(This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post).
I grew up in Manchester and while not a big football fan, it is difficult to forget United’s remarkable 1999 “Treble” season. The match that sticks most was the very last – the Champions League final against Bayern Munich. Bayern scored just six minutes into the first half and the teams played back and forth, well-matched to each other, for the rest of the 90 minutes. Victory looked certain for the German team and Bayern ribbons were attached to the Trophy as it began its journey to the presentation ceremony as the referee signaled just three minutes of injury time.
And then, as if the previous 84 minutes meant absolutely nothing, everything changed. United scored two goals, first equalizing and then winning the match and, therefore, the Championship. In three minutes of critical brilliance, the team turned everything around, shocking a global audience of millions with an audacious victory. What the United players did (and what everyone else that day missed) was realize that (even recent) history didn’t matter. Just because they hadn’t scored a goal in 90 minutes didn’t mean they necessarily couldn’t in the following three – the barrier to that was in their heads more than it was at their feet. Instead, by playing every second as a fresh one and taking every opportunity pulled off the unthinkable.
Believe it or not, there are parallels between this sort of performance the the life of a startup CEO.
In the latter case, of course, these frenetic, down to the wire moments get lived out not on a pitched watched by millions but … yes, in grey conference rooms.
For example, a few years ago, I sat in just such a grey, windowless conference room in a suburban Marriott. Alongside me I had blinkx’s CFO, our lawyer and an investment banker. Opposite me was a team of identical make-up from a company we were in the final stages of acquiring.
The team on the other side was in a tough spot. They were running out of money. Already dependent on a line of credit they were hoping to pay off with aggressive cash collection they had a team to pay, suppliers owed payment on services rendered and increasingly irate partners who were waiting for revenue share payouts. On the other hand, we had every piece of leverage an acquirer could want. While we liked the company, we didn’t have to do the deal. We knew the weak attempts to pretend there was a stalking horse were just a smokescreen. And, most of all, given their precipitous position, all we had to do was walk and there was a very real chance the company could fold in the coming months or even weeks.
Yet despite that, my opposite number, the target’s CEO, was on top form. Joking, smiling, he pushed back firmly on our attempts to lower the price and bargained strongly for assurances for his team, his partners and customers. He had effectively blocked out all of the noise and focused on just one thing: the task at hand. Today, for him, that task was to get the best possible deal out of blinkx and that was all he cared about.
I’ve always found doing a tech start-up to be an irrational thing. You never have enough cash, you have a small team, you’re competing against monoliths with momentum and yet you take it all on. As a CEO, you strive to block some of that reality out for your team: letting them focus on the product, the business while you worry about where the next round of pay checks is actually coming from. But then there are the moments when, despite everything you know, you have to play the same trick on yourself and block out everything except the current problem, the current focus. In yoga this being in the present moment is a key component of sati, or mindfulness. Some people can attain this state naturally, the rest of us have to learn. Luckily, it turns out there’s been a lot of research in just this area but to find it, you need to leave the engineering department and business school for a moment to find and head, instead, to the psychology faculty…
In my spare time, I’m honored to have had the opportunity to chair the Advisory Board for the Sport Psychology Department of JFK University, in the San Francisco Bay Area. I originally got interested because a friend runs the department, but I really got engaged when I realized just how many of the challenges Sport Psychology practitioners help their clients with have parallels in business. The cross-over field that has sprung from this, typically called Performance Psychology, is fascinating and offers lots of hints for those trying to understand how their psychology plays out and what to do to control it. Without further ado, let me hand over to my friend, Head of Department at JFKU Dr. Alison Rhodius:
Being in the present moment is a critical capability for any high-performing sportsperson. At the highest levels of competition, however good you are, you will likely have challenges and letting recent failures or bad form affect current performance can lead to a perilous negative spiral. The Manchester United/Bayern Munich example is a good one. Although they may have thought about a winning comeback when they were so far behind, United had to focus on one play at a time: they had to think, feel and be in the present moment. They couldn’t rely on any chokes from Bayern to bring them the win. Any of the United team could have got distracted by a number of psychological issues, including anxiety (worries about the future – “Can we do this?”), depression (sadness about past mistakes – “if only we had done something different, we wouldn’t be in this position”), or loss of motivation (“we have tried so hard and STILL can’t win and now we’re 1-0 down with just 3 minutes to go”). But instead they focused on what needed to change and kept their focus in the moment – “what do I need to do right here, right now to turn this around?”; they fought and stayed present.
So how do the most successful sports people ensure they stay in the present moment? Here are four key techniques elite athletes use:
1) Focus on your breath. Becoming more and more aware of your breathing and trying to control it more is simple, yet incredibly effective. Several times a day set a timer (or download a mindfulness app) and breathe slowly for at least two breaths and focus on the coldness inside your nose on the inhale and the warmth of air on the exhale.
2) Keep your goals measurable and simple. Keep no more than two goals in mind as you perform and be explicit in defining them. Knowing precisely when you have succeeded (and what you did to get there) will teach you more for future success than choosing to just vaguely “work harder” or “better than last time”.
3) Keep just a few pre-planned words or phrases ready as part of a mental routine. You can say these to yourself regularly to remind yourself of what you need to focus on. They can remind you about why you’re performing and to keep fighting
4) Take a moment before you perform (regardless of whether your performance is going to take 10 seconds, 20 minutes or several hours) and think about what you want your performance to look, sound and feel like. If you can practice this many times before you do the performance, then you will have reinforced good ‘images’ about how you want it to be.