Mental skill is the key to improving wellbeing

June 3, 2021

I believe there is a lovely correlation between sport and business. The arena and skills are different but the drive and purpose are the same - both are striving for better performance and outcomes.

When we talk about mental skills and wellbeing, I believe we are essentially describing the foundation of high performance. When we're talking about organizations, investing in the wellbeing of their people, we're talking about them investing in how people function.

Mental skills and wellbeing

I recently interviewed New Zealander and PepTalk partner, Aaron Walsh for one of our PepTalk live events. Both Aaron and I have worked directly with athletes involved in professional sports.

We know that when we talk to professional sports organisations and teams, there is a recognition that mental skills are important. But, among the leaders of those same organisations and teams, there's a huge reluctance to invest in mental skills development and training. We're constantly fighting to get that message across.

At our PepTalk Live wellbeing event, Aaron shared that he had conducted a survey with this in mind.

He surveyed approximately 300 professional coaches. Over 95% of them responded they believed that mindset and mental skills were a crucial part of the performance jigsaw. However, when he delved a little deeper those same coaches only devoted around 5% of their time and resources on development and training in mental skills.

Aaron summed it up nicely saying - “I think everyone can understand, we've got this perceived idea, mental skills are very, very important, but the actualization of that perceived value is not happening.“

Before the corporate leaders reading this sit back and start wondering ‘what the hell is wrong with those sports organisations, the corporate world is equally as bad. If you talk to business leaders they’ll agree that mindset can influence the performance of people in their organisation, but very few have a meaningful program that addresses the development of this area.

Perception vs Actualisation - Why does that gap exist?

Like everything to do with the human brain, it’s too abstract for people wrap their head around if you excuse the pun. It’s too intangible, a little bit mystical, hard to measure and for some, it’s a little bit detached from reality. These are all valid concerns, but not enough to dismiss the idea entirely.

The growth in the wellbeing industry over recent years is a function of the growing understanding of how things like mental skills are important and an increasing understanding of its positive impact on performance. So, let’s break it down into something that will help apply some meaning to the idea of mental skills development, wellbeing and how it impacts performance.

Managing distraction - controlling the controllable

One of the areas that I used to focus on with athletes all the time was the area of distractions. I created an understanding with the athlete that everything that gets in the way of them being able to perform was a distraction.

If we could minimize the distractions by giving them the awareness first, and then the to negotiate those distractions, they were at least in a better place to work towards improving their performance.

All of us living in the world right now are surrounded by distractions. And our home lives, our work lives, our family lives, everything is intertwined. A great example is how some people are currently juggling work, and homeschooling at the moment. Surviving is the desired outcome for some let alone improving performance.

I know everyone reading this now is thinking, well ‘if distractions are the reality of normal life, how can we manage them or even attempt to improve our situation?”

Let’s break it down.

When we talk about managing our distractions for wellbeing, we're talking about behavioural change. It's understanding the things that are impacting on your wellbeing, identifying the things that stop you from being at your best. These are distractions. This could be any number of things.

  • something that's impacting your sleep
  • dissatisfaction with your weight
  • how are your energy levels?
  • what is your mood like?
  • have you got financial pressures?

All of these things are factors that impact on your wellbeing.

If you're going to address something that you're unhappy about in your life, it's about creating behavioural change around that something. Our first reaction when we want to make a positive change is to set a goal based on an endpoint we want to reach.

Goals can be a distraction

Describing the endpoint is not enough. You need to create a pathway to the endpoint.

For example, ‘Dry January’ is seen as a great way to reduce alcohol consumption but is often followed by quite a boozy February, which is undoing all the progress of January and you’re back to square one.

Aaron mentioned on the PepTalk Live that crash diets often fail because they are based on the denial of something you enjoy rather than a changed behaviour around the thing you enjoy. He mentioned that people that lose 40 kilograms on a crash diet are 95% likely to put on 45 kilograms in the months after the diet has finished.

So, what do we do?

Begin with the end in mind

As I mentioned earlier, this is particularly hard at the moment when everybody is so fatigued, options are limited by lockdowns and social distancing orders, and maybe that survival is probably more important than long term goals.

Rather than us setting to a goal or an endpoint, we should begin with the end in mind as Stephen Covey might say. Outline how we are going to get to that endpoint rather than just fixate on the endpoint.

For example, if I’m unhappy with how my weight is making me feel, this is a distraction. I need to do something about it. Like Aaron said above, if I declare I’m going to drop 10kgs in three months, there is a high probability that all the weight I lost and a little more will be back on a few months later.

Instead, I need to think about what I’m eating and how that is impacting my waistline. I also need to understand how this unhappiness is impacting the rest of my life - what I wear, what clothes I buy, how I feel in the company of others, and what I eat when I’m around other people.

The thing I want to fix is the unhappiness. I want to replace this with a feeling of happiness. This is my real outcome, not the number on the scales.

Anyone that knows me, will know I have a bit of a weakness for something sweet with a cup of coffee or tea. A few coffees and teas each day means a fair few sweet things are being eaten by yours truly.

Rather than deny myself something sweet and make myself miserable, I need to create a habit, for example of not eating the whole bar of chocolate. I need to get into the habit leaving one square and get my mind into the habit of seeing one square left that you didn't finish.

And over a while, you will leave two squares and then three and so on. Eventually, what you realize is that you're not craving a whole bar of chocolate, but just a little bit of a sugar hit with your cup of coffee.

Change in attitude and behaviours leads to results

By understanding how food makes me feel I can begin to change my attitude and behaviours towards food. Instead of fixating on how we look, how we appreciate ourselves in the mirror, we need to fixate on how food makes us feel. Once we become aware of the source of unhappiness or discomfort we then have the power to make a change.

If we try and tie this into a work environment if a manager is looking to generate a performance boost from their team, which option is better - focusing on the outputs with an iron rod of compliance or building authentic personal relationships and trust drive better performance?

Based on all that we’ve just discussed, which method is more likely to limit distractions from feelings of unhappiness and discomfort?

Remember, mental skills and wellbeing are essentially describing the foundation of high performance in sport and business, Investing in the wellbeing of your people all about improving how people function.

Compliance will drive temporary short term results. If the leadership of an organisation show commitment to a group of people, this will in turn result in commitment from the group of people.

So, why do most organisations opt for compliance?

It's really easy to be task and output orientated. It’s easy to measure and therefore easier to spot when people are not complying. Managers no longer manage people in the truest sense of the term. They collect and respond to data on output without considering how distractions played a role in performance or what the state of wellbeing is among their people.

The one job leaders should do

If you think about human history, the one job leaders had was to protect their people and make them feel comfortable and safe. Then the industrial revolution flipped that idea on its head. Now you had to show your value to the leaders based on your output. Leaders became measurers and managers of KPIs, performance and output. We have shifted away from the true essence of leadership and embraced a form of leadership that is at odds with some of our basic human instincts like co-operation, social engagement and trusting relationships.

True leadership is at the very heart of my philosophy for the PepTalk program. We have a vehicle we call The Leadership Lab, specifically for the people managers in our partner companies. It's built around that understanding of care and trust, and building relationships that will drive long term, sustainable changes as we’ve talked about in this article.

Let us know if you’d like to hear more about it.

Before you go...

If you'd like to find out more about how the PepTalk program can help your organisation, take a look at our explainer video over here


Niall O'Carroll
Chief of Program Strategy & Performance. Mental skills coach to sales teams and Olympic athletes. Believer in good conversations.
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