Addressing Mental Well-Being “Head First”
Most of us feel that competition in our industry is fierce. We’re always on. If we blink, we risk losing territory or a chance to score a big win for our team. That’s the feeling every day in the corporate world. It’s also the feeling on the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team as they prepare for this summer’s FIFA World Cup competition in France. How they are preparing holds a lesson for all of us as we develop our teams at work.
First, we need to figure out what makes us successful, the varied components of our being that allow us to contribute meaningfully at work.
Oddly enough, true talent in soccer starts at the head not the feet, according to James Bunce, the Director of High Performance for U.S. Soccer.
“Our mantra is ‘head first.’ For a long time, athletic talent was all about focusing on the neck down. We believe we need to concentrate on what’s going on from the neck up to really develop great talent. For years we’ve been working on mental conditioning, helping people with mindfulness and meditation. Both attributes help the players make the right decisions on the field and off.”
But at U.S. Soccer, they apply that approach not just to the players, but to the coaches and the administrative staff. It’s a business approach, not just a sports training technique.
“It’s time to change the mindset about sports training. We need to start at the head, where all of the decisions we make on the court or the field begin,” says Lindsay Shaffer, the Head of Sports & Fitness for Headspace, the app that provides access to more than 1,000 hours of content focused on improving mental well-being. “Meditation and mindfulness are scientifically proven to support key aspects of preparation, performance and recovery,” say Shaffer.
Those elements are as important for the average business professional as they are for the sport professional. Our need to grow at work isn’t limited to our technical skills, and our success on the job doesn’t depend solely on executing on tasks. It requires a more holistic approach to training and development. Shaffer notes,
“We all face stress at home and at work. Starting your day with a brief lesson and exercise in meditation helps you get to work with perspective, intention and presence. Those same elements help you as you execute on your tasks and build your relationships during the day. ‘Recovery’ in sports is the equivalent of your commute home. You can use that time to regroup from the stress of the day and refocus to be present to your family for the evening.”
“Major League Soccer is focused on equipping players with a variety of total wellness resources, so they can be successful now and beyond their playing careers,” said MLS Vice President of Player Engagement, Dr. Jamil Northcutt. “Mindfulness and meditation techniques can easily be translated into everyday life. From improving resiliency and mental grit, to harnessing the ability to focus and let go, these aspects are important for professional athletes to master to manage the various transitions that come along with being a professional athlete and business professional.” The same can be said of any profession.
Second, recognize that one size does not fit all when it comes to resources to improve mental well-being.
According to Bunce, U.S. Soccer and MLS have partnered with Headspace to provide access to the app for all players and staff of both organizations. That access allows the players to apply the same diligence they have in their work on the field to their mental health development. Because Headspace has customized the app for each of the 25 players, each woman has charted a personalized mental health roadmap that will take her from now throughout the last day of the tournament.
“Every woman on the team has different needs and faces different challenges on the field and off,” says Shaffer. “There are modules on the Headspace app geared specifically toward athletes. However, some of the women on the team pulled content from the other sections of the app to build their own customized programs.”
Similarly, as business professionals, we each get our support and our encouragement from different places. Some of us rely on self-help books, spiritual direction, humor, exercise, YouTube cat videos or a quick Words-With-Friends break between meetings or on the way to and from home. Whether we realize it or not, what we do to prep for, contribute during or recover from the day can have a profound effect on our mental well-being. If our chosen activity is specifically and consciously directed to helping us relax and refocus, we’re far more likely to see the benefits of that activity in our sense of calm and presence to others. While we may occasionally quickly jump on Facebook to relax or take a break, the political commentary from family and friends may make us more riled up than relaxed. Our efforts can backfire. A mindfulness app, however, is designed with a certain goal in mind. In short, not all resources are equal in value.
Finally, our mindfulness regimen shouldn’t be limited to a single activity.
For years, the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team has had a psychologist work with the players, both in groups and individually. But the players are only together for short stints. In between, they’re home in their own cities and towns practicing separately and dealing with whatever challenges they each face, just like the rest of us. According to Bunce, “That’s why we determined the Headspace app was the best resource for meeting the vastly different needs of our players. We needed to address this opportunity for improvement from a few different angles.”
The same is true for those of us in the corporate world. While we don’t usually have millions of cheering fans watching us or booing us from the sidelines while performing our tasks, like the women on the U.S. team will this summer, we still feel the pressure to perform. The rate of mental health issues among lawyers, for instance, has been in the news lately and is only becoming more significant. That’s why one global law firm has added access to Headspace as part of its health benefits – again as only one of many resources available to people.
The challenge for each of us is to find the right mix of support that help us face the challenges of the day. What we read, what we listen to, who we talk to, what we reflect on, all impact our ability to perform well. When you know you’ve reacted well to a situation because you’ve been calmer, more focused and more present to those around you, somewhere deep inside you’ll hear your own little, “GOOOAAALLL!”
Originally published on Forbes.com.