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Sport and Competition

Better Mindsets, Better Results

Improve your view of a situation and you’ll choose more effective actions.

PublicDomainPictures/Pixabay CC0
Source: PublicDomainPictures/Pixabay CC0

"Oh, this is a grapefruit, not an orange.” Now that she knows, she can savor each bite instead of spitting it out.

It’s tough to enjoy a grapefruit when you’re in a naval orange state of mind.

“Oh, Tyler Durden IS the narrator!” Now that he knows, he can watch the movie again and draw new and deeper meaning from almost every scene.

Some new thoughts change our lives a little. They help us more fully enjoy a piece of fruit or a movie. And some new thoughts change our lives a lot.

We will now look at some mindset shifts that can alter the course of our entire existence.

5 Mindset Shifts That Can Help Us Win at Life

One: From nervous to excited:

“Just relax” they say. When you’re about to perform, and you’re feeling nervous, they tell you to relax. But here’s the thing: When you’re nervous, your heart rate is elevated, your skin is clammy, your breathing is shallow, and your muscles are tense. Changing from nervous (a high arousal state) to relaxed (a low arousal state) is a tall order.

Here’s an alternative. Instead of going from nervous to relaxed, try going from nervous to excited. Just like nervousness, excitement is a state of high arousal, so your physiology barely has to change. Mostly what changes is your focus. Instead of focusing on what can go wrong, you will focus on what can go right.

It makes sense to think we perform better while excited than while nervous. But is there evidence to back up our intuition here? Yes. Allison Wood Brooks studied this technique, and found evidence that the shift is both easy to do and leads to superior performance in a wide range of activities. [1].

Before your next public speaking engagement or disc golf tournament, find a way to keep the following rule in mind:

If-Then Rule: If I feel nervous, then I will tell myself, “I’m not nervous, I’m excited.” And I will stop focusing on what can go wrong, and start focusing on what can go right.

Two: From Insecure to Comfortable:

Who hasn’t felt insecure in a job interview or on a first date? And what do our friends tell us when they know we’re feeling insecure? “Be confident! You got this!” or some such thing.

Unfortunately true confidence comes from knowing how to handle any task, question, or situation that comes our way. Confidence is the stuff of experts. In order to feel confident, when we lack expertise, we must pretend we know things we don’t know, and we must make-believe we have powers we don’t have.

Many years ago a friend advised me to stop trying to feel confident and try to feel "comfortable" instead. As he explained it, that meant I had to convince myself that I would be OK regardless of the outcome of this particular encounter. It meant relaxing my shoulders and facial muscles, taking up a little more space, leaning back a bit, speaking a little more slowly, and just being frank about who I was and what I knew and didn't know. "And here’s the beautiful thing," he said, "comfort tends to be contagious." If you feel comfortable, the others in the room will feel more comfortable as well. And that will often work in your favor.

Comfort isn't everything. We still have to have something to offer. But, if we do have something to offer, feeling comfortable will often seal the deal.

If-Then Rule: If I feel insecure, then I will relax my muscles, stretch out a bit, take a deep breath, remind myself that I don’t need this encounter to go perfectly, and say “I feel comfortable.”

Three: From “Crazy” to “Merely Disorganized”

Years ago I thought I might lose my mind. I had trouble focusing on the simplest tasks, because each productive thought had to fight for my attention with a dozen unrelated thoughts and worries. When I finally wrote down everything that was on my mind, the list came to several hundred items.

I had recently read David Allen’s Getting Things Done, and I realized that his inbox-clearing procedure might help me process the several hundred items that had accumulated in my mental inbox.

I identified hundreds of recurring thoughts as completely unproductive, and I deleted them. I identified hundreds of others as good ideas, but not ones I could do anything about any time soon. And I locked them away for safe keeping, well out of view. Only a hundred or so pertained to projects I was actually going to do something about sometime soon.

In the end I reduced about 600 thoughts down to about 100, and got those 100 out of my head and into a planning system.

And then I realized, . . . I wasn’t going crazy. My mind was just extremely disorganized. And once I got organized, I had a completely clear mind for the first time in a long time.

