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