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Team Performance and the Three Levels of Mental Focus
Team performance can be drastically affected by the mental focus that you or your teammates choose to adopt.
Have you ever wondered how some athletes or performers enjoy the spotlight and others seem to shrink from it?
Have you ever wondered how some teammates so often find themselves frustrated by failure, while others appear to be energized by it?
I believe the difference is found in how those teammates choose to mentally approach their competitive situation. There are three distinct “mental focus” levels that people or in any competitive field go through as they mature...
Each stage has a different primary thought pattern, described below:
1) Mistake focused – “How could I do that?”
This is the lowest level, where many athletes or performers begin, and unfortunately a stage that some individuals never get out of.
Athletes or teammates in this stage are so concerned with failing and all the ramifications that come from it that the fear of failure controls them.
Mistake focused people keep telling themselves “don’t think of the color red.” And as they fill their mind with “not red, anything but red,” all they end up doing is thinking of red. Red could be a missed serve in volleyball, a missed sale with a client, or any error relevant to your specific industry or situation.
Instead of visualizing success, or valuing and growing from the lessons that failure can offer, people who are error focused often find themselves spiraling downward in their performances and may engage in negative self-talk as well.
This is a golfer with the “yips,” or a stuttering uncertain salesman. This choice of mental focus is a terrible way to approach your next performance, because a focus on mistakes paralyzes you with worry and becomes a significant obstacle to greatness.
2) Outcome focused – “How am I compared to others?”
This is the second level of focus that people and athletes reach.
When in this stage, their emotional health and self-perceptions are largely determined by the results of their team or individual performance in relation to competition.
Outcome focused athletes (or salesmen, or teachers) link their self-esteem and sense of accomplishment to wins and losses, regardless of competition level. Their confidence is impacted by external circumstances or results.
If an opponent has a poor record, or doesn’t look good in pregame warm-ups, these individuals get excited about the win and play with an increased assurance. If the other team has a good reputation, or looks strong and solid in warm-ups, these individuals often convince themselves they can’t win and their quality of play is impacted accordingly.
And it is after the game is over, or the meeting concludes, the people in this stage define themselves by the outcome. If they win, they feel confident and heap praise on themselves, but if they lose (the game or the sale) they feel horrible and wallow in self-criticism.
Outcome focused people enjoy competition as long as they think they can win – and because they link their self-worth and sense of progress to comparisons with their competition, they seldom have an accurate idea of how far they have come or how far they need to go to become great.
These are the players that look forward to playing weak opponents. These are salesmen that live on reaching only for low-hanging fruit.
If those they compete against are weak, they maintain a false sense of confidence and are not motivated to improve… and if their competition is tough they often shrink into frustration and dejection, feeing they are not successful even if they were steadily improving.
3) Challenge focused – “How can I get better?”
This last level is the most important for athletes or performers to reach.
Losing is never enjoyable, but that outcome is seen as irrelevant as the desire for a worthy challenge is worth much more than empty or easy victory to them.
External circumstances or results such as records or opponent reputations mean nothing. Challenge focused people know that progress is only proven when you measure yourself against your past and see improvement there.
Those who have reached this stage seek out better competition and know that to improve you must constantly challenge yourself. Failure is simply seen as part of the process of improvement, as they continue to work hard so they can perform with comfort and confidence in difficult situations.
Challenge focused people want the ball in the last moments of a game, they want to call on that big client, and they perform the best under the greatest pressure because they are excited about the experience instead of afraid. They do not define themselves by the outcome, but by acknowledging the person that they are becoming.
These are the Michael Jordans and the Steve Jobs of the world – people who risk and try and learn and grow and delight in the journey of improvement.
This is where greatness is truly achieved.
So where is your mental focus at?
At times, you may find yourself wavering between two of them…
The key is to remember that, just like our attitudes, our mental focus is a CHOICE we make each day. Instead of fearing failure or defining yourself by the outcomes of your competitive experiences, seek to challenge yourself to become more skilled, more bold, and more passionate about enjoying the experience of continual personal and professional growth.
Once you have reached this stage yourself, you will find that you are far more equipped to encourage others on your team to adopt this view.
Like a mountain climber sending down a rope to assist others in their climb, Challenge focused people can become better teammates by helping others grow and become more consistently challenge focused as well.