Ready, Set, Goal: Win-It Strategies from Top Athletes
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Fitness

Ready, Set, Goal: Win-It Strategies from Top Athletes

Looking to score major life success? Start by borrowing these win-it tactics from the sports field.

Strategies for Success

When I was in my thirties and playing the dating game, I often thought about benching myself; the cycle of buildup and disappointment was wearing me out. One night, though, at practice with my local women's ice hockey team, we worked, again and again, on our wrist shots, because our coach said we'd been overthinking them. Doing reps would train us just to let the puck fly. Indeed, the more shots I took, the less I hesitated and the more natural they felt.

As I whacked the puck against the boards, I thought, "If only scoring the right guy were so easy." Then it hit me: This drill could apply to dating. I just needed to stay at it -- repeat, repeat, repeat. No matter how monotonous or frustrating, putting myself out there would keep my flirting skills sharp and me in the zone. Several weeks later a friend invited me to a cocktail party. My inner coach said, "Don't think. Just go and get another rep in." And, yep, that was the night I met my husband. Goal!

Relationships are only one arena in which the same skills you use in sports can bring success. What works on the court, track, or field can help in other areas, personal or professional, that require toughness, diligence, and grace under pressure, says Rebecca Bode, PhD, a sports psychologist in Novelty, Ohio. Take your life to the next level with these playbook secrets.

Strategize

No athlete goes into practice, let alone competition, without a plan. A marathoner doesn't simply tell herself to run faster. She sets a goal of, say, running eight-minute miles and plots out a training schedule to run at that pace, first for a 10K, then a half-marathon, and finally the full 26.2 miles. "Breaking down a large goal into smaller, doable steps is the key to an athlete's success," says JoAnn Dahlkoetter, PhD, a sports psychologist and author of Your Performing Edge. "It helps you focus, mark your progress, and stay motivated."

Life lesson: Whether you're aiming for a promotion or to buy a house, a detailed to-do list with regular deadlines will help get you there. For example, if your dream is to own a home, set a one-year time frame to find one, says Gene Keyser, an associate real estate broker with the Corcoran Group in New York City. Within that year, schedule one week to apply for mortgage prequalification (this will help you know your budget), then take the next week to create separate lists of must-haves (for example, two bathrooms) and would-likes (a fireplace). After that, plan to visit at least three houses every weekend until you find the one you love. "Make your first steps so easy that you can't fail," says Steven J. Danish, PhD, professor of psychology, preventive medicine, and community health at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. "This will give you the momentum and sense of achievement you need to keep going."

Picture Victory

For many top athletes, "visualization is the key to getting your head into the game," Bode says. A diver, for example, rehearses in her mind -- both at the pool and away from it -- every moment of her dive, from her toes leaving the board to her body slicing into the water. "Mentally going through the motions accustoms our body and mind to how something is done," Bode explains.

Life lesson: Think of a habit you'd like to change: Do you procrastinate? Are you a chronic oversleeper? Find a comfy spot where you can sit for five minutes every day. Next, imagine the action -- waking up at 6 a.m. -- in detail. Hear the alarm go off, see yourself throwing aside the covers, feel the floor under your feet. "The more senses involved, the more the image will be etched in your brain," says Bode.

Breathe Through It

Athletes control their breathing to center themselves and fend off nerves, anger, or other distractions that can undermine their game. That's what basketball players do before a free throw and golfers before a critical putt. "When you consciously inhale and exhale slowly, your focus automatically turns inward and your mind and body relax," explains Jack J. Lesyk, PhD, director of the Ohio Center for Sport Psychology, in Beachwood.

Life lesson: You can use this technique to stay calm during a heated debate at work or before giving a toast at your friend's wedding. With your eyes closed, breathe in through your nose for a count of five, hold for a count of two and exhale through your mouth for a count of seven. Pause for two seconds, then repeat until you feel serene. To get to the point at which just one or two breaths are enough, practice for one minute five times a day and for five minutes once a day. "The former teaches you how to withdraw from your environment, center yourself, and return with clarity," Lesyk explains. "The latter teaches the right tempo. If you're breathing too fast or too slow, those five minutes will seem long. When you get it just right, they pass quickly."

