Mental toughness

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Mental toughness is about identifying and using particular mental strategies in order to remain focused on what’s important so that people can pursue excellence. This 1 hour presentation to the Business Improvement in Government (BiiG) forum explored mental toughness in terms of the Queensland Public Service’s Capability and Leadership Framework (CLF) relates to “Exemplifies personal drive and integrity” > “displays resilience” through the use of Olympic stories and the Nine Mental Skills model. The stories and model were then mapped back to organisational life within the public service to help the forum embed the learnings and reflect on how they might apply them in their role as leaders.

The first Olympic story demonstrated how  in high pressure/performance situations, there are always external unknowns – no matter how much we prepare and pre-plan, there are always things outside of our sphere of control. However, we can always focus on what we do know: which is how to prepare and manage ourself in the moment. By focusing on our own mental preparation, we can keep our locus of control within and we can focus our breathing, our thinking, our emotional state and therefore our thoughts and actions. Jack J. Lesyk from Ohio developed the nine mental skills model through his research with high-performance athletes. Lesyk found that successful athletes consistently utilise the same mental skills over and over and he noticed that there different groupings of skills. From this he developed the 9 Mental Skills of successful athletes, which is organised into 3 Levels: basic skills, preparation skills and performance skills.

The second Olympic story explored the importance of the basic mental preparation skills: attitude, motivation, goals and commitment and people skills. Without these fundamental skills, athletes can’t even get into the game, let alone compete successfully. Similarly, for public sector employees and leaders, these skills form the basis of successful leadership and team development. The challenge for leaders and teams within large organisations is that there is no simple goal. Athletes are there for one simple, compelling reason – a round shiny piece of metal. And everyone has a specific role to perform in order for the team to win that medal. In larger organisations, the goals are more ambivalent and ambiguous and this uncertainty can have a significant impact on attitude and motivation. As leaders how can we support our people to have simple yet compelling goals?

The third Olympic story demonstrated the importance of preparation skills: mental imagery and self-talk. These skills are what get athletes ready to go into battle at their peak. They support the athletes to prepare specifically for a high-performance event. In corporate or public sector terms, a high-performance event is one where the stakes are high, there is stress/pressure and the promise of a significant or game-changing outcome. Unfortunately, in most corporate environments, the type of preparation is logistical or technical: is everything ready, do we have all the information, are all the cogs in the wheel ready to go, do I know everything I need to. This is usually because of a negative focus. That is, many leaders armour themselves in analytical facts so because they are fearful of being wrong, making a mistake, looking foolish. What is interesting is how in many corporate environments, there is a sink or swim culture where new employees are thrown into the deep end. The question is, how do leaders support their staff to be in the best state of mind and body possible so that they can achieve a high-performance outcome?

The final Olympic story focused  on the performance skills required within the high-performance event itself that ensures that athletes remain focused and in the peak-performance zone: concentration, dealing with emotions and dealing with anxiety. The learning for leaders from this story is where are you placing your attention during a high-performance event? Are you focused on your self or on the noise and discomfort around you? In order to focus, we actually have to focus on something, to the exclusion of something else, so concentration and focus are critical to keep our mental state in the zone and not triggered.

The final learning from the forum was that high-performance athletes train their body and mind specifically to deal with high-performance events. But do corporate leaders? Do team leaders and managers train to be more effective in high-pressure and stressful situations? The answer is usually no.

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