The difference between success and failure is often determined by mental strength. Apodi’s Tony Swift recalls his own experiences in sport and business to discuss how a confident and positive attitude is the first step towards high performance.
Whilst talent can be a good indicator of future performance, ask any experienced manager of a high performing team and they will tell you that talent in itself is not the only requirement for achieving success.
The world is awash with talented people who never achieve their full potential. In all walks of life there are numerous examples of wasted talent and people who fail to ‘make it’. I believe that the major reasons for talented people failing to make the grade fall into two categories:
1) A lack of mental toughness
2) Inadequate preparation.
A scared rabbit
I remember returning from the England rugby team’s tour to South Africa in 1984. The tour had been unsuccessful and few players had done themselves justice. The then lead rugby correspondent of the Sunday Times, Stephen Jones, wrote an obituary of the tour and described that I had played like a scared rabbit in the headlights. I am sorry to say that the analysis pretty much hit the mark and caused me much introspection over the following
The fact was that despite my natural talents, in big games in front of huge crowds and millions watching on television, I failed to perform at a level that my skills justified. Many observers were perplexed about this failure to perform and thought there was no obvious reason for it.
However, over a period of time, it became clear to me as to the cause of the under performance. At that stage I simply was not mentally tough enough to cope with ‘big time’ rugby. There were a number of occasions where I tried to hide on the field of play and
felt it was better to do nothing than get involved and risk making mistakes.
A few years later, Stephen Jones had become one of my biggest advocates and wrote a number of effusive articles about me, particularly in the latter years of my rugby career. Although by this time my natural physical attributes were starting to wane, my performance on the field was improving. This was almost solely due to an improvement in
my mental toughness and a willingness to perform.
What is mental strength?
Mental toughness is having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables people to cope with the many demands that are placed on them to perform and, specifically, to be consistent and remain focused, confident, resilient and in control when
put under pressure.
Mentally tough employees will normally display the following key psychological characteristics:
- Self belief – an unshakeable belief in
their ability to achieve their goals
- Motivation – an insatiable desire and
motivation to succeed, despite any
setbacks that they encounter
- Focus – an ability to remain focused
despite distractions that may arise
- Composure – embracing pressure,
stepping up to the plate and an
ability to remain in control despite
My experiences in sport heightened my interest in high performance and the impact of mental toughness within a business setting. The questions that particularly interested me were:
- Are some people more naturally
mentally tough than others?
- What factors are important in
developing an environment where
mental toughness flourishes?
- Can mental toughness be coached?
A born attribute
It appears that mental toughness can occur naturally. Some people seem to have a genetic disposition to toughness. I have studied numerous individuals at the start of their sporting or business careers who appear to have the mental toughness to succeed – even when
they are just at the beginning of their career journey. The reason for this could be due to either inherent natural toughness or the environment in which they grew up in – or even both.
Given that mental toughness may be inherent in some people, it makes sense to ensure that this quality is assessed during any recruitment process. After all, it is clearly preferable to recruit candidates who already display the traits of mental toughness, along with a
talent for the task at hand.
An assessment of mental toughness can be made during the interview stage and through the use of specifically designed questionnaires. However, I have to say that within the pharmaceutical sector I have not yet come across any company which systematically assesses mental toughness at the interview stage, or indeed at any other stage during ongoing staff appraisals.
The right environment
I believe that in my sporting career the biggest single factor that transformed my ability to perform was the change in my playing environment when I joined Bath Rugby Club. The set-up and the atmosphere at Bath had a profound effect on my thinking and my mental
strength, and I believe there were a number of key factors that had a significant role in this:
When I joined the club the team was already enjoying some success. Working in this environment built my confidence quickly – after all, success breeds confidence.
Many of my teammates at the club were ‘mentally tough’ when I joined. The focus and self belief of players, management and coaching staff gradually rubbed off on me and eventually I started to apply their strategies and to display their traits.
c) Management focus
Right from the beginning it became apparent to me that the club was exclusively focused on becoming the most successful club in the land. Players had absolutely no doubt in their minds that they had to be an important cog in this success in order to survive.
The team prepared superbly to ensure it was in a position to perform when it had to and significantly better than any of its competitors.
Of course, many organisations that want to succeed are not currently successful. To start on the journey of achievement it is critical that organisations recruit people who are mentally tough, prepare and plan superbly, and are driven by a management team with real focus.
Can it be coached?
To my mind mental strength can be coached. It involves considerable focus on improving personal skills in the following areas: technical, physical and mental outlook. As these skills improve, so does an individual’s confidence grow and higher performance will follow. However, in most commercial organisations, there is a disproportionate concentration on the coaching of technical skills and the other two areas are largely ignored.
Dr Saul Miller, in his excellent book Why Teams Win, surveyed 100 successful corporate leaders to find out what they believed to be the single, non-business factor that could most limit their personal and team success. Their response was ‘ill health’. Organisations are missing a great opportunity to drive performance if they do not seek advice and other assistance in improving the physical and mental health of employees.
The great managers I have worked for, and with, over the years are those who understand that a person’s mental well-being is a critical factor in their performance at work. These
managers focus on the following with their direct reports:
- Establishing the right attitude and state of mind to build confidence
- Programming the mind to think positively and to expect successful outcomes
- Ensure excellent preparation and develop a routine that prepares people for success
- Learning from failures and quickly refocus on the key issues and opportunities.
The first specialist fitness coach I ever worked with was Tom Hudson at Bath. Tom was superb at not only preparing people physically but also mentally. He always had a quiet chat prior to games and by the time he had finished I felt like I was the world’s best and ready to beat all-comers. It is a great pity that these skills appear to be relatively rare
in the commercial world.
Top coaches understand that each individual is different and have their own set of beliefs, habits and motivations. Coaching interventions need to be customised to the individual
and, if such coaching skills are not available within the organisation, then it would be a prudent investment to source such expertise externally.
Actions for pharma
In the increasingly competitive world of the pharmaceutical industry it is vital for organisations to harness and encourage well-being and mental fortitude in their teams. In order to achieve this there are a number of actions that can be undertaken:
1. Ensure that assessing mental toughness is part of the recruitment process.
2. Assess current employees and develop coaching interventions where necessary. Start with those employees where the requirement for mental toughness is most obvious. For example, sales representatives have to cope with rejection every working day of their lives – they have to be able to cope with this, refocus and get on with the job in hand.
3. To create the appropriate environment managers and ‘leaders’ of the team need to display their own mental toughness. If a team is unsuccessful, it will probably be due to an absence of such qualities in the leadership – the only way to kick start the journey to success is by recruiting these types of team leaders.
4. Preparation is enormously important in driving confidence and ultimately performance.
Companies should benchmark their own preparation compared with competitors and drive to be the best in the industry.
The evidence supporting the importance of mental toughness and preparation in performance is all consuming – the top performers in sport recognise this and focus much of their time on addressing these issues.
I believe that almost anybody can be coached to develop greater mental toughness and ultimately to improve performance. Unfortunately in this respect, many commercial organisations are not yet even at the starting post. They neither recognise its importance
nor know how to develop mental toughness in their people. Those companies that do are the ones on the road to success.
Tony Swift is the Managing Director of Apodi.