What Athletes And CEOs Have In Common

By on December 7, 2014

World-class athletes and high-performing CEOs know that the secret to achieving and breaking records comes from producing in “the Zone.” You don’t have to win the Heisman trophy or be CEO of the year to tap into the Zone and create a winning season. It does require a laser focus, commitment and a willingness to take a few hits. You will have to get off the couch and into the arena.

We aren’t perfect at our company, Fishbowl. We are mavericks in every sense of the word. We learn and get better every day by playing the game of work. We never lose focus of the goalpost and we finish the game strong.

One of the secrets of winning is playing all-out in the 4th quarter when we are tired, beaten down and it’s tough. Winners know that games are won in the 4th quarter. It’s a choice. 2015’s winning rosters will be made up of players who consistently score in Q4 and strategically prepare for the coming year.

How do you get there? It’s simpler than you might think, but it does require discipline, hard work, focus, and commitment to follow through.

Winners focus their energy on playing their absolute best in the roles they have accepted. If you are a running back—run. If you are on the defensive team—defend. Be the absolute best in your respective role and I promise you that, in time, success naturally flows.

The Zone is open to all. It is a state of mind where we perform any activity—athletics, management, artistic pursuits, or even parenting—with full immersion, energized focus, and complete enjoyment of the process.
Cheri Michelle Farnsworth, Executive Director, MountainWest Capital Network. Photo credit: Cy Waldron

Our team at Fishbowl believes that once you’re in the Zone you will meet other people who exhibit common goals and vision. Two industrious men—Michael Sternfeld and Raamon Newman, Executive Development Advisors—recently started an organization called New Mavericks. They connected with us after reading our Forbes column: 12 Maverick Leadership Tips From James Bond.

Their “holy grail” quest for the Zone asks, “How do we access it—and sustain it?” The Zone has been considered an elusive state, accessible only by elite athletes who, by luck or by a state of grace, fall into this mesmerizing flow of peak performance. This may sound like a frustrating proposition for us mere mortals who wish we could distill and bottle the active ingredient of the Zone.

To understand the mechanics behind this peak performance phenomenon more fully, let’s hear a great Zone story from Billie Jean King—considered one of the greatest woman athletes of all time. Even with all her extraordinary achievements, including a record 20 Wimbledon wins and 39 Grand Slam titles, her Zone experiences were her most cherished peaks:

“On my very best days, I have this fantastic, utterly un-self-conscious feeling of invincibility… I appreciate what my opponent is doing, but in a very detached, abstract way, like an observer in the next room… When I’m in that kind of state, I feel that tennis is an art form that’s capable of moving both the players and the audience… When I’m performing at my absolute best, I think that some of the euphoria that I feel must be transmitted to the audience… The perfect shot is another matter. They don’t come along very often, but when they do, they’re great. It gives me a marvelous feeling of almost perfect joy, especially if I can pull one off on the last shot of the match… I can almost feel it coming. It usually happens on one of those days when everything is just right… and my concentration is so perfect, it almost seems as though I’m able to transport myself beyond the turmoil of the court to some place of total peace and calm… That perfect moment happens in all sports… It’s a perfect combination of a violent action taking place in an atmosphere of total tranquility… And when it happens, I want to stop the match and grab the microphone and shout, ‘That’s what it’s all about!’ Because it is. It’s not the big prize I’m going to win at the end of the match or anything else. It’s just having done something that’s totally pure and having experienced the perfect emotion.” —Billie Jean King, excerpted from The Supreme Awakening.

This is a perfect description of all the elements that make up the Zone—un-self-conscious invincibility, detached observation, total concentration, tranquility, euphoric joy, and the sense that this kind of experience makes life worth living. To put it in simple terms for practical life – as described by The Rise of Superman author Steve Kotler – “Flow is an optimal state of consciousness, a peak state where we both feel our best and perform our best.”

Could we add “all the time” or just “most of the time” at the end of this description? Perhaps there is a magic key to transforming an elusive phenomenon into a more integrated state of life. Advances in brain research are paving the way for the application of solid metrics to unlock what has been previously perceived as only a subjective experience. Peak performance researchers, such as Dr. Harald Harung and Dr. Fred Travis, have uncovered the key active ingredient in peak performance—mind-brain development. They found an integrated state of brain functioning to be a common neurophysiological signature in the world-class athletes, CEOs, and musicians they have studied.

We have observed the same underlying patterns on a behavioral level in our leadership consultant work with top managers. There is a sustained internal state that can be developed over time, which we have coined “The Integration Zone.” The Integration Zone takes peak performance and the Zone to the next level by placing this profound heightened experience into a matrix of sustained development.

If you are intrigued by this potential for human development, let’s translate these concepts into practical tips that may be useful to incorporate into your life. There are a variety of beneficial approaches, but here are four of the most significant:

  1. Discover Quiet Space

For most maverick entrepreneurs the mere thought of meditating drives us nuts. We just aren’t built to sit on the top of the mountain.