If-Then Rule: If I feel overwhelmed with too many open loops in my head, then I do the “Clear Mind Procedure” to organize my mind. [2]

Four: From Competition to Collaboration

My daughter just returned from a week at summer camp, where she was completely cut-off from the internet. On returning she lamented the fact that her “competition” got a leg up on her during that week. She is building a fairly impressive social media following, and couldn’t bear the thought that those to whom she compares herself grew their audiences while she was doing time in the gulag.

I couldn’t give her the week back, but when she said the word “competition,” I realized I could give her a different kind of gift. The remaining dialogue went something like this:

“Do you know who Eminem is?” (It’s good to start with an obvious “yes”).

“Yes, of course.”

“Does he have competition?”


“Who are his competitors?”

“Li’l Wayne, Kanye, Jay Z, Rhianna, . . .”

“How does he stay competitive with them?”

[shrugs shoulders]

“Have you heard Eminem do a song with any of those people?"

“Yeah, all of them.”

“Now why would he collaborate with his competitors?”

At that point she got her trademark intense distant stare, indicating that she was working it out. Finally she said:

“To get access to their audience.”

“Good,” I said. “But doesn’t that allow them to get access to his audience, too?”

“Yeah, but people can like more than one artist, so they can share.”

“So what happens when they collaborate?”

“They both get bigger audiences.”

Bingo! And I was delighted to see the wheels in her head start spinning as she considered the possibilities.

Of course there are many other reasons for collaboration. You learn things. You make friendships. And so on. But, on top of all that, collaboration can yield immediate crass material benefits as well.

If-Then Rule: If I am feeling competitive, then I will search for a way to collaborate instead.

Five: From Debate to Dialogue

Some of our most competitive moments are when we are discussing one of the “three things you’re not supposed to talk about in polite company”: religion, politics, and diet.

Why do we get so competitive while discussing these hot topics? Well, let's start with the perfectly well established fact that the world would be many times better if everyone agreed with us about all these things, and sometimes sitting across from us are “those people” who want to destroy all that’s good in the world. The stakes are high. There is no compromising with evil. Plus, “those people” just don’t listen. So collaboration isn’t really an option anyway.

Or is it?

W. Barnett Pearce used to ask a simple question whenever he got into a discussion about a controversial subject: “What are we making together?” [3] That question takes him out of a competitive “debate” frame of mind, and puts him into a collaborative “dialogue” frame of mind.

Wanting to have a dialogue instead of a debate is a good start. But to get the other person to buy in as well, it helps to emphasize your common humanity with the other person, to exchange stories about how you each came to believe what you believe, and to make sure both parties feel comfortable changing their minds or taking things back after they’ve said them. It also helps if you try to consistently validate their experience while gently challenging their interpretation of that experience. For more on how to do this, see “5 Communication Skills That Open People’s Minds.”

And what comes from that? Are you going to convert everyone you meet to your point of view? No. In fact, some of them might win YOU over now and then. But when you dialogue instead of debate, you almost always learn things, you have a much greater chance of being heard, and you make new friends.

A lot of good comes from dialoguing when it’s natural to debate.

If-Then Rule: If I find myself in an unproductive debate about a hot topic, the I will ask, "how can we turn this into a productive dialogue instead?"

Your New Powers

According to an old proverb: “Those who dance are thought mad by those who don’t hear the music.”

And according to Arthur C. Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

To mix metaphors a bit, a mindset shift is a technology that sometimes looks like magic to those who don’t yet hear the music.

When you can go from nervous to excited in ten seconds, or turn insecurity into comfort in a minute, or go from overwhelmed to clearheaded in 5 minutes, others will wonder how you did it.

When you can consistently turn competition into collaboration, your career might seem to grow like magic.

And when you can wade into the most controversial subjects, and consistently create constructive dialogues, instead of tense and heated conflict, you might just be branded a wizard.


[1] Allison Wood Brooks, “Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement.”

[2] I teach the Clear Mind Procedure in the free email course: “Clear Mind in a Complex World.

[3] W. Barnett Pearce, Making Social Worlds: A Communication Perspective

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