Turbocharging Your Career: Four Steps to the Professional Sports Stratosphere

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The pass takes your breath away.  It’s that lightning-fast, arcing lob that Eli Manning is so famous for, the one that leaves his fingers to hurtle down the field like a missile.  Spellbound, you watch as wide receiver Mario Manningham reaches for the ball, tucks it in, and heads into the end zone for a Giants touchdown.

The scene is the Vancouver 2010 Olympic pair skating finals.  Shen Zue and Zhao Hongbo move in seamless synchrony as they hit element after element in their quest for the gold.  He grabs her waist and throws; she pirouettes through the air three times in a stunning triple salchow and lands, light as gossamer, as they capture the number one spot in Olympic pairs skating, ending almost fifty years of Soviet domination in the sport.

These superstars—and thousands of others like them—live by the number one sports success mantra: setting goals.  Day after day, month after month, they set stretch objectives in their training programs and work to exceed them.  The oldest pair skater in the Olympics, Zhao Hongbo set a goal of performing four sets of hundred ball squats just to warm up.  Manning’s training regimens are legendary.  They understand that in order to excel, they first have to set rigorous goals, and then work hard to achieve them.

There is a good deal of scientific evidence for this strategy as well.  In the book What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School, author Mark McCormack tells of a study conducted with the 1979 graduating MBA class.  Each graduate was asked the question “Do you have goals for your life and a written plan for achieving them?” Ninety-seven percent said no; only three percent said yes.  Ten years later, the members of the 1979 graduating class were interviewed again. According to the study, those with written goals expressed a greater degree of happiness, better relationships, and more community involvement.  They also reported more income that the other ninety-seven percent combined! That’s a powerful testament to goal setting.

Not only that, the ability to set goals ranks above many other factors that experts formerly believed counted heavily for success—IQ for instance.  Psychologist Louis Terdiman studied gifted children for decades, adding significantly to the body of knowledge about the role that high IQ plays in success.  Turns out those two factors beat high IQ every time: persistence and the ability to set goals.

So how do you, a professional athlete, leverage this surefire success factor?  What steps can you take to insure that your athletic goals become realized? The following four steps provide the roadmap:

  1. Decide exactly what you want.  Is it to play in the Final Four? Wear a Super Bowl ring? Race in the Indianapolis 500? Sail around the world? Win the Middleweight Boxing Championship? Compete in the Olympics?  Take your dream—that one that’s been haunting you since you were little—off the shelf and put a name to it.  Dreams that have hung around that long have enormous power.  They shouldn’t be ignored, because they show what we’re really capable of if we consistently do our best.
  2. Visualize every aspect of the dream in living Technicolor, and do it often.  Think about how you’ll feel when you’re standing in the winner’s circle with the trophy held high above your head.  Hear the crowd going wild. Feel the wind on your face.  In the broad, untapped spaces of your imagination, live that dream.  Neurological research shows that the mind cannot distinguish in the short term between reality and what you visualize.  Give your dream shape and substance in the place that can fuel unimaginable effort: your own mind.
  3. Plan every aspect of the journey that will take you to that dream, working backwards.  To figure skate in the Olympics, you need to place in the top two or three in the national championships.  To get to the national championships you need to place in the top four in sectionals.  To get to sectionals you need USFSA gold medals in freestyle and moves in the field, and a huge amount of competition experience.  To get the gold medals you need a good coach, lessons, top-of-the-line skates and access to a rink with a solid freestyle program and plenty of ice time.  To buy ice time, coaching and skates, you need money.  See how working backwards from the goal can get a clear plan in your head?
  4. Assign dates to your success milestones.  A goal without dates is just a dream.  Root your goal in reality by fixing it to a timeline.

“But wait!” you object.  “If it were that simple, everyone would be a champion!”  In fact, the process is simple.  It’s just not easy.  Nothing worthwhile ever is.  There are five things you can do to give yourself better odds of success.  They are:

  1. Find someone who has done what you want to do.  There’s a reason why so many professionals have accomplished athletes for parents.  The adults provide a blueprint for success.  If your family doesn’t have an older athletic superstar, find one.
  2. Find out everything you can about how they succeeded—diet, training schedules, mindset, goal orientation, what they did to get back up after failure, what they did not to let success go to their heads, how they kept themselves motivated.
  3. Apply those principles rigorously to your own life and schedule.
  4. Notice what’s not working and change it.  Maybe you need more time to recover from injury than your mentor did.  Maybe you prefer different equipment or need longer breaks.
  5. Day in, day out, give disciplined effort in the pursuit of your dream.  Don’t let anything interfere with your training schedule.  Make it sacrosanct. The dream comes first.

It’s going to take a lot of effort to stay on track.  As a professional athlete, you’re a member of an elite group of individuals who already understand far more about discipline than most people will ever know.  But to get to the top tier of professional athletics, you need more than just motivation.  You need to light the afterburners on your resolve.

Have you ever seen the movie “Rocky?”  When Rocky Balboa begins training for his match with Apollo Creed, he is slow, quickly winded, and out of shape.  But Rocky’s inner motivation won’t let him quit.  Day after day he follows the Nike mantra: Just Do It.  He holds his own feet to the fire in a brutal training regimen.  He never takes a day off.  Slowly, he improves, and the punching bags in the gym aren’t enough for him.  He goes to a local butchering warehouse and starts pummeling huge sides of beef.  Rocky’s real competition is with himself.  And he gets better and better, finally winning the match with Creed against everyone’s expectations.

Everyone’s But His Own.

Rocky set his win up in his mind before he ever entered the ring, and you can develop that commitment too.  Here are four proven ways to acquire the high-energy motivation and commitment to reach your dream:

  1. Don’t be afraid of failure.  Powerhouse hitter Reggie Jackson, who has an astonishing 563 home runs in his record, is also the fourth worst strikeout hitter in baseball history.  If you’re not failing, you’re not trying.
  2. Practice makes perfect only if you practice perfectly.  Most athletes don’t ever reach their true potential because they don’t keep their practice performance level up to the standard of their actual event level. This is a surefire way to watch someone else capture your title.  Practice perfectly every time. Have you ever watched a Peyton Manning practice session?  The guy is a machine, every throw perfect.   No dual standard for that famed Super Bowl MVP.
  3. Feel the fear and do it anyway.  The main difference between cowards and heroes is not what they feel—it’s what they do.  Behavior trumps feelings every time.
  4. Get back on the horse right away.  If you’ve just had a spectacular, televised skiing fall reminiscent of the 1960’s Wide World of Sports “Agony of Defeat” film clip, grit your teeth, get back on the ski lift and go down the hill again again.  And again.  And again.

There just may be a superstar in you.  You are a runner whose greatest races are before him.  A gymnast whose perfect scores are waiting to flash.  A swimmer who’s about to break long-standing world records.  A golfer who beats the hottest stars in the game.

And whether you believe that or not: you’re right.

About Dr. Sally Mounts

Dr. Sally Mounts is the president of Auctus Consulting Group, a management consulting firm in the greater Pittsburgh area that focuses on strategy formulation, implementation, change management, and leadership. She helps leaders transform organizations. Phone: 724-470-5553. Fax: 724-705-1845. Blog: strategymapper.wordpress.com

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