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Positive psychology lessons from an Olympic medalist and Navy SEAL

September 2, 2019 - 12 min read
Positive Psychology Lessons from an Olympic Medalist and Navy SEALCoaching Insider: How to Overcome the Baby Penalty

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Start with the end state

Risk embarrassment

How to sustain performance when things are going well, and when they’re not

Can this happen again?

Larsen Jensen is a former competitive swimmer, two-time Olympic medalist and former Navy SEAL. He recently stopped by the BetterUp office to share what he’s learned about perseverance, grit, humility, goal-setting, motivation, and the incredible influence that positive psychology has had on his career. This post is based off that talk.

Success tends to have a domino effect. When you start to see the fruits of your labor, there’s an inclination to push the envelope further and further in order to maximize your full potential. Swimming provided me that mindset when I was just 11 years old. It was the first time I understood the relationship between working really hard at something and having a favorable outcome. But when you’re an elite performer, the stakes are high and you’re not always winning.

How do you stay positive and recommit yourself to your goals, especially after disappointment or success that feels like it’s once-in-a-lifetime? These techniques, which are grounded in positive psychology, have powered me through some of my most challenging moments.

Start with the end state

If you want to achieve anything meaningful, it won’t be an easy journey. And when you have a long-term goal, you need to know why you’re getting out of bed every morning. When I was trying to make the Olympic swim team, I was getting to work at 5 a.m. to go back and forth in a lane, following a black line at the bottom of the pool.

What separated me from others? For starters, I didn’t hit the snooze button. Having a sole focus and drive is so much easier when you have a clear goal in mind. So no matter where you are in your life and career, step back and take the time to sit down and decide what you really want to do —  in your personal and professional life. But don’t just set goals; set very specific goals.

In his book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Doing Less, Greg McKeown identifies the problem we face with always trying to do more, rather than focusing on the essentials. In an interview with Forbes, he said, “Our whole society has become consumed by the undisciplined pursuit of more. The only way to overcome this problem is to change the way we think — adopt the mindset of only doing the things that are essential — and do it now.”

When I was training for the Olympics, my goal was to swim 1500 meters (aka “the mile”) in 14 minutes and 45 seconds. It was clear and simple. It was 20 seconds faster than my fastest time. On each lap, of every practice, I visualized my goal splits and the amazing feeling of accomplishing my goal.

Setting very specific goals comes down to prioritization. Ask yourself:

  • What’s reasonably possible?
  • What’s the timeline?

Putting an artificial timeline in business might add arbitrary stress, so be reasonable about giving yourself a deadline. But remember that you need to start with the end state and back plan from there.

Risk embarrassment

It’s harder to fail when someone is watching, so make a commitment to one person, or a few.

Accountability is crucial to hitting your goals, and science has shown that “the mere presence of others is likely responsible for many of the effects of accountability.” If you don’t tell anyone what you’re trying to achieve, at the end of the day, you’ll only be accountable to yourself. It’s harder to fail when someone is watching, so make a commitment to one person, or a few.

Early on, I told my dad that I would make it through Navy SEAL training and told the dean at USC that I planned on medaling at the Olympics. Once the news was out, I immediately felt that I couldn’t embarrass myself in front of the dean and I didn’t want to disappoint my dad. There’s another important reason to make your goals known —  if your “team” doesn’t know what you want to accomplish, how will they be able to best support you? It’s much harder to achieve your goals in a silo.

The first step in accountability can be a friend, a family member, a teammate, or a coach who helps you establish your plan.

How to sustain performance when things are going well, and when they’re not

With most lofty goals, the end of the line is going to feel distant. Most people don’t care about any race other than the one that happens at the Olympics, but it only occurs once every four years. It can feel virtually impossible to go from that level of training and then continue to stay focused on a daily basis over the course of the next four years. How does one stay motivated, present, and mindful?

Tee up the small victories

The most important thing is finding a way to be positive about something, every day.

