8 techniques to practise mental toughness

 8 techniques to practise mental toughness

As a leading performance and sports psychologist, Eric Potterat has helped athletes, astronauts, and elite military personnel understand why humans tend to fight, flee, or freeze in the face of adversity. But the insights also apply in business.

“If you learn to control and navigate adversity, you control performance in any environment,” Potterat told accountants and finance professionals at the AICPA’s 2017 Global Manufacturing Conference.

Potterat is a clinical psychologist and retired US Navy commander who specialises in optimising performance, decision-making and teamwork under pressure, mental skills training, and individual and organisational resilience. He was part of a space shuttle support team and spent a decade overseeing the psychological assessment, selection, development, maintenance, and enhancement programmes for the Navy’s special operations teams known as SEALs.

Evidence-based data show that high-performing organisations have a clear mission, a clear vision, and clear standards, Potterat said, and high-performing individuals persevere not for monetary gain but to be part of something bigger.

Most importantly, though, elite performers tend to be mentally tough, meaning they excel at performing under pressure and at making decisions under stress, he said.

Practise these tips for better performance

To be mentally tough means to be able to control the body’s primitive and automatic response to perceived danger, which includes increased heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. These eight techniques help high performers control the human stress response, Potterat said:

Establish pre-performance and post-performance routines. Pre- and post-performance routines work like light dimmer switches. They are rituals to kick-start a mindset during a transition period – to get ready to conquer and then to ratchet down once the performance is over.

For many athletes, putting on a uniform is part of getting into a competition mindset. New Zealand’s national rugby team is known for performing the “haka”, a Māori war dance, before matches. For members of the military, the order from their commanding officer mentally readies them for battle. Research also makes it clear, Potterat said, “that the best performers have a way to get there, a way to play and be extremely fierce and focused, but they also have a way to come off of that [mindset] near the end [of the performance]”.

Pre- and post-performance routines also include exercise, yoga, and music.

Set and segment goals. Successful goal-setting is specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely. It breaks down a goal into manageable pieces because small victories build momentum and confidence. And it focuses on process rather than outcome. Young, eager business executives, athletes, and military personnel “want the trophy, the money, the outcome,” he said. “The professionals are the ones that build a process, and they stay true to that process. If the process is good, the outcomes occur more often than not.”

Control stress. Some high performers use a technique that research has shown works well – the theory of fours breathing. It consists of four seconds of breathing in and four seconds of breathing out over four to six minutes. This technique controls stress symptoms by mimicking the type of breathing during a stage of sleep that tends to be relaxing and by forcing people to focus on breathing.

Create an event in your mind. Repeatedly imagining a stressful situation with all senses of the body prepares for a stressful event. It works particularly well when practised just before going to sleep. “It’s a form of stress inoculation,” Potterat said. “The more senses you use, the more your brain is going to be wired and fired in a certain way when you’re likely to face [the stressful situation].”

Positive self-talk and thought management. High performers understand their belief system and reframe irrational fears as they approach stressful situations and events. They take control, focus on the rational, and don’t let unrelated past experiences colour how they see the world. They also use positive self-talk. “Shakespeare was all over this,” he said. “Maybe the best quote that I’ve ever come across is a quote within Hamlet: ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’.”

Plan for contingencies. The military does this really well. The SEALs prepare plans for many scenarios. If plans A and B don’t work, they move on to C and D without too much emotion. Contingency planning is extremely important in the business world as well, Potterat said. “Train your mind to perform as many as you can.”

Compartmentalise. High performers have the ability to put aside something unforeseen that happens or something that doesn’t go well until the mission is completed. It’s a very powerful technique, he said, but eventually, maybe with mentors, friends, or colleagues, you have to take a look at what went wrong and learn from it.

Be self-aware. Research suggests that people who balance work and life well are more creative and more productive, and they live longer. Life events, moods, sleep, stress, physical issues, substance use (including the use of legal substances such as alcohol), concentration, and workplace climate affect performance greatly. High performers notice when they’re off in these eight areas, take the signs to heart, and make changes. “It’s pure selfish risk mitigation,” Potterat said. To reboot, he recommended yoga, walks in nature, mindfulness exercises, and unplugging from mobile devices.

Sabine Vollmer ( is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.