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The question assumes you were once there – wherever there may be.
I’m a hockey fan. Through the years I’ve watched countless NHL players battle injuries to get back into the lineup. Each year after one team lifts the Stanley Cup you then hear about all the off-season surgeries. Players sometimes play in every game of a playoff run with injuries that would prevent many of us from reporting to a desk job. Surgery is followed by extensive physical therapy to regain the strength necessary to be a successful professional athlete.
Physically, I clearly can’t relate. Relating to being a professional athlete is impossible for me. 😉 However, I can relate to getting back to something. I’ve had a few orthopedic surgeries (all upper body, as they’d say in hockey). Shoulders. Elbows. The physical therapy we ordinary humans endure can be hard. Doable, but difficult. I can’t imagine the rigors of being a professional athlete trying to fight his way onto an NHL roster.
But there are mental and emotional states, too. Getting back to an improved place – a state that you once experienced, but somehow lost – can be much harder than any physical challenge. Talent and skill won’t exclusively serve you to get unstuck, to grow, to improve, or to find your way back. Experience won’t either. It requires something more. But what?
That’s for you to figure out. And finding your way back…which might more appropriately be, the way forward…can look different for each of us, and our specific circumstances.
It was years ago, but it doesn’t seem so long ago. I’m in a locker room with a team I loved – the truth is, I’ve loved all the teams I’ve ever coached, but this team was different. Special. A bunch of college guys playing roller hockey for the University of Texas at Arlington. We’ve been together for four years. Experienced far more success than failure. But at an annual national championship tournament, a tourney we’ve qualified for each year, we come up against teams who are simply better than we are. Our talent is excellent, but just not quite enough to be elite. Reality stings when it hits you in the face as defeat.
Sports psychology dates back to at least the 1920s (some date it back to the late 1800s). It wasn’t until the late 1970s that sports psychology began to morph into a professional science-based practice. In 1974 W. Timothy Gallwey, one-time captain of the Harvard tennis team published The Inner Game of Tennis. The book was an outgrowth of Gallwey’s experience learning about meditation and how it helped him concentrate more on his tennis performances. For many of us in the mainstream, it was our introduction to sports psychology.
Sports psychology is a proficiency that uses psychological knowledge and skills to address optimal performance and well-being of athletes, developmental and social aspects of sports participation, and systemic issues associated with sports settings and organizations.
In short, it’s the art and science of helping athletes figure out how to move forward to improve their performance.
That’s exactly what executive coaching is all about, too. Helping executives figure out how to move forward to improve their performance. Sometimes it’s helping an executive figure out how to forge new paths forwards, but other times it’s about helping a seasoned executive figure out how to get back to a prior level of high performance! It’s all the same – to help improve existing performance to something higher and better!
There are a few things that can help us find our way back – or forward – to improved performance.
One, we have to face ourselves, knowing that we are simultaneously the problem and the solution.
We’re all vexed with bouts of doubt, fear, and anxiety. It doesn’t matter that we work hard to never show it. Privately, we all have a variety of demons that plague us. Most of them are self-generated. We might argue all day long how logical they are, or why we know they’re valid concerns, but most often the reality is we’re in our own head. Our mental vision, which once may have been our strength, is now our weakness.
One of the most common occurrences in my coaching is the day the client confesses they now see something they didn’t see before. Sometimes they remark having never seen it this way before. Others will tell me they’ve recaptured seeing it clearly after having been blind to it for a while. In either case, it’s a light bulb moment where almost everything changes. There’s no predictable pattern really to when these moments might arrive. For some, they happen sooner than others. But for clients willing to put in the work, they always happen!
We respond in one of two ways to the reality that we’re accountable for our own outcomes. Lots of people hide. The flee or fight response turns mostly into fleeing. Just as fast as they can! To hide from accepting any responsibility for anything. Fearful of looking inside at themselves, they find more comfort in being a victim so they can avoid feeling blame for their own lives.