How does meditation actually optimize performance? It settles down the chatter of the mind to allow you to bask in the mind’s most settled state. The essential qualities of the Zone inhabit this field—complete absorption, merging of action and awareness, self-referral, and effortlessness. Regular practice of meditation does seem to stabilize these qualities, which are also found in the behavior of all high-level peak performers. Researchers, such as Harung and Travis, also found that the brain signatures of long-term meditators are very similar to top-performing athletes, managers, and musicians.

If you’re not up to a formal practice of meditation, just creating some quiet time. A few moments of inner stillness open your mind up to what we call our “core essence.” It is there that you can connect with your more significant desires and values, so that you can move with clarity toward your goals.

Peak performers always have clear goals, since the clarity of their attention facilitates that all-important state of restful alertness. The Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu summarized it perfectly: “To a mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.”

  1. Move to Create Mind-Body Coordination

One word you will seldom hear at Fishbowl is “exercise.” We think it’s ridiculous and a waste of time, energy, and life. Ask us if we want to play soccer, climb a mountain, or build our muscles, and the answer is absolutely yes. We rode over 500 miles for a friend. No one cared how many calories we burned.

Since ancient times, far-seeing leaders have understood the value of exercise. Even Gautama Buddha, in the 5th century B.C., proclaimed, “To keep the body in good health is a duty, otherwise we shall not be able to keep our minds strong and clear.” One major study involving 1.2 million Swedish men found that those who were physically fit at 18 had a higher IQ, were more likely to go on to university, and were more likely to secure better jobs.

This perspective underscores a deeper point here—the intimate connection between mind and body. A healthy body sustains a healthy mind, and vice versa. To cultivate the Integration Zone, it is beneficial to choose physical activities that you love. With many at the gym, you’ll see people exercising with disconnected drudgery, as they run treadmills or ride stationary bikes while reading or watching TV. Something may be better than nothing, but this workout style treats the body as a disconnected machine. Peak performance is cultivated by activities in which you can absorb yourself completely and that you derive joy from. When I dive into the pool or a lake in the summertime, I become like a fish in water. Smooth, effortless flow describes the experience, and I always come out refreshed, even rejuvenated. Find the exercise program that does that for you. “Intrinsically rewarding” could be your workout mantra.

Meditation and physical activity are proven practices that support the Zone; now let’s shift to the cultivation of the subjective mindset that also goes for the gold.

  1. Be Grateful and Accept All That Life Delivers

It’s valuable to cultivate an attitude of gratitude. But this mood also has deep roots in the mindset that nourishes our peak performance. Whenever we feel grateful, we experience the immediacy and perfection of the moment. This is also a quality of peak performance—each moment is an unfolding sequence of perfect moments, and the participant is riding that wave where every decision flows effortlessly and perfectly into the next.

The opposite of this mindset is resistance. Whenever we strongly resist our environment, we may find that we step out of our flow, or as my friend aptly describes every time I complain about my lot, “Have you noticed that reality has a way of winning, but only 100 percent of the time?” We do not mean to condone passivity. Sometimes we need to fight for what we truly believe in, but then you are fully in that moment. The famous Serenity Prayer sums up this point: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

  1. Let Go and Shift Up a Gear Into the Zone

Interviews with extreme-sports athletes reveal that the sense of “letting go” precedes their shift into the superfluid awareness of the Zone. Letting go doesn’t mean giving up your goals, but rather re-shifting your awareness to encompass new possibilities. What seems like a retreat might be a downshift from a smaller frame of reference to something much bigger and better.

Remember, we don’t have control over the fruits of our actions; we have control over our actions alone. Just take the best aim you can and shoot. Leave your self-conscious insecurities behind by giving complete, undivided attention to the task at hand. Act from one unanticipated moment to another, giving respect to your boundaries and others, devoting your action for the sake of others (not just your own ego).

Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, author of Flow, has the final word here: “It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself, rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were.”

We have now covered the full range of choices for stepping into your Integration Zone. Boiling it down to the bottom line, we could summarize: engage in those actions and mindsets that are conducive to the Zone and avoid those activities that are the opposite of this flow. That means fostering those peak experiences, such as single-minded immersion in your tasks, clarity with your goals, effortless quality in activity, loss of excessive self-consciousness, and intrinsic joy in your process.

It is possible to attain peak performance and get in the Zone, even if you’re not an elite athlete. Photo credit: Cy Waldron

Conversely, if you don’t want to be at your peak performance, you could engage in multi-tasking, maintain unclear or muddled goals, strain or offer resistance to your work, display self-conscious anxiety about how you are doing, and be involved with projects you just don’t like. What is your choice? When it is laid out that clearly, the path for 2015 seems pretty obvious – go with the flow.

For more exciting information on this topic, visit the New Mavericks website and get to know Michael and Raamon. They are on the right path and most definitely will create a magnificent 2015.

»Visit the Forbes Article here.


About David Williams

CEO Fishbowl David Williams serves as chief executive officer of Fishbowl, the nation's leading provider of inventory management software for SMBs and asset tracking solution for larger enterprises. Fishbowl Inventory is the No. 1 inventory management software for QuickBooks users. Learn more about David at Fishbowl