The next time you’re on the way to a big meeting or about to give an important presentation, you might want to stop along the way, pop on a set of headphones and tune in a motivating playlist. Pump it up, to get your energy started. Grab a favorite “fidget” device to go with it or do a little air-boxing while thinking about your company’s competition.
The most accomplished people in the world use these tactics, said Daniel McGinn, executive editor for Harvard Business Review—and not just athletes. Why? Because it takes more than 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something, but you also need to be mentally focused and emotionally prepared to perform at your best.
McGinn was the last act in the Window and Door Manufacturers Association’s (WDMA) Virtual Executive Management Conference earlier this month, where he covered many of the findings included in his book: “Psyched Up.” The session included key examples for how some of the world’s top athletes and businesspeople gear up for their matches and meetings.
If you’ve ever noticed pro athletes wearing headphones to and from locker rooms and playing fields, you might think those cases were mostly about product placement and sponsorships. But that’s not entirely the case, McGinn said. In addition to other rituals, some professional athletes listen to the same playlists before every game to keep themselves mentally focused and energized, he explained. “These guys are all creatures of habit,” he said, showing an image of Tom Brady.
“Music really can change the way we look at the world and our energy level. I would encourage you to consider what type of music you can listen to in the car, on the way to an event … business requires the same level of focus,” he suggested. According to McGinn, ritual, routine and superstition can increase performance in the board room as much as on the playing field. “Business requires you to bring your ‘A’ game on certain occasions,” he said. Among the most important factors are confidence, energy and eliminating anxiety. In general, when most people aren’t performing well, it isn’t because they’re incapable, but because confidence levels are too low, he said. “You want to find ways to crank their confidence up a little,” he said.
McGinn shared an example in which the U.S. Army used combinations of music and reinforcing dialogue about key accomplishments and past performances—a highlight reel of sorts—to boost the confidence of cadet athletes before taking the field. In the same way, “You can create a sort of montage of your greatest professional feats,” he suggested. “The idea is to build a little mental library, pulling them out at key moments to remind yourself, ‘Hey … I’m pretty good at this.’”
In high school, when entering another team’s gym, the first thing you often see is their trophy case. “People put this up to remind themselves of their accomplishments,” he said. “Find subtle ways to remind yourself and your team of your own accomplishments.” Near his desk, he keeps a display of issues for Harvard Business Review. That’s to remind him, he said, of what a great publication he helps to produce.
But for some people, no amount of practice and preparation seems to make for their best performances. In those cases, the primary detractor includes anxiety, he suggested. So far as why pre-game rituals work to undo anxious feelings, “Your body sort of goes into autopilot,” he said. “The second thing that these things do is they distract us from our impending performances.” Repetitive motions or “fidget” tools also work to distract the mind from anxious thoughts ahead of a performance, he said. For instance, before teeing off some golfers will carry a ball in their hand, tossing it up and down.
Other techniques include psyching oneself up with a little reverse psychology. For instance, one study showed that amateur performers who told themselves they were excited about their performances showed marked improvements over those who admitted they were nervous. Those types of activities are “subtle nudges … but if you can get your mind to a point where it believes you aren’t nervous, but excited, it can make all the difference,” he said.
For some, anger can be a motivating factor, he said. Swimmer Michael Phelps would sometimes slap himself before a meet or use other techniques to make him feel more aggressive. “He gets off on getting angry about the folks he’s about to swim against,” McGinn said, showing an image of Phelps glaring at one of his opponents before a race.
Those techniques probably aren’t suited to business, he admitted, but that doesn’t mean that business leaders shouldn’t focus on their biggest competitors. “Rivalries between big brands that go up against one another,” such as Coke and Pepsi, he said, can serve as rallying factors.
But it’s also important to assess the situation and aim for the proper amount of energy. Coming in “too hot” for a one-on-one sales meeting might be a turn off.
If all of this sounds like a little too much, then, “I would suggest [focusing on just] anxiety,” McGinn said. Among the various factors, anxious feelings are the main detractor for most people, he said. And if basic techniques aren’t cutting it, you might consider seeing a doctor to explore pharmaceutical options, such as beta blockers, he said. Another underutilized resource includes sports psychologists. While it sounds unconventional, with so many therapists overbooked amid COVID-19, they aren’t a bad option, he suggested. As it turns out, sports and business have more in common than you might think.