate fully in the smallest tasks in the present moment. Rather than speculate on their success, they commit to focusing on the next milestone in their journey, whether it is achieving greater success in their sport or completely recovering from injury. To bring mindfulness to their games, many athletes have even integrated meditation practices into their routines.
In contrast to their singular focus on the present moment, they retain a vivid vision of the future when their dreams will manifest. This future orientation is incredibly motivating especially when they face setbacks or failures. When confronted with physical pain or mental fatigue, they are able to bounce back by visualizing doing what they love, feeling healthy and achieving a cherished goal.
If you are feeling distracted or discouraged with your progress, put yourself in the shoes of an athlete and ask:
- What task can benefit from your complete attention now?
- How can the next milestone help you achieve your goal?
- How can you be more mindful as you strive towards your goals?
Pillar 5: Personal Involvement
The next element of a positive mental attitude is being personally involved in the journey.
Researchers found that athletes who participated fully in their rehabilitation plan made faster and more consistent progress in their recovery. Being engaged in each aspect of their treatment allows athletes to influence the plan. It makes them more persistent, increases their commitment to completing tasks. It also makes them more positive and optimistic about any progress, no matter how small it may be.
Neuroscience has revealed that the brain systems involved in thinking about oneself and thinking about one’s goals are connected. Working on goals that are highly self-relevant is intrinsically rewarding.
For athletes, their self-identity is inextricably linked with their sport. Their personal involvement originates from a deep desire to move towards an ideal version of themselves. An athlete’s commitment to self-improvement generates a reward, reinforcing his or her identity, which leads to even greater personal investment. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.
You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.— Wayne Gretzky
If there’s one thing you can learn from recovering athletes, it is this – change requires personal investment. Change seldom happens by watching others from the sidelines. No one cares about your goals more than you. To achieve and exceed your goals in any aspect of your life, you need to have some skin in the game. You need to be determined, jump in, take charge and take action to make your dreams come true.
- On a scale of 1 to 10, how involved are you in setting and planning your goals?
- How can you become more involved in the process?
- How often do you review your goals and plans?
Pillar 6: Self-to-Self Comparison
Is it any surprise that the sixth pillar of a positive mental attitude is a self-to-self comparison? This final trait turned out to be the most critical one for recovering athletes.
The whole world is eager to judge athletes. Everyone from fans to analysts passes judgment on their performance in the field. Followers even hop on social media to tweet out their disappointment.
Rather than succumbing to negative thinking under scrutiny, athletes who were rehabilitated successfully focused on their own progress.
I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.— Michael Jordan
The rest of us “normal” folks are not much different. We often compare our success with others. We all wage our own battle against perfectionism. We all struggle with self-acceptance and fulfillment.
Comparing your performance with others doesn’t serve you. It may discourage or even demoralize you. When it comes to analyzing your performance, instead of comparing your current achievements with those of your colleague or peer, compare them with your starting point.
- Where did you start?
- How far have you come?
- When did you begin to achieve a sense of competence and see progress?
However, comparing ourselves with others, when done sparingly might benefit us. We can learn a great deal about habits, skills, and strategies by observing others’ journey. We can also gather information on what is possible and build a model for achieving that goal. When engaged in such comparisons we might ask:
- What does mastery look like for someone who has accomplished the same goal?
- What other possibilities might need to be considered?
By focusing on learning and growth, we can avoid feeling inadequate in our current status or jealous of other’s achievements. We can train our inner narrator to paint an attractive picture of all the possibilities while reminding us of the distance we have traveled on our own journey.
These six elements of a positive mental attitude create a compelling vision of success. They have worked wonders for recovering athletes and can do the same for you.
By building habits around these pillars, you can reinforce a positive mental attitude. By employing those mental habits on a regular basis, you can achieve true mastery.
What insights have emerged from this article? How will you apply these pillars to your goals? How might coaching increase your positive mental attitude and help you achieve greater success?
Photo Credit: Pixabay
Note: Many coaches have integrated Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) practices into their work. NLP is a popular methodology, although its principles and effectiveness have not been substantiated by empirical evidence. I find value in some NLP principles and techniques that can be proven by neuroscience (for ex., the 6 pillars listed above) and will continue to share those NLP resources on this site.