We’ll set the stage for you. Your heart is racing and you can feel your pulse from the inside out. Your breathing is shallow, rapid, and heavy all at the same time. Beads of sweat form in your hands and on your forehead as your chest tightens. Is this your body reacting to a perceived threat – or – a challenging new opportunity?
We had the recent pleasure of working with sport psychology coach and performance consultant, Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.. Matt has more than a decade of experience working with athletes, coaches, parents, businesses and educators on the mental aspects of elite performance. He is currently a Performance Consultant with Telos Sport Psychology Coaching, assisting the development of individuals and teams from the junior level to the highest professional ranks through workshops, individual meetings, speaking engagements and publications.
We spoke with Matt about the many different environments in which he has helped elite performers, and of them all he says the one common thread is that every game is a mental game. Matt has always had a growing curiosity about what sets the Top 5% of athletes apart from everyone else. He began a private practice to help athletes create a path for success. Here is what Matt’s curious journey has led him to uncover about high-performers.
Every situation can either be viewed as a threat or as an opportunity. To be clear, our use of the word “threat” refers to an obstacle or challenge, rather than a truly dangerous threat.
The way you perceive a situation has a lot to do with your environment. Your environment affects how you feel, how you show up for yourself and for others, and how you approach challenges.
Matt recommends creating an environment in which you can thrive. Notice his use of the word ‘thrive”, not “survive’. This is about enhancing your environment to become one in which you have the best chance for success.
Matt encourages you to reflect on a couple of questions about your current environment:
What are some of the things you are currently doing to create a great environment?
In what ways is your current enviroment encouraging you to be courageous?
Matt is a firm believer in emotional contagion. How you manage the emotion in your environment is a key factor in playing the mental game. The goal should be to create an environment where your values match the values of the people around you. To do so, you can focus on creating an environment where the healthy habits you want yourself and your team members to form are easier to access, and the things you don’t want to happen in your environment are more difficult to access. Matt uses the example of cell phone distraction in the workplace. If you want to create an environment with fewer cell phone distractions, establish a rule where cell phones are turned off or silenced, placed in desk drawers, or simply monitored less frequently.
Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner and author of the book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, mentions that we are quick to judge and put things in a yes, no, good, or bad bucket.
It is easy to fall victim to your biases as you’re trying to navigate and understand tough situations. It is when you are able to reduce your preconceived notions and bias that you can truly understand the scope of the situation you are navigating and the environment that surrounds you.
Mindset is an important factor in discerning threat from opportunity. Matt suggests to first build an awareness of your mindset around a challenge. Is your mindset primarily positive or primarily negative? Have you formed habits around your thinking that prevent you from taking action?
The answer is most often yes. To combat the forming of negative mindset habits, Matt coaches athletes to make subtle shifts in their habits. By choosing deliberate shifts in changing negative mindset habits, you can become biased to thinking before taking action.
Matt equates this to giving yourself the gift of time. Before making shortsighted decisions, it is important to take a step back and think about the last decade of your life and career. Can you think of a time when you were faced with a similar situation? What things can you extract from your past experiences to make you a better leader or performer?
Have there been times when you took action without thinking about all possible outcomes, only to have your action fall short? And, on the other hand, have there been times when you have delayed taking action due to overthinking a situation or being fearful of a negative outcome?
A Mastery Experience Exercise
Your past experiences can serve as resources for your future challenges.
What are some of the challenges in your world right now that will require little or some work to accomplish but have a more than 70% chance of a successful outcome?
What are some of the opportunities in your world right now that will require a lot of work to accomplish but have a less than 30% chance of a successful outcome?
How well are you using your time and resources?
The mental game of mindset shift is to view every challenge as an opportunity instead of a threat. Channel the resources you’ve gained from past experiences to embrace a new challenge differently and as an opportunity to do better.
Do you remember the opening scene? Racing heart, shallow breath, sweaty palms. This emotion is actually really healthy. When you begin to sweat, this is a signal from your mind telling your body to activate and to begin focus on taking care of the demands that it needs to. This is good. This is enhanced focus. These advanced activation signals mean your body is nearing the zone where it is uncomfortably challenged, which is where beauty happens.
It is natural to make avoidance-type choices when trying to protect yourself from threat.
