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Getting the Edge:
Tapping The Power of The Mind

John F. Eliot, Ph.D

Why Mental Training Now?

What do Lee Iacocca, Walt Disney, and Pat Riley all have in common? Two things. (1) They all created incredible dynasties which dominated in their arena of competition. (2) They were willing to go for it--in fact, there were already going for it--when their opponents were busy saying, "That takes too long, it's too hard, or it's too controversial."

Iacocca, Disney, and Riley are illustrations of what the psychology of exception is all about. In order to be THE best in the world, in order to be exceptional, you must be willing to go an extra mile and take risks while everyone else is doubting, protecting, and attempting to avoid errors and failure.

Riley, for example, was the first NBA coach to fully incorporate strength training into his team's practice regime. At that time, early in the 80's, lifting weights was reserved for body building "freaks" like the Incredible Hulk, Lou Ferrigno. Or for weak kids bullied around the playground. Coaches were afraid of weight training, focusing on misconceptions concerning injury, loss of coordination and flexibility, and an insistence that "tough" athletes don't need it. Meanwhile, Riley was finding a way to make his team quicker and more powerful than any other. Today every team has a specialist devoted to strength and conditioning.

Think about Walt Disney's pursuit of excellence. There's a guy who decided he was going to build a multi-million dollar "magic kingdom", featuring a giant mouse, smack in the middle of a swamp, and that families everywhere around the world would come pouring in to see his creation. Crazy! But exceptional. Disney did not accept mediocrity. He didn't go with a business plan that was easy or safe, or one that would kowtow to highly educated businessmen who "knew" that a giant mouse wouldn't sell. Following that route would have assured him a functional business. But Disney didn't care about just doing business. He was after the most successful business in history. And the rest is history.

Today, the parallel for building athletic dynasties is a commitment to holistic training--being on the cutting edge of mind and body excellence. It is teaching athletes how to use their mind as a weapon while every other team is busy playing it safe.

In truth, yesterday's athletes could get away with not having a great head. But tomorrow's can't. The number of competitors is skyrocketing, physical training is becoming equivalent throughout the league, and the amount of money at stake is reaching astronomical figures. Is it worth gambling a couple million on an athlete without having the appropriate resources available to make sure he builds a superior mind in time for him to make an impact?

The beauty of it is, while everyone else is making excuses the doors are open for the next Pat Riley to find a way for his organization to have the most finely tuned athletes, physically and mentally. Which brings us to Lee Iacoca. Iacoca once remarked that being a business genius was actually easy. "As long as my competition stays in place, concerning themselves with what works right now, all I have to do is keep moving forward."

As we approach the turn of the century, the teams that move forward will be those that get a jump on the mental game. Very few athletes have access to this type of leading edge training. And, very few specialists are trained to provide this elite service. But, that's good news. Good, anyway, for the one or two teams that get this edge first.

What Areas of the Mental Game Need to be Tackled?

- Thinking Great All of the Time: Attitudes must be consistent if an athlete is to generate the benchmark of a champion--consistent performance. Why pay a huge salary to a player who thinks great in practice but not in nationally televised games?

- Conditioning the Mind to Play an Extended Season: Professional sports seasons are lengthy. In order to stay sharp, an athlete must learn how to keep his/her mind strong for months on end--a concern particularly relevant to rookies who only have experience playing short high school or college seasons.

- Returning to Play After Severe Injuries: At the elite level, athletes are used to playing through pain. Coming back from major surgery such as ACL reconstruction, however, requires a special confidence--taking that first hit and trusting your knee will hold up.

- Maximizing Potential: Owners and GM's spend millions of dollars recruiting, signing, and then training hot prospects. It is ridiculous to make this size investment on an athlete without assuring that he/she will perform up to potential. Why risk the chance that his/her mind won't be where it needs to be?

- Knowing How to Stay in the Present: Because of modern technology, lots of analytical processing occurs off the field. However, if athletes continue to analyze while competing, they won't be able to stay loose, unconscious, and trusting of their instincts.

- Taking Risks; Going For It: Trying to be the best in the world puts an athlete in a position where he/she will fail and receive criticism a tremendous amount of the time. In order to make the "big" plays when opportunities present themselves--to come through in the clutch--athletes must develop confidence and learn to get past fear of failure so they are not just playing "safe".

- Getting Past Setbacks and Preventing Slumps: It's easy to think and feel great when you are winning, when everything is going your way. But, what separates champions is how effectively and efficiently they think regardless of external or internal circumstances.

- Building a Winning Environment: Despite best intentions, relationships between teammates or between athletes and their coaches is sometimes strained. This inhibits learning and productivity. Thus, having an impartial resource to promote cohesion and chemistry is invaluable.

- A Focus on Holistic Training: Simply put, athletes who feel valued and appreciated perform better. Hiring resources to tend to every aspect of training demonstrates to players just how much management cares about their success. A focused on excellence from the top down will motivate players take more responsibility and, in turn, get more out of their natural ability.

John F. Eliot, Ph.D., is an award winning professor of management, psychology, and human performance. He holds faculty appointments at Rice University and the SMU Cox School of Business Leadership Center. He is a co-founder of the Milestone Group, a consulting firm providing training to business executives, professional athletes, physicians, and corporations. Dr. Eliot's clients have included: SAP, XEROX, Disney, Adidas, the United States Olympic Committee, the National Champion Rice Owl's baseball team, and the Mayo Clinic. Dr. Eliot's cutting edge work has been featured on ABC, MSNBC, CBS, ESPN, Fox Sports, NPR, and highlighted in the Harvard Business Review, Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, Entrepreneur, LA Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, and the New York Times. Dr. Eliot serves on numerous advisory boards including the National Center for Human Performance and the Center for Performing Arts Medicine. His latest book is Overachievement: The New Model for Exceptional Performance. For more information, visit Dr. Eliot's site at

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