How to Keep Your Competitive Edge at Work

From the WebMD Archives

It’s your first meeting with a potential new client. There’s a lot riding on it. The company is counting on you to bring home the business. Your wife needs you to bring home the bacon. You’re just trying to keep it together and do the best job you can.

Believe it or not, the ace pitcher or star forward on your favorite team has similar worries. Numbers drive everything for athletes and working guys alike.

“Last year’s records become this year’s baselines,” says Jack Groppel, PhD, co-founder of the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute. “You only make the big money if you do more and better next year and the next.”

Groppel and his colleague Jim Loehr, PhD, should know. Their research has amped up athletic performance since they founded the Institute in the 1980s. Clients include former NFL quarterback and current NCAA coach Jim Harbaugh, retired Olympic speed skater Dan Jansen, and boxing's Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini. Now they work with leaders at 25 Fortune 100 companies.

Want to be your best on the job? Groppel and other experts serve up their ace advice.

Forget Perfection

It's enemy No. 1 for anyone trying to achieve peak performance, says Jack Lesyk, PhD, director of the Ohio Center for Sports Psychology.

Some people can’t perform when it really counts because “they get too nervous. Whether it’s a big game or an important presentation to the board, they can’t do what they do in practice,” Lesyk says.

“They have the idea that if they do one thing wrong, they will fail,” he says. “I help them realize that they probably will make a mistake, but most errors are not too costly. And if they manage to move on, most likely their high level of performance will resume.”

(Un)level the Playing Field

What if you could shift the odds in your favor and still play by the rules?

You can. The key is to manage your energy, Groppel says.

Strike a balance between work, play, and home-life. That will help you find the energy you need for the long haul.

If you sink too many hours into your job, it takes time away from those other crucial areas -- your health, your family, your downtime.


Up Your Mental Game

These nine mental tricks can ramp up your performance, Lesyk says.

  1. Keep a positive outlook.
  2. Push yourself -- hard.
  3. Set high, realistic goals.
  4. Manage others well if that's part of your job.
  5. Use positive self-talk.
  6. Create positive mental images.
  7. Control your worry.
  8. Keep your emotions in check.
  9. Concentrate.

Watch the Cleveland Cavaliers on the court, and you’ll see these tactics at work. Lesyk is the team’s sports psychologist, and he defines, measures, and teaches these skills to the players. They can yield results right away, he says.

Think basketball: “The ref calls a foul against a player at a pivotal time in a big game,” he says. “It’s natural for the player to feel angry, but his self-talk can either throw gasoline or water on the fire. If he lets his emotions run wild, he probably will underperform. Or he can let it go and get his head back in the game.”

Most people believe something or someone else can affect how we feel. It could be referees, the weather, winning or losing, the economy, our bosses, or our customers, says Ed Tseng, a mental performance consultant. “The truth is, the only thing that can affect the way we feel is our own thinking. At our best, our minds are clear.”

To prove it, he once asked New York Yankees pitching legend Mariano Rivera what he thought about before he threw the ball. The World Series champ’s answer: “Nothing, just the catcher’s mitt.”

Call Time Out

In the old days, players and coaches believed the only way to win was to work harder and longer, improve their technique, and compete more often. That “never-let-up” mindset is no longer part of the playbook. Time off is vital to avoid burnout, avoid injuries, and perform better.

Business leaders need to catch up when it comes to this concept, Groppel says. “If we aren’t working 12 hours a day and on Saturdays, we are falling behind. That’s not sustainable for the long term.”

Downtime is a success strategy, not a sign of weakness. It’s even more important in business than in sports, Groppel says. “The corporate athlete is constantly performing, on the job for long hours every day, 50, 60, 70 hours a week, sometimes for 30 or more years, and without much recovery time.”


Pump Yourself Up

It’s just as important for you to stay in shape as it is for the sports pro. Groppel recommends a three-part formula to stoke your body and brain:

Fuel up. Eat meals rich in protein and complex carbohydrates like fruits and vegetables. Start with breakfast. About 3 hours after a meal, snack on yogurt, nuts, whole fruit, or cheese to steady your blood sugar and avoid energy crashes. Drink plenty of water.

Move around. Exercise gets more oxygen into your system. That boosts your energy, mental performance, and memory. Call time-out to stand up, stretch, and move at least every 90 minutes during your workday. Stay active outside the office, too. Try for a half hour most days.

Sleep tight. If you don’t get 6 hours or more each night, your performance may take a hit. Sleep plays a key role in problem-solving, productivity, energy levels, and thinking ability.

Know What You’re Playing For

Be honest with yourself. Figure out what really lights you up -- what you’re passionate about. “If it’s your work and that’s a satisfying answer, that’s great,” says Ken Mossman, an executive and personal coach who works with men.

But if it’s your family, or painting, or playing guitar, don’t pass it up. Find time for it.

“If you say the most important [thing] to you is your family and all you’re doing is working to provide for them, you are not walking your talk,” Mossman says.

And if you had dreams of making the majors, maybe your sport is your passion. If so, join an amateur league or find a pick-up game after work. Your career goals and on-the-job performance stand to gain.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Lisa Bernstein, MD on June 4, 2015



Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, Inc.: “About the Human Performance Institute,” “Keynote Speakers and Performance Coaches.”

Jack Groppel, PhD, co-founder, Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, Orlando, FL; vice president, Applied Science and Performance Training, Wellness & Prevention, Inc., Orlando, FL.

Jack J. Lesyk, PhD, director, Ohio Center for Sport Psychology, Beachwood, OH; sports psychologist, Cleveland Cavaliers.

Loehr, J., Schwartz, T. The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal, Free Press, 2005.

Ohio Center for Sport Psychology: “Nine Mental Skills Overview.”

Ed Tseng, Mental Performance Coach, Princeton, NJ; author, Game. Set. Life. Peak Performance for Sports and Life, BookSurge Publishing, 2008.

Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, Inc.: “Biology of Business Performance.”

Voit, S. Work, 2001.

Pronk, N.P. Preventive Medicine, October 2009.

Colcombe, S. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, March 2, 2004.

CDC: “How much physical activity do adults need.”

Ken Mossman, founder and president, Cirrus Leadership, Wilton, NY.

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