When things are going well, motivation can take care of itself. But when things aren’t going well, it’s really important to tee up small victories for yourself — even if they’re artificial. Ask yourself, “What’s the smallest thing I can accomplish today and feel proud to have made progress on?” The most important thing is finding a way to be positive about something, every day. If you can keep the bigger picture in the back of your mind while slowly building up to 2 or more small victories per day, you’ll prevent yourself from getting burned out or overcome by the feeling of failure. By taking thoughtful inventory of small wins, we grow self-efficacy, which helps us build out intrinsic motivation.

Take periodic breaks after key milestones

Risk of burnout will exist even when things are going well. Many of my peers left their sport or career when they were still performing well. So what about when things are going well, but you’re still not satisfied? Maybe you’re considering a career change, or deciding whether you want to quit the sport (I have!). I think the key to staying motivated is to take small breaks after key milestone events (like the Olympics, or an IPO). This time can give you an opportunity to not only reset your batteries but to reevaluate whether you still have a passion for what you’re doing. Another huge benefit of taking breaks is that this time allows our bodies to heal and our minds to solidify neuroconnections; it’s critical to building up resilience.

Don’t get distracted by the lane over

When you’re swimming, it’s easy to tilt your head and start watching your competition. It’s incredibly difficult to stay in your lane mentally. But allowing yourself to get distracted does a huge disservice to your own plan; it can make you go out of your comfort zone too soon, or try to swim someone else’s race. Ultimately, it’ll hold you back from achieving what you are really good at. My coaches and I spent countless hours training my physiology for my specific race strategy — not someone else’s. So it’s important to stay in your lane and swim your race, not your competitor’s. That may mean you’ll be slow out of the gate and accelerate later. That’s ok.

Know when to make your goal putting one foot in front of the other

In the Navy SEALs, we trained non-stop for the worst possible situation. Part of the Basic Underwater Demolition/Seal (BUDS) training (the most rigorous training in the military), is a 5 day “Hell Week” that requires you to partake in non-stop physical activity with virtually zero time to sleep. Naturally, most people are scared about what the experience would be like. The anxiety of starting something (like a period aptly called “Hell Week”) is often worse than actually going through the motions. When you set a very ambitious goal that for most people is a once in a lifetime occurrence, the odds will inevitably be stacked against you. How do you mentally compartmentalize that?

There’s a tricky balance between having the big picture in mind and understanding where you want to be totally present. While the vision is your anchor, you need to figure out a way to not get caught up in it on a daily basis. Maintaining that long term vision comes down to breaking it up into smaller pieces. If the big picture starts stressing you out or if it begins to feel insurmountable, that’s when you need to start focusing on just putting one foot in front of the other, and make that your goal. However, be aware that If you overly focus on the short term, you’ll lose sight of what you want to do.

Take every contingency into account

Many of the missions we did in the Navy SEALs are extremely dangerous. In order to succeed, we needed to have a very deliberate planning process and have a contingency plan for every phase of every operation. You have to be comfortable operating under ambiguity; adaptability cannot be overemphasized.

In the SEALs, we had a term — “Flex on the X” — it refers to being adaptable when we don’t have the time or the information to do a thorough planning process. We would prefer to do in-depth planning in all cases, but reality doesn’t always afford us that opportunity. In those cases, we would have to rely on years of training to make a split second decision.

Ultimately, you won’t be able to predict how things will turn out. Mike Tyson famously said, “Everybody has a plan until I punch them in the face.” You can have a lot of plans in place, but you have to recognize that there will be unanticipated hiccups, and to succeed, you’ll need to be comfortable “flexing on the X.”

Can this happen again?

In my experience, anything worth doing is hard, and it sucks until it doesn’t. Putting yourself in the mindset that ambitious goals require sacrifice and force you to live in a zone of discomfort can help you maintain focus over a long stretch of time.

At those key moments when it’s easier to take your foot off the gas, remind yourself that not rising up to this potential is rooted in fear. But with a lot of grit, you’ll succeed again (and again). 

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Published September 2, 2019

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