The modern work environment is characterized by ever-increasing standards of performance, technological disruption and continuous change and volatility. Helping learners realize their professional ambitions under such demands requires a more comprehensive approach to performance optimization — one which incorporates not only traditional learning and development (L&D), but the tools to cultivate one’s psychological and emotional fitness.
In athletic contexts, the approach is more integrative. Coaches focus on real-time skills and performance while nutritionists and exercise scientists work to optimize athletes’ biology. To address the psychoemotional aspects of competition, sport and performance psychologists enter the picture, leveraging a collection of research-backed, performance-enhancing mental techniques. Here is a sampling from the vast performance psychology toolkit that learning leaders can use to improve their own performance, as well as the employees they support.
Start With “Why”
Sport psychology places a massive emphasis on personal values. While many organizations recognize the importance of values on workplace culture and leadership development, performance psychologists invest time upfront with clients to identify their core motives. That insight is used to set value-aligned goals, influence behavior and plan for sustaining motivation under adversity.
The retirement dinner exercise is one helpful technique to surface core values. Try this: Imagine yourself at your retirement dinner, surrounded by longtime friends and colleagues. They are preparing to give speeches about you and your career. What would you want them to say about your accomplishments, leadership and ability to handle pressure? How would you hope they describe your behavior, attitude and collaboration? This exercise can help provide valuable insight around who you want to be within your professional domain.
The Zone of Optimal Performance
Performance psychology research also demonstrates that not all adversity is negative. Studies show that as perceived stress increases, our performance actually increases in step, although only to a point. When we exceed that threshold, we experience distress and our performance crumbles. We “choke.”
Counterintuitively, if we are too relaxed our performance still suffers. But when managed appropriately, positive stress — called eustress — primes us for action. We’re able to perform optimally, overcome obstacles and grow our capabilities in the process. Remember this when identifying development opportunities. Intentionally pursue challenges that stretch, rather than break you.
Performance Under Pressure
Our knowledge of eustress can also change how we think about pressure. Stress is inevitable in critical situations, for example before an important proposal or speaking engagement. However, when we dwell on that anxiety, we may create additional undue worry that diminishes our performance. Our understanding of capability-expanding eustress can help break the cycle. We can learn to regulate our physiological arousal and interpret the heightened state not as a problem, but as a necessary precursor to doing great work. Eustress is the fuel of peak performance.
Stress takes another, more harmful form. Chronic stress is a prolonged sense of pressure and causes subpar performance and disengagement. Performance psychologists leverage mindfulness training to reduce stress and negative affect, allowing clients to perform optimally and adjust more eloquently to unexpected demands.
Remarkably, research shows positive outcomes from just 10-12 minutes of daily meditation, and a study published in Consciousness and Cognition demonstrated performance improvement after just four days of mindfulness training. Many financial firms offer meditation programs for trading staff to reduce stress, mitigate bias and improve performance. If your organization places a premium on productivity, it is worth investing in mindfulness.
This subset of practical, work-relevant tools can help you operate in line with your values, use discomfort as fuel, perform mindfully and, ideally, reach your professional potential.