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Eddie O’Connor: “I used to think the definition of excellence was obvious: ‘Beat everybody else'”

Posted on Mar 25, 2021 by FEED Staff

Dr Eddie O’Connor is a sports psychologist and author of the popular Great Courses series, The Psychology of Performance. His latest venture, Success Stories, helps clients from a variety of fields develop a roadmap for top achievement. He talks to FEED about how the same principles applied by top athletes and performers can also be used to help businesses face and respond to their own challenges

FEED: First of all, how did you come to specialise in the psychology of performance?

Eddie O’Connor: I was always interested in psychology. When I was in high school, I was reading Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams at night in bed! I was a runner in high school; I was passionate about it, but I was very average. I was doing the 800m and couldn’t break 2:10. It was weird, because I trained perfectly, and I didn’t figure it out until after I became a sports psychologist.

Being a runner was my identity. It’s who I was, I wasn’t in the top tier, but breaking that number, 2:10, had this magical quality – if I could do it, then I would be ‘good’.

In the last weeks of my final season I’d hit the finish line and it was 2:11 every time. And the thought I always had was ‘I just didn’t go out fast enough’, or ‘I’m not completely tired, so I can get it next time’. Later on, I discovered that ongoing hope I had was an unconscious sabotaging behaviour. The idea that I could do better ‘next time’ never let me fully engage failure. I could always say I didn’t give it my all and that, psychologically, protected me.

The story ends, though, relatively well. My last race I ran around a 2:09. But could I have done 2:05? 2:03? Could I have even flirted with 1:59? I’ll never know, because my psychology held me back. Then I went to college and found sports psychology. I thought to myself, ‘I really could have used all of this stuff in high school,’ and I immediately fell in love with the subject.

I chose clinical psychology. It wasn’t specifically a sports psychology programme, but my adviser was a sports psychologist and I did everything I could around sports.

My master’s thesis was on self-efficacy according to belt rank; my disabilities class was on wheelchair athletes, and my behavioural analysis class was on overtraining and athletes. My dissertation was on the effect of competition on acute pain tolerance. After I graduated with my PhD in clinical psych, I did extra training in pain and injury rehabilitation, substance use and disordered eating, and anxiety and depression, because I knew these were the things that athletes would suffer from.

For 16 years I worked in a chronic pain and headache population as a director and chief psychologist. Working with chronic pain was a great overlap of my skills. I got to see that, at the core, is the ability to accept the suffering you have in service of the things you value. The pain is chronic, there’s no longer a cure. People get caught up in the pain and their life shrinks as they try to fix something that they can’t fix. It was great to be able to apply all of that to my athletes, like endurance runners. And some of my pain patients appreciated the performance-enhancing aspects of focus skills, goal-setting and imagery.

I used to think the definition of excellence was obvious: ‘Beat everybody else’

FEED: You try to help your clients work toward excellence. But what is ‘excellence’?

Eddie O’Connor: To tell another embarrassing personal story, excellence used to be a dangerous thing for me. I was really burdened with an achievement orientation. Now, it did kind of work – I got my PhD, I published, my first job was being a chief psychologist, and all of that fed my ego. I’ve met a lot of athletes like that, too. But no matter what they did, they were never satisfied. The best they could actually feel when they won was relief.

I used to think the definition of excellence was obvious: ‘Beat everybody else.’ I had on my business card, “Because average isn’t good enough.” I loved that tagline! But when I showed it to some people at the hospital where I was working, the marketing person in particular had the most disgusted look on her face. I’m like, “What? You gotta work, you gotta go get it!” Now I see what a horrible message that is, because what is excellence?

The best in the world are pretty unbalanced. I’m not speaking bad of it, it’s just a fact. We have to make choices. Excellence can mean you beat everybody else. But excellence can also be personally defined. Did you reach as far as you wanted to go? Maybe your definition of excellence is a personal best in a 5K run? And that’s excellent, because that’s as far as you want to go. Sometimes excellence is a well-balanced life.

My definition of excellence for my clients is: ‘What would make a really wonderful life?’ And if you want to win a championship, there are going to be sacrifices. If you want a well-balanced life, then you’re also going to have to make sacrifices, maybe in the level of excellence in each individual area.

FEED: Does success in business follow the same principles an individual athlete might apply?

Eddie O’Connor: In sports psychology 101, the most basic thing is process over outcome. If you’re thinking about the outcome, you’re not paying attention to what you’re doing in order to achieve that outcome, and you will get messed up.

