High performance isn't just a priority for sports and business professionals. It's relevant for everyone, as many people step into arenas every day to face challenges and expectations with no prospect of gold medals or championship honors for their efforts.
I spoke with Gary Keegan, a high-performance business and sports consultant, the former head of the Institute of Sport and one of the key drivers behind success in Irish sport, to explore what we can learn from the mindset of champions and how to apply it in our own lives.
It starts with intention
Gary suggests that a good starting point to success is "having a desire or intention for yourself or something", emphasising the importance of being fully connected with this intention. According to Gary, this is so important because "our intentions drive and support our attention, energy and behaviours".
"I think a lot of people focus on what they are doing but maybe less so on the why they are doing it", he says. "We need to emotionally connect with our intentions."
Gary adds that our intention could be "what kind of dad, mum, person, leader or colleague do I want to be or become? What's my vision for my family, relationship, career or business?" This matters whether you are looking at it from an individual, team or organisation perspective.
"We can distract ourselves with our work or become over invested to other commitments that we can lose connection with ourselves and what matters most to us."
Create the space to clarify
Becoming clearer on our intentions takes time and space, Gary explains. "You can’t be too busy and have a clear intention. You have to take time out, you have to reflect on what it is you want, you have to consider broadly what the world means for you and what your part in it is going to be, to get to that light bulb moment. You have to continue to press the button in the dark until the light bulb comes on".
When you generate more clarity for your mind, the next step is to assess your current focus, Gary explains. "Ask yourself, 'Are my current focus, behaviours and actions aligned to the things I am setting out to achieve? What is in a good place and what needs to change?'"
Once you get that vision down, it's time to commit to it by building good habits into our daily or weekly lives. "Discipline is a choice and hardens the mind and helps us to set boundaries, which then creates space and freedom", Gary explains.
"Let’s take a family example: if my intention is to be more present and engaged at home, then I make some choices and build these into good habits. When I arrive home, the phone goes into a box and I don’t take it out until my kids have been looked after, fed, put to bed, stories read and my wife and I have checked in with each other, etc.
"If I have to take the phone or laptop out again to do some work in the evening, then I do so with a clear conscience. I would go beyond that and say it’s a good feeling."
Everyone gets to benefit from our energy
How do you start the day? Does it feel like you hit the ground in a rush and are already in the stress zone? Gary encourages us to "create some space by getting up a little earlier to recapture some 'you' time, to calm and focus the mind and body".
Gary emphasises the need to "take the rush out of the equation, take 10 minutes to do some mindfulness practice, set some goals for the day and get that feeling of attacking the day rather than chasing it. There are plenty of free guided meditation audios on YouTube to get you started. Athletes are improvement-orientated and follow a diary, to set targets for the day and journal their journey through each week".
Indeed, as Gary says, athletes ask themselves questions like "what’s ahead of me today, what goals am I targeting today, by the end of the day what will success look like for me?"
"These are the important things that help to focus the mind, remember what we have our attention on, draws our energy. For athletes, keeping a journal helps keep a record of where their behaviours have supported their intentions. Focus on what you want, not what you don’t want".
Minding your mind
A crucial life skill for the high performer is how to manage their inner dialogue and mind their minds, Gary explains. "We all have self-talk playing away every day", he says.
Think about your own inner dialogue: how much of it is positively supporting you or negatively distracting you? How much is holding you in a comfort zone, potentially fearful of taking a risk to go after something that you may have dreamed about often or really want?
Gary promotes "the power of mindfulness to build self-awareness, to develop the capacity to observe without judgement and to choose more empowering self-talk for us to remain more present and focused throughout life, or at least to get better at it".
Athletes often demand tangible impact on their performance, so Gary explains to them "when you go into a mindfulness practice, the success is the practice itself.
"When you practice mindfulness you may notice how noisy your mind is, focus can be difficult to achieve without the mind wandering. It’s like going into a resistance workout, but this time it’s in your head."
Gary sees the benefits as building our awareness muscle. When your mind wanders, and you notice it, you simply redirect your attention back to your breaths. "The various thoughts are the resistance. When you become aware that you have drifted and manage to refocus on your breath, now you are growing your awareness muscle".
This is an important life skill for anyone. The ability to manage your attention and redirect your thoughts can be a game-changer in terms of our moment-to-moment actions and interactions.
The world of sport has many lessons for us. We all need a vision for ourselves and a structure to implement it. As our confidence will ebb and flow, we need to focus on marginal gains in our wellness, vision and relationships.
If not, we risk waking up to find our lives and careers drifting off course in a fog of stress, following the expectations of others and no longer captain of our life.
To connect with Gary Keegan (CEO) head to www.uppercut.ie.
To connect with Peter, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.