How do the highest achievers think differently? Consider the professional athletes who have won multiple championships: the Tom Bradys and Kobe Bryants of the world. They’ve mastered their craft, but their mindsets also set them apart from their peers. What do they do differently to reach peak performance?
Dr. Stan Beecham is a sports psychologist, and director and found member of the Leadership Resource Center in Atlanta, Georgia. He’s the author of Elite Minds: How Winners Think Differently to Create a Competitive Edge and Maximize Success. Dr. Beecham has worked with the best of the best from all over the world, and has discovered some fascinating insights regarding ultra-successful people.
I recently interviewed Dr. Beecham to learn from those insights. (The transcript below has been edited lightly for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: You say that the primary determinant of success isn’t talent or experience; it’s mindset.
Stan Beecham: Division one athletes are basically the top 1% of high school athletes. You could argue that professional athletes are another top five to 1% of those. When you get at that level, say for example, in professional football, the reality is everyone is talented.
I’ve had the chance now for the last 25 years of working with these populations where everyone is talented. It becomes an issue of, “Who are the kids that really fully maximize their talent? What are the things that get in the way that keep them from realizing their talent?”
Do you really love this sport? But not only do you love this sport, do you love to practice? Do you love to go to the gym? If you’ve got two kids with equal talent and one kid loves to practice, then his whole experience of practice is going to be different because he’s doing something he wants to do.
At the same time, you might also find kids who are okay with themselves. They’re not trying to win someone’s approval or show that they’re good enough. They’re just playing the sport out of the joy of it. These kids have a huge competitive advantage. We know that human beings are at their best when they’re in the zone, when we’re not concerned about ourselves. In fact, we don’t even think.
People who’ve dabbled in sports psychology, they say, “Well, the kid who’s the better performer, they think differently.”
The reality is not that they think differently. It’s that they don’t think. It’s the absence of thought. It’s the absence of cognition. It’s the absence of emotion. That really is the advantage.
Kruse: It’s as if the unconscious mind moves so fast that it triggers faster than our conscious thinking, so we have to actually impact the unconscious.
Beecham: Let’s break it down. We know that it’s the mental game that counts, whether it’s sports or business. Because the mind is controlling the body. You have to think of the brain as the computer system, and you have to think of your belief system as your software.
So, you could be gifted, and you could be in great shape, but if the way that your mind is functioning is counter to that, you’ll never realize that physical potential. The starting place is to become conscious of your own thought process. Most of us, we go through the day and we’re thinking all day long. That’s what the mind does. It thinks, and you’re either aware of the thought or you’re not, but you’re thinking all the time.
For example, for an athlete going into a competition, if my belief about myself is, “I’m not as good as other people and I’m not as good as these other guys,” I carry that with me all the time, this sense of not being good enough or not being adequate. Then, you can see that there are certain thoughts that I’m going to have which is, “I need to play really well to do well,” and so that belief system of what you hold as true is going to lead to a certain way of thinking, which is going to lead to a certain way of acting.
If you think of people who consistently win, you would say, “Well, they win all the time because they want to win, right? They want it bad enough.” The reality is that’s not true at all. It’s that people that win and succeed at a high level, they don’t actually think about winning. They simply believe they’re going to do well.
In other words, if I know I’m going to win the game, then why would I even think about winning the game? If there’s some uncertainty as to how I’m going to do, “Am I going to win or not?” I will spend a lot of time thinking about that.
Kruse: In terms of these unconscious beliefs in a work setting, I unconsciously might think I don’t have a shot at a promotion, and that could affect my performance in the interview.
Beecham: Yeah. What I would say to that person is, number one, don’t do your job with the intention of getting promoted or recognized. Just do your job to the best of your ability.
In other words, if I start my career with the belief that I’m going to have a successful career and I’m going to get a lot of opportunities, and when I get an opportunity, I know I’m going to nail it. Then, when I go to work, what I’m thinking about is doing my job to the best of my ability. I think the kid who goes to work every day and they’re trying to win someone’s approval so that they can get a promotion or a raise, people sense that.
You know that guy.
The best way to get a raise, the best way to get recognized is to not worry about it. Just do your job really well. The other people that are competent around you, they’re going to see that you’re competent, and they’re going to offer you opportunities.
Kruse: But what if I’m a pitcher who really thinks we’re going to win the game and I’m going to get nine strikeouts, but there’s that great hot batter that’s been batting .450 lately. Or, I’m that sales professional; I can say that I’m going to win this deal, but in the back of my mind, I know we’re up against the tough competitor and budgets are tight. What do we do to massage that unconscious or to really anchor that belief system?
Beecham: Here’s the reality of human beings. We’re dynamic and we’re always changing. Let’s go back to the salesperson. One Monday, every time I call on someone, I thought I was going to get a yes and get their business, but I made six sales calls on Monday and everybody said no. Now, it’s Tuesday, and all of a sudden, I’m not feeling so confident.
You see this in sport too where athletes go from having a lot of confidence to not. It’s true for all of us. It’s true for the best. The question is, how do I get back to it? It really goes back to looking at the bigger picture, and reminding myself that I had a bad day because everybody has a bad day.
One of the things that’s a problem with our hero-worship society is, we think of these people who are these great folks as successful people. We don’t think that they struggle and experience failure the way that we do, but the fact of the matter is they do.
In other words, most people’s definition of success is the avoidance of failure. People who are really successful will tell you their definition of success is their response to failure, and they would actually argue that you have to have failure. In other words, there’s no such thing of success without failure.
Kruse: You say we need to stop trying to get better all the time. What do you mean?
Beecham: We all live in a culture and society that’s obsessed with better, right? We’ve been taught since day one that in order to be successful, you have to always want to get better and at the moment you quit trying to get better, then the competition is going to pass you up.
I believed that for most of my career. What I’ve just learned in the last five years, is I really sat with this obsession with better and really said, “What is this about? Like what is this born out of?” What I realized is that the reason that we, most of us, want to be better is because we fundamentally believe that we’re not good enough yet.
The problem with better is better is about the future. You can’t get better now. But performance, everything that you do, you do in the now. You do in the present moment.
Whatever the situation that you’re in, even if it’s not an ideal situation, you could still make the best of it. If you consistently do your best, what’s going to happen to over time? You get better. You grow and develop by consistently doing your best.
What I want people to understand is, is no matter what you think about yourself, you are good enough to do your best right now. No matter how hard you try, you can’t be better than what you are. I know at first, it looks like a play on words…but what we have to understand is, is this culture that’s obsessed with better is also an anxious culture.
25% of American population has a diagnosable mental disorder, and 80% of that or 20% of us have an anxiety disorder, and anxiety is about the future. When the mind goes to the future, you quit performing at your best, so what we know about when human beings are at their best, they don’t go forward in the future. They don’t go backwards in the past. They stay present, and the mind gets really quiet, and you function optimally. The problem that I have with better is it keeps pulling you to the future.
If you’re a leader, just go to people and say, “Look, all I’m asking you to do is do the best that you can.” If you’re a leader of an organization whether it’d be sport or business, what I would say is if you could get the people on your team to perform at their best, then you’re doing your job at a high level.