A game plan for business

10th Jul 2017

This weekend saw Joe Root’s captaincy of the England cricket team get off to a great start, as they beat South Africa in their first Test Match of the year. In the latest issue of Customer Focus we spoke with coaching psychologist Dr Steve Bull, who has previously coached the side to help players improve their mental resilience.

In his book The Game Plan: Your Guide to Mental Toughness at Work, Bull explains how developing the sort of mental resilience demonstrated by the 2005 Ashes series winning England cricket team can help business leaders thrive in an ever more pressurised world. In 1996, Bull wrote The Mental Game: Getting Psyched for Sport, a guide to the mental skills needed in competitive sport.

After coaching the England Cricket Team and other professionals – including Olympic Gold medallists, academics, professional actors and CEOs – Bull realised that there were parallels between the mental resilience required on the cricket pitch or football field and in the boardroom. These skills are perhaps even more relevant in today’s corporate culture, where the approach to business is ‘always-on’.

“It would be lovely to wind the clock back to the good old days when you went home at six o’clock and relaxed and came back to work at half past eight the following morning,” says Bull. “How we look after ourselves, how we manage these excessive pressures, how we stay healthy mentally, physically and emotionally is more important now than it’s ever been before.”

Changing landscape

In the 20 years since he began coaching, Bull has identified three significant changes to the pressures faced by executives. First, businesses have become much more global, meaning leaders have to deal with the challenges of excessive travel and demands made out-of-hours by clients in different time zones.

Second, there is a new emphasis on emotional intelligence. Bull estimates that as much as 75% of his executive coaching today is about emotional intelligence – helping leaders to get better at building relationships, engaging with staff and creating an aspirational climate.

The third change that Bull identifies might seem obvious: technology. Yet it is technology and the accessibility that it affords that is perhaps heaping the most pressure on executives. 

Resilience as a skill

Businesses are increasingly investing in training aimed at improving mental toughness. “Some people are naturally gifted in this field, much the same as with emotional intelligence,” says Bull. For others, resilience doesn’t come so easily. Fortunately, resilience is a skill that can be learned and improved.

At the heart of Bull’s model are two important attributes: self-belief and clear thinking.

“Most of the tools I teach people are connected to those two things,” he says. “Helping people develop robust, unshakeable self-belief and helping them to think clearly and make good decisions when the pressure is on.”

Controlling the ‘controllables’

The England cricket team exhibited this kind of thinking in 2005 during their historic victory over Australia to reclaim the Ashes. High-level sport is full of situations that are beyond an individual player’s control, things that Bull calls ‘uncontrollables’ such as the weather, the state of the pitch, the opposition’s strategy and the mood of the crowd. Too much time worrying about the uncontrollables hinders performance, both on a pitch and in the boardroom.

‘Top sports performers don’t worry about those things, they control the controllables,” says Bull. “Things like what I eat, how much sleep I get, how I prepare my equipment, my attitude.” The secret to the cricketers’ success was that each player had a game plan – each knew what they had to focus on. “They were not going to get carried away with the enormity of the occasion because they would be focusing on their own individual performance processes over which they could exert personal control.”

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