More Goal-Winning Tactics

Read People

Athletes study video of their opponents to learn their ticks: the basketball forward who invariably dips his knee in the direction he's going, the quarterback who without fail lifts his leg just before he calls the snap. "Knowing an opponent's body-language tip-offs helps you shut down his game," explains Larry Lauer, PhD, a sport psychology consultant and director of coaching education and development at Michigan State University's Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, in East Lansing.

Life lesson: Off the court you're not necessarily trying to use anyone's body cues against them. Rather, the idea is to tune in to certain unspoken emotions your family, friends, and colleagues reveal with their movements or gestures so that you can improve your understanding of what they're feeling. "We can't help but send out signals through our body language, and because we do so subconsciously, these moments reveal our true feelings," says body-language expert Tonya Reiman, author of The Yes Factor. To identify a coworker's giveaways, first take stock of her usual movements: where she looks when she talks, how she holds her body, whether she crosses her legs. "When people are uncomfortable, nervous, or even lying, they change their behavior. For example, they may stroke their leg when they normally don't," Reiman explains. Some common nonverbal cues: People tend to lean toward you if they like what you're saying and away if they don't; someone who is interested in you romantically will look at your mouth and body as opposed to just your eyes and nose, and thumbs in plain sight are a sign of confidence.

Talk a Big Game

No one ever wins by believing that she can't. That's why athletes pump themselves up with positive self-talk. "Repeating 'I can do this' to yourself is a way to replace the negative thoughts that pop up when you're under pressure," suggests James Bauman, PhD, a sport psychologist at the University of Washington in Seattle. "It helps you focus on what you can do rather than on what you fear you can't."

Life lesson: With practice, you can turn your inner Eeyore into your biggest supporter. Every time your internal voice goes rogue, counter it with a cue statement -- a brief phrase that shuts down the critic, such as "I'm strong and in control" or "It's not a problem." Single words like "Go" or "Relax" are also good. Experiment to find out what sticks, Bauman suggests, or arm yourself with several. Saying your cue aloud can help, as can writing it in visible spots. In time your affirmative thoughts will become automatic, heading off self-doubt before it appears.

Get a Coach

Natural talent takes athletes only so far. To achieve greatness, they need someone to help them hone their skills, work on their weaknesses, and teach them strategy. To mentor them, in other words. "It's an invaluable relationship," Lauer says. "A coach tells you what you need to hear, not just what you want to hear."

Life lesson: Careerwise, a mentor is useful for her advice and because she can recommend you for jobs. Choose someone in your company (but not your boss or boss's boss, which could create conflicts of interest) who knows you and your work. Ideally, she should have only a level or two of seniority over you: Research suggests that the most effective mentors aren't the living legends but the up-and-comers in the first third of their careers. To make your approach, send an e-mail (to allow for a response at her leisure) that says you are hoping to follow her career path and would like to seek her advice occasionally. Don't be shy: Most people are happy, if not flattered, to share their wisdom; it's a way for them to pay back the role models in their own lives.

Rest

There's training hard, and then there's overtraining. The former moves you forward toward your goal; the latter sets you back and potentially sidelines you. The antidote: periodic breaks to help the body recover. "Athletes build rest into their schedules to avoid burnout and injury," Dahlkoetter says. Triathletes, for example, often train in blocks of time that include seven days of workouts and two days off.

Life lesson: You can't expect to live at your peak when you're exhausted. "Depletion is a real danger for women in particular, because they tend to put the needs of others before their own," says Ana Tucker, a psychotherapist and life coach in New York City. That doesn't mean you have to disappear for a weeklong yoga retreat in the woods (if only you had the time). Try working in micro breathers to do something mindless, like checking Facebook or playing a round of solitaire, throughout the day. "That five-to-seven-minute break allows you to come back to yourself and refreshes your perspective," Tucker explains. Bonus: Taking brief mental holidays during the day means you're less likely to turn to unhealthy activities (Cheetos and junk TV, anyone?) later.

As for me, my favorite mini escape is a trip around the block for an iced coffee. Or I'll spend five minutes surfing a recipe Web site for (most recently) a 19-step cheese souffle that I'll never, ever make. But it's awfully nice to visualize. So then again, maybe I will.

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, September 2010.

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