Professional sports has long talked about the concept of “mental toughness” and how the most elite athletes possess it. In sports, it’s a psychological edge that enables one to cope better than opponents with the demands of competition, training, and lifestyle. Mentally tough athletes have an advantage over competitors in situations that call for determination, focus, confidence, and emotional control under pressure.
However, this translates almost perfectly into a business context.
When Caliper assessed the personality dynamics of thousands of professional (i.e., NBA, NHL, MLB) and NCAA Division 1 athletes, we identified a strong link between six distinct traits that make up mental toughness and success at the highest levels of competition—both on and off the field. What’s even more interesting is that these traits are some of the exact ones exhibited by top-performing professionals in sales, entrepreneurship, and executive leadership.
Research both “on the field” (athletes) and “in the field” (business professionals) has identified a consistent combination of personality dynamics. Three of the six traits reflect a highly focused and disciplined approach to one’s profession resulting in a drive to take ownership of every aspect of performance improvement.
Top athletes will take a near perfectionist approach to practice, honing skills through repetition and running drills deliberately. In business, professionals are intensely focused on continually expanding job capabilities, drive continuous professional development, take responsibility for correcting mistakes, and don’t compromise the quality they provide all stakeholders.
Elite athletes display this when they are not under the immediate supervision of coaches, for instance, when they are consistent with off-season workouts, maintain nutritional and dietary practices, get enough sleep, avoid bad habits, etc. Business professionals will independently set goals and see them through to completion. They take initiative to capitalize on opportunities, work long hours to achieve objectives, and take risks when little guidance is available.
Energy and persistence
Elite athletes manifest persistence when they face difficult opponents, drive through temporary slumps in performance, and push through injuries. Business professionals are motivated, not intimidated, in the face of pushback from such stakeholders as investors or customers. We also see it when business professionals persist through stubborn project difficulties, instead of getting discouraged and derailing progress.
While the first three traits help explain the disciplined approach inherent in the performance of elite athletes and business professionals, the following three help explain the emotional and motivational control that these professionals also manifest.
Elite athletes are more likely to maintain composure in situations that would make other competitors frustrated and overreact. We see this most in successful business professionals when they remained composed, focused on objectives, and working on contingency plans instead of becoming either impulsive or paralyzed.
Those high in stress tolerance remain relatively unconcerned when faced with events beyond their control. Elite athletes are more in tune with their own stress-inducing triggers and can stay focused on the parts of their game they can control. Mentally tough business professionals also often have the capacity to remain calm when unexpected issues or interruptions threaten to impact their focus.
Elite athletes don’t overthink failures and setbacks and do not overly internalize criticism. Mentally tough business professionals are more inclined to learn from setbacks and criticism and rarely let missteps negatively impact future performance.
Being able to hire and develop candidates with the propensity for mental toughness will make a business team much more competitive in the field—as it does for professional sports teams on the field. Although not everyone has what it takes to be an award-winning salesperson or Hall of Fame professional athlete, there are ways to cultivate mental toughness and build on it.
Before you’re able to identify any type of recommendations for building mental toughness, it’s important to know where you stand currently. Then conduct individual and aggregate analyses through interviews, developmental conversations, and personality assessments. Data helps you both understand and tailor developmental journeys that focus on the aspects of mental toughness on which development can have the greatest impact.
Know what success looks like
Then, target the innate, personality-driven attributes of professionals to reduce significant barriers to success, which up to now have likely been overlooked.
Get management support
It is critical to train managers to provide structural guidance to enable employees’ self-awareness, increase self-efficacy, and to develop stronger coping strategies to meet the challenges of highly competitive environments. Without support at all levels, the idea of mental toughness and cultivating it within a team or organization will remain just that—an idea.
The most successful athletes and the most successful business professionals are able to manage emotions, bounce back from failure, remain resolute and persistent in stressful situations, and take full ownership of performance goals to continuously improve their game or business.