Hockey, like most sports (and other endeavors in life), has a degree of luck. That is, sometimes the puck takes an unfortunate bounce for your team, while it takes a fortunate bounce for your opponent. Every player and coach has experienced it. Low-performing or mediocre teams (and players) tend to look at such things as beyond their control. “We just need a bit of a break, a lucky bounce here or there,” they’ll say. The top-level players and highest-performing teams will always talk about what they need to do more, or better. “We have to work harder,” they may say. Or, “We have to be willing to battle near the goal,” they might say. Rather than focus on the bad luck, they focus on what they can do to improve their opportunities for greater success. Losers hide. Winners don’t.
Facing oneself is the scariest, but most profitable thing. It’s where rare people willingly go because it’s where most of us would rather not go. It’s easier to avoid it, run away and hide – all the while believing our failures aren’t because of anything we’re doing (or neglecting to do). Nothing is our fault. That’s how the masses prefer to live opting for short-term good feelings over long-term improvement.
Two, we have to forget who and what and focus on, “Now what?”
I’ll explain. Victims concentrate on who has wronged them and what circumstances have happened. Winners jettison such thoughts in favor of trying to figure out their very next step. Whenever we ask, “Now what?” it focuses us on the next thing WE can do to move forward, even if moving forward means getting back to things we may now be neglecting – the basics of things we may have abandoned over time.
I was in my late 20s when a seasoned business person – a person I respected immensely for his business acumen – said to me, “You’re a very strategic thinker.” Not quite sure what that meant, I asked him to explain it to me. He went on to tell me how rare it was for somebody my age, based on his experience, to think ahead the way I did. Assuring him it wasn’t something I consciously did, I told him it felt mostly how viewed things. We talked a lot about consequences, something I told him I always considered by mostly asking, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” and “What’s the best thing that can happen?” He encouraged me to continue the practice because in his estimation, “It’s an enormous competitive edge.”
As we talked about business strategy and thinking ahead he was curious why I wasn’t paralyzed by vetting every conceivable option. It was the first time I remember saying aloud that I really only focus on the very next step. I wanted (and still do) to get the very next step as right as I possibly can. Then replicate it with the next step until I reach the goal.
It would be terrific if we knew every step ahead of time, but anybody courageous enough to try anything knows that’s impossible. It might work. It might fail. Until we do the very next thing…we’ll never know!
Three, we have to figure out for ourselves when to keep going, and when to quit.
Among the many reasons my coaching rarely involves advice-giving is that it’s not my life, but my client’s. One of the toughest challenges we all face is knowing when we’ve given it enough of an effort…and when we need to keep pushing forward.
The Clash sang about it. “Should I stay or should I go?”
Only you can decide. Others can help you figure it out, but go back to that first point – you have to be willing to face yourself and accept responsibility for everything!
Some questions can help.
If you quit now, will you regret it?
If you don’t quit now, are you willing to invest whatever resources are necessary to keep going?
What signs do you have that this isn’t likely going to ever work?
What signs do you have that this just might work if you keep going?
The Bottom Line: Do more of what works and less of what doesn’t.
Many years ago while sitting across from another CEO who was struggling with a particular marketing challenge I suddenly asked him, mostly out of curiosity, “Have you tried anything that worked better than anything else?”
He thought for just a second or two and said, “Yes, we did (X, Y and Z – he told me what they had tried in the past with some success).”
“And what worked better than anything else?” I asked.
“Yes, it was working fairly well,” he replied.
“What happened?” I inquired.
He went on to tell me how the team kept looking for something that might work even better. On further inquiry, it turned out the team executed the strategy that worked better than anything else for just 6 weeks. Six weeks! Those of you familiar with marketing know 6 weeks isn’t long at all. Truth is, in many circles 6 weeks hardly qualifies as a good “test,” much less a well-executed strategy!
My fellow CEO was a peer, not a client. At that moment I jokingly – but quite seriously – encouraged him, “Do more of what worked and stop doing all the things that aren’t working.”
I wasn’t being snarky, which I am wont to do. I was being dead serious knowing how blindingly obvious the statement was – and is. These many years later I can tell you I’ve seen it play out over and over again. People pursuing some new better answer only to realize they may have had the answer before. It may be time to get back to what once worked better than anything else. Sometimes we have to find our way back to success.
Back. Forward. By now you understand they’re the same thing. They represent growth, improvement, progress – the art of getting better!
Be well. Do good. Grow great!