Early on with every client we say, “What are the things you need to do in order to achieve your goal?” For a business, if excellence is just money, be careful, because what message is that going to send? If that’s the only factor, it might lead you into being tempted by cheating or fraud. In the same way that, if winning is all that matters in sports, then you get cheating and performance-enhancing drugs.

What would you  want people to say about you at your retirement dinner?

One of my favourite exercises is asking clients, “What would you want people to say about you at your retirement dinner? About how you responded to adversity, how you handled risk, how you took care of your employees, how people felt when they came to work?” For all the hundreds of times I’ve done it, I think only one person ever said anything about winning!

People tell me they want to be known as a good teammate, a hard worker, as somebody who was supportive, as somebody who was technically really good, or who showed consistent growth. When you can apply these qualities to sports or to business, it keeps your head focused on the right things; it keeps you in the process. Then the money, the winning and everything else will follow.

I would say to a business person, “What’s your mission? We all want to make more money, but why did you join that company in the first place? Do you want to be a company known for customer service? Or one that’s agile, quick and responsive? Or do you want to be always on the cutting edge?” Those are the things that will excite you and the things that people can rally around.

FEED: The past year has challenged the media industry, with firms forced to find new ways of doing business. What insights can you give about how to pivot in these difficult times?

Eddie O’Connor: First, don’t just react without thinking! Please fight that urge. It is the human thing, but I’ve built my career on helping people to avoid automatically reacting to their thoughts and feelings. In a time of crisis, anxious thoughts and the urge to protect ourselves and avoid pain are where most of our problems will show up.

The faster you go, the more you will feel your fight-or-flight response kick in, so you have to stop. You have to be mindful. You have to get into the present moment, observe yourself and see what’s going on. Are these thoughts going to help me, or hurt me? The second part is, how do I want to respond? Is now the time to buckle down and have faith that this will pass? Or is it time to shift and pivot?

Learn to not trust your anxiety. It’s there only to warn you of danger – it’s not there to tell you how to get out of it, or how to be your best. It’s a slanted view.

FEED: What would you say to those who are under extra pressure now and feel like they haven’t the time to take a break and reassess?

Eddie O’Connor: High achievers want to do more than they have time for. But that just sets us up either for failure, because something gets dropped by accident, or disappointment, because we’re now not meeting our unrealistic goals.

Some of the best interventions are to help people see how much they want, and ask how they fit all that into a limited amount of time and how much will it cost them. It’s really about being intentional; knowing what you’re doing and knowing what it’s going to cost.

If you can’t do it all – you’ve got too many emails and projects and a deadline to meet – you might have to decide which one to drop. Maybe you don’t check emails, or only respond to half of them. Maybe you have to be late for one project to be on time for another. Or maybe you have to hire a bigger sales force. We’re here to make decisions. Where are you going to take the hit? If you’re playing football, you’re gonna come out sore. You can’t expect to not hurt.

This has helped a lot of the runners I’ve worked for. They have come to me because they can’t push past the pain. And I say, “What do you expect? Your body has never done this before. Don’t you think that it should hurt?” And that tends to be the thing that gets them through it.

So why wouldn’t you struggle during a crisis? Why wouldn’t you have anxiety during a pandemic? But can you move your company forward while you’re still feeling fear and anxiety? Hopefully, it will be according to your values, and through kindness and good communication.

FEED: What techniques are there for engaging your best thinking and creativity when you are under a lot of pressure?

Eddie O’Connor: You’re going to be more creative when you have enough sleep – you’re going to think better and make better decisions. When we’re in crisis, we have more caffeine to stay up later and work harder. But if it’s at the cost of sleep, science says you’re hurting yourself.

If you get a bunch of stressed executives who have stopped exercising, are drinking more, are feeling more pressure and are not sleeping, they are not going to be creative. They are going to rely on the things that they have always done and their minds are not going to be open. I can pretty much guarantee that they are not going to be at their very best.

When we get under pressure, doubling down on the foundational health benefits is where it all starts

When we get under pressure, doubling down on the foundational health benefits is where it all starts. If your mind and body are not healthy, you can’t have the best creativity. So continue to exercise during stress. Make your sleep and nutrition a priority and be careful about substances.

The second thing I’d say is seek other opinions. I’m not necessarily saying hire a consulting firm, but if you’re working with a leadership group that has been together ten years and you’ve always done things a certain way, maybe you can get a consultant to come in and facilitate a change. I really believe in lifelong learning – the more I know, the more I realise that I don’t know. I get more and more humbled by how little I know, the older I get.

This Genius Interview first featured in the Spring 2021 issue of FEED magazine.

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