Olympic athletes and entrepreneurs share one critical trait to conquer pressure under fire.

In sports, mental toughness is defined as “the ability to consistently perform in the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances.”  The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Korea have been rife with performances by athletes with well honed mental toughness, giving them the competitive edge over athletes with matched or even higher ranking talent.  Two-time U.S. champion figure skater Nathan Chen was the gold medal frontrunner heading into the 2018 Winter Olympics, only to crumble under pressure during his Olympic debut, underscoring how critical it is for young athletes to harness mental toughness under extreme pressure.  It was a devastating outcome for Chen, the most talented US men’s figure skater to compete in the sport in recent memory. 

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U.S. figure skater Adam Rippon’s incredible grace under pressure has been widely recognized during this winter’s Olympic Games, especially given the level of criticism he’s received for being the first openly gay American figure skater to ever compete at the Olympics.  His positive attitude, willingness to lead with charisma and humor, and champion performances have catapulted him beyond just physical mastery as an athlete.

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If anyone in the business world ever needed mental toughness at their disposal, it’s an entrepreneur.  Investors and other tech industry insiders all agree that startup success is all about mental preparedness, tenacity, and skillful pitch execution under high stakes circumstances.  Entrepreneurs regularly face cutthroat competitors and critics, and must be able to push their ideas and products past consumers resistance to change.  In his most recent book “Executive Toughness,” Dr. Jason Selk discusses mental toughness and other shared traits between sports and business high performers.  Given the self-driving nature of entrepreneurial work, startup founders must exemplify this critical trait to prevail.  In his Harvard Business Review article “How the Best of the Best Get Better,” sports psychologist and former consultant to Olympic and world champions Dr. Graham Jones says, “Obviously, star athletes must have some innate, natural ability — coordination, physical flexibility, anatomical capacities — just as successful senior executives need to be able to think strategically and relate to people. But the real key to excellence in both sports and business is not the ability to swim fast or do quantitative analyses quickly in your head. Rather, it is [mindset] mental toughness.”

After living and working in and around Silicon Valley for more than 20 years I’ve seen firsthand the underpinnings of mental toughness, the stamina it takes to succeed here, and the price those people pay to stay at the top.  Through executive coaching I’ve supported top organizational leaders through pivotal growth periods in life and business, leveraging best practices from peak performance psychology, cognitive neuroscience, behavioral design and critical communication skill acquisition.  

Top 5 best practices for augmenting mental toughness:

  1. Notice the subtle shifts in your physiology and thought patterns, and where they drive your emotions, behaviors and decision-making.  Cultivate control over this chain reaction through mindfulness training, and commit to embodying your most unflappable self in high stakes situations.  Use tools like visualization, auditory prompts and self-directing phrases to tap into deep learning through habit formation.
  2. Prepare confidence-boosting engagement and response scripts to the three most challenging interpersonal situations you face.  This is especially helpful for those who aren’t naturally charismatic, because they serve as a guideline for how to best interact with people. Well-developed and practiced interpersonal responses work to center you, bringing you back to a place of familiarity, reducing socially anxious reactions that can interfere with peak performance.
  3. Develop a relentless and optimistic ‘solution focused mindset’. It is so irresistible to ride the wave of emotion that surges when facing a hard problem. Our brains can get railroaded by our emotions, mimicking the addiction response and diminishing our ability to think critically and generate effective options.  Approach all potential solutions one step at a time, giving yourself time to process your emotions first.  Even mapping out a single step completion is progress and an improvement to the current situation. Remember you can’t solve all problems at once, so choose one and stay focused on it until measurable progress is made.
  4. When you set your mind to do something, find a way to get it done, no matter what. While a relentless solution focus is the mental step, behavioral discipline is the action step that makes effective solutions materialize. In this way, discipline delivers success. Make discipline a habit by looking out for triggering temptations and planning accordingly.
  5. Be willing to embrace change.  Mentally tough people are flexible, constantly adapting in order to solve for best possible outcomes.  Fear of change is paralyzing and a major threat to one’s progress towards broader goals for fulfillment and happiness. 