What if you were able to reframe this threat as an opportunity to make courageous choices for strength and growth? When the physical effects of challenges arise, you can choose to ignore them or you can choose to rise to them, to harness that increased energy and focus.
Think of other times throughout your career and some of the moments that have given you the most confidence. More than likely, these were times when you met your challenges well.
The best way to grow your skill and confidence is through your own mastery experiences. Navigating these tough moments so that if they arise again, your body will immediately recognize threat signals as opportunities. “I’ve been through this before” ‘I know what to do here’.
Matt isn’t encouraging false positivity. He does encourage you to lean into your challenge, assess the situation, sit with your discomfort, and identify ways you can channel this into impactful areas of focus.
The Power of Pause
We stink at this as humans. We are hard-wired to move away from challenge and threats quickly. Most people view pausing as becoming vulnerable to a threat.
The most common beliefs about pausing are:
If you pause, you’ll lose momentum.
If you pause, you’ll miss out on a deal.
If you pause, an opportunity will pass you by.
If other people see you pause, they might perceive you as being behind.
Matt challenges you to think differently about your internal (self) and external (social) pressures to be “on” all the time. Instead, he encourages becoming intentional about the areas of your life that will allow you to model pause.
Are you able to pause and reflect on some of the behaviors that have brought you to your present challenges. Pause, reflection, thinking time and introspection are all pathways to enhanced focus. Enhanced focus will allow you to gain the clarity and understanding of your challenges, and to discern whether or not you are being threatened or offered an opportunity.
Managing Emotion Through Pause
In her book, “How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of The Brain”, author Lisa Feldman Barrett explores how to become more granular with your emotion.
The idea behind becoming granular with your emotion is to consider that your perception of your situation can be different from the reality of your situation.
For example, when your heart rate is up and you are sweating, you could easily perceive this as anxiety and fear. However, if you allow yourself to pause, you may actually find that you are experiencing excitement and adrenaline. The physical sensations you are experiencing may actually be your body readying itself to do something really cool. That is an opportunity.
Adaptability = Sustainability
Resilience is a flexible adaptation to the changing demands of stressful experiences. Flexible adaptation is difficult to embrace.
What would flexible adaptation look like in your world? What would true resilience look like in your workplace?
Intentional adaptability is being willing to miss. A lot of being a high-performer is about settling in, adapting, and proactively accepting that you can miss without failing. It is having a plan and committing to it when your gut reaction is to run away. You’ve trained for this; you know what you are supposed to do, so see it through and adapt if you miss. Be willing to miss and resilient enough to know that you can handle whatever comes next after you miss.
There are 4 key ways that we develop adaptability:
- Intentionally taking on challenge using the resources from your past experiences.
- Reflecting on those experiences – “What did I do there that will help me here?”.
- Seeing others like us do things that we feel we can do. “I see how they are doing it, and I can do it too”.
- Having others to push and challenge you.
Support From Others
- Having people who believe in you.
- Surround yourself with people who will keep you going when we you are full of doubt.
- Routines, breathing exercises, and things you can lean into to help you manage your resilience factor.
- Interpreting stress signals and having a way to cope through the situation.
When you think of your competitors, what comes to mind?
Matt uses the example of the Federer-Nadal Rivalry. The tennis rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal is considered one of the greatest in the history of the sport. Federer and Nadal played each other 40 times, with Nadal leading 24–16 overall, including 14–10 in finals.
“As much as he’s hurt me and hurt my career, I always respect and enjoy the matchups. I think he made me a tougher and better player over the years”
– Roger Federer about Rafael Nadal
This is the mindset of an Olympian.
Competition, when in your head as a distraction is a threat.
Competition, when viewed as a benchmark is an opportunity.
Competition is an opportunity for you to create a better plan for yourself.
Matt suggests that your biggest competitor should always be yourself. It is wise to acknowledge your competition and wish them to do great things, then go focus on yourself and become a better version of you.
Go find more opportunities for yourself that will make your heart race, palms go clammy and your adrenaline rush.
Play the mental game.
Be willing to miss your mark with resilience.
Afterall, business is one big mastery experience. The beauty is that we get to do it together; not as competitors, as a benchmark for something even better.
Bill, Debbie & The MEC Team
Special thanks to Matt Cuccaro for sharing your own mastery experience with us. To learn more about Matt and the work he does, visit www.telos-spc.com