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  • Toby Sinclair

Mental Skills In The Workplace

Mental Skills In The Workplace

The All Blacks are one of the most successful teams in history. They have sustained a win rate of over 86 percent across decades. How do they do it? 

Success leaves clues. One of the clues is a focus on Mental Skills.

I’ve been coaching teams in business for over a decade. Continuously seeking out what helps people perform at their best. I’ve learned that whilst expertise and experience are important, mental skills play a part in helping teams reach peak performance.

Mental skills refer to the ability to think correctly under pressure. To make the right decision when it matters most. Being able to process events away from match day pressure is also an aspect of mental skills.

To be the best, learn from the best. So I decided to learn from Aaron Walsh, the Mental Skills coach at Chiefs Rugby in New Zealand. Many of the players are current or former All Blacks.

Aaron helps players perform to their best capability under immense pressure.

It’s easy to assume that sports coaching is all about shouting at players and fixing underperformance. I’ve come to learn that in the elite sports environment, coaching is what helps everyone perform at their best. No matter their current level of performance.

The old dictator of a coach shouting out a team doesn’t work anymore.

When mental skills improve, thinking under pressure improves. For business, this means better execution of skill and decision making. The impact when a leader fails to improve the mental side of performance is dramatic. Teams get mixed messages which grow fear and anxiety. Performance suffers both at work and at home. Leading to stress and burnout.

Improving mental skills opens a competitive advantage few teams in business are exploiting.

Here are 5 lessons leaders can apply in the workplace:

  1. Move towards an integrated coaching model

  2. Focus on strengths, be aware of weaknesses

  3. Manage interference

  4. Translate values into behaviours that impact performance

  5. Be a tradesperson, not a philosopher

Move towards an integrated coaching model

Who gets coaching in your organisation?

Commonly, coaching is reserved for under-performers and people who “need to change”.

This creates a problem. It sets the expectation that coaching is for the weak. People are less likely to seek out the support of a coach.

Whilst this approach might deliver some value, it is not optimal.

Instead, organisations should aim for an integrated approach. Where coaching is a core part of how you work. No matter current performance levels, everyone is exploring how to think better under pressure.

Focus on strengths, be aware of weaknesses

The work on culture is a problem

Aaron Walsh

Leaders often say they are focused on strengths. Yet in the team meeting what’s the first thing they talk about: “We need to do x better.”

When you focus mainly on your team's weaknesses it creates a performance problem. Instead of seeking out opportunities, teams focus on threats. Looking to protect their position and prevent failure. This compounds the problem rather than solving it.

Now, this doesn't mean you ignore weaknesses. You must but be aware of them. Instead, most of your energy should go towards amplifying your strengths. Often the solution to our weaknesses lies in strengths.

Turn up the good.

Woody Zuill

Manage interference

How would you describe high-performance?

There are several definitions I really like in High Performance by Jake Humphrey and Damian Hughes.

But Aaron Walsh has one of my favourites:

Performance = capability minus interference

Aaron Walsh

A simple and accessible definition.

80% of performance is your capability. Technically performing the skills required under pressure.

20% of performance is how well you manage interference. In high-pressure moments, are you able to regulate emotions, calm the inner critic and execute?

Many leaders have the knowledge and ability, yet fail to execute in the moments of highest pressure.

A mental skills coach works on both sides of the equation. Helping players perform to the peak capability and ways to manage interference.

In the workplace, leaders commonly do a bad job of managing interference.

Most office workers never get an hour to themselves without being interrupted. The average CEO of a Fortune 500 company, for example, gets just twenty-eight uninterrupted minutes a day.

In fact, the biggest interference can often be the boss. Teams have too much work in progress, constantly context switch and fear failure. This is amplified by the inner dialogue every person has in high-pressure moments. Imposter syndrome, anxiety, fear.

Leaders must work to manage interference. This starts with managing themselves.

Translate values into behaviours that impact performance

Get your culture off the wall into the room

Aaron Walsh

You’ve been in one of those workshops. You brainstorm team values for a few hours, create a shortlist on a flip chart and feel proud.

The problem. The work stops there when it is only just beginning.

Values are useless unless you translate them into behaviours that impact performance.

For example, your team might agree on “empowerment” as a value. But what does that mean in practice?

I’d say “asking questions rather than telling” the team what to do is empowering behaviour. It’s specific and observable. You can give and receive feedback on how well you do that behaviour in the team context.

Culture is formed based on behaviours.

The key to culture change is behaviour change. If people don't start acting differently the culture will not change.

Coaches can help teams bridge this gap. Helping the team identify the behaviours that translate values into performance.

Importantly, leaders must then check in regularly. Asking “How are we doing against our commitments to each other?”

Be a tradesperson, not a philosopher

Get in the dirt

Aaron Walsh

Any coaching interventions need to be simple, accessible and relevant.

Aaron shares that too often coaches share the theory without practice. Taking the role of a philosopher rather than a tradesperson.

Teams need and want tools to improve their performance.

New Zealand Captain Sam Kane had this feedback for Aaron:

If I can’t train it on a Tuesday, I can’t use it on a Saturday.

Coaches need to build connection and rapport by involving themselves in the team. You don’t do that by standing on the sidelines with a clipboard.

In summary,

  • Move towards an integrated coaching model

  • Focus on strengths, be aware of weaknesses

  • Manage interference

  • Translate values into behaviours that impact performance

  • Be a tradesperson, not a philosopher

Finally, there is a lot of focus on “mindset” in the business world. Some leaders might say “It’s all about mindset” - Aaron strongly says it is not. Fundamentally you need to be capable. You must have the required knowledge, skills and experience to perform.

You cannot outrun a bad body

Aaron Walsh

However, a better focus on mental skills in performance helps teams find that extra edge in all aspects of their life.

Learn more about Aaron Walsh's Mental Skills work at these resources:


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