Three Things CEOs Can Learn From Nadal's Victory at the French Open

In this year’s just completed French Open, Rafael Nadal defeated number one-ranked Novak Djokovic for a record seventh tournament champion...

In this year’s just completed French Open, Rafael Nadal defeated number one-ranked Novak Djokovic for a record seventh tournament championship. Considering Nadal’s affinity for clay courts, that victory should not have come as a surprise. Something else that should not surprise, and especially shouldn’t surprise CEOs and business owners: Nadal’s mental toughness played a very big role.

After his win, Nadal told reporters, “My mental part is one of the most important things, especially on clay.” He explained that he believed he had been very focused over the past eight years, and that even when he “played so-so, I was there mentally.”

Chief executives may not cover the physical terrain that Nadal does during a match. But they know what it’s like to compete against other stars in their own sector, some with a lot more corporate  clout, to win business, contracts, or commissioned work. Not that Nadal was the underling by any means, but the Spaniard was trying to best the tennis world’s number one.

Here’s how, in the face of tough odds, CEOs can  address their “mental part.”

1. Don’t overpraise your competition. Avoid saying,“I’m going up against the best.” If you concede that, it means you are not the best. We know, in terms of how it affects performance, that self-confidence is the number one variable in the entire field of sports psychology and performance psychology.

Your tennis opponent may indeed be ranked as the best, or very high, and so may a fellow CEO. What’s necessary in either case is to shift and control your thinking so that you say something like, “Today I am the best.”

Think about Steve Jobs. He went up against IBM,the so-called market leader. The owner of a start-up might say,“I’m the new kid on the block and soon everyone will know how great my company is.”  Never focus in any way on thoughts of weakness or self-doubt.

2. Focus on yourself. To continue with the Steve Jobs analogy, Jobs’ refusal to pay much attention to what the competition was doing allowed him to be the innovator. And we all know that turned out rather well for him.

These days we spend so much time thinking about our competitors— comparing ourselves to others has become endemic in our society—that we forget to develop our own strengths. When you focus energy on your opponent, on or off the court, you’re not as focused as you need to be on your own performance.

3. Focus on your strengths. When I first meet with clients, I ask them to name their top three strengths and the number one area where they’d like to see improvement. I never ask them what their “key problem” is or what they do poorly. I keep it positive.

You could argue that all records are meant to be broken, and that all athletic competitions are only games, , but they’re also about building a legacy, and taking and expressing pride in one’s gifts. Everyone from entrepreneurs launching startups to CEOs running and owning companies wants to leave a lasting legacy. Focus and mental toughness are crucial to delivering the goods, no matter what the endeavor.

This is a guest post by Jason Selk, the mental training coach for the St. Louis Cardinals and author of 10-Minute Toughness and Executive Toughness. He has appeared on ABC, CBS, ESPN, and NBC and been featured in USA Today, Men’s Health, Muscle and Fitness, Shape, and Self.

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