A backbone of mental toughness is essential for providing the courage and internal compass that top competitors rely on to steer through the challenges they face. It also emboldens them to take on new opportunities for learning and growth- healthy life habits for effectively navigating stress, conflict and crises.  If you can develop mastery in this, you win!

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Make coming out as gay about you, not them in 3 simple steps

It’s 2017, and you’ve decided it is time to tell some folks the truth about you: you’re gay, you’ve BEEN gay, and you’re tired of hiding it in both big and small ways.  If you’ve been agonizing about exactly how to tell people you’re gay let me say this first: the most important part of this exchange is YOU.  Your needs, your feelings, your future, and your lifestyle.  This conversation can be short and sweet.

  1. Convey your message in simple language so no one gets it twisted:
  • “Hello? It’s me. I was wondering if you knew that I’m gay.  Yes? You suspected already?  Ok great just checking, I thought I’d officially confirm it. M’kay bye!”  (Hang up phone and start belting out lyrics to your favorite power workout song.)

  • “Hello?  It’s me.  I was wondering if you knew that I’m gay. No?  Ok well glad I checked because I am. Hella gay.  Happy to share with you some ways you could support me, if you’re interested.  If not, we can talk about something else now.”

This is an exercise in getting something off your chest for you, about you.  Maybe the person you’ve told has questions about ‘how sure you are’, ‘if this could be a phase’, or feels compelled to wonder out loud if ‘maybe you just haven’t met the right person yet.’  If the person you’ve just told you’re gay responds with doubtful comments and questions you can respond like this:

2.  Convey you do not have doubts about your sexuality. If they have difficulty believing you are in fact, gay, they should work through those feelings on their own. Maybe they need some professional support and/or expertise to become better informed about how sexuality works.

  • “It seems like you’re having a hard time believing that I understand my own feelings and my own sexuality.  What if I were asking you these same questions about your sexuality?  I don’t want to debate my sexuality, just like I’m sure you don’t want to debate yours.”

  • “It sounds like you could use some time to think about what I’ve just told you, based on your comments and questions.  I’ve already thought A LOT about it, and I’m done now.  I’ve made peace with the fact that I’m gay.  There’s nothing else to think about- I’m gay, the end.  When you’ve reached that place too, you’ll feel at peace with it, just like I do.”

3.  Convey you have choices about how you live your life, and the people in it.  Make it clear that while you’d like your personal and professional relationships to remain unaffected by your sexuality, the fact is some people will have a hard time accepting this.  The best thing you can do is surround yourself with people who respect and support your goals and are willing to treat you fairly regardless of your sexuality.  This will be a lifelong endeavor, but worth the effort so that you can live your best, happiest, most fulfilled life.

  • “I understand there will be people who won’t like me because I’m gay.  That’s not really any different than people who might not like you (or anyone for that matter) because of things they can’t change about themselves.  If someone doesn’t like me because I’m gay that’s their problem not mine.”

  • “Maybe it’s not obvious, but I’d rather not have to deal with people treating me unfairly or excluding me from opportunities or even basic rights because I’m gay.  The best thing I can do is pursue personal relationships and professional opportunities that allow me to be myself, grow, and pursue fulfilling goals.  It would be great if you could support me. If not, I understand that’s your choice.  You should understand it’s my choice to build a support group of people who accept me.”

The health toll of having these conversations should not be underestimated.  Many people feel overwhelmed and exhausted by the prospects of sharing news about yourself that may not be well-received.  This is a good time to invest in regular self care activities and connect with people who accept and support you as you are.

Telling people you’re gay need not be a long, complicated, agonizing conversation.  You do not have to allow anyone to make you feel like you’re wrong, unhealthy, or unlovable.  Take a deep breath and remind yourself that this is your life, and no matter what your sexuality is you can find a way to pursue happiness, love, fulfillment and success.  We can’t control how people feel about sexual diversity, but we can take strides to protect ourselves from feeling negatively judged by limiting the air time we give them, and focus our attention on building a life of positive self acceptance.

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