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What Can We Learn from Elite Performers?

By Alex Auerbach, Ph.D.

Mothers arguably have one of the most grueling, high-stress jobs on the planet; a job with a lot of expectations, judgment, and onlooker opinion and absolutely no manual. The role of a mother requires the skill to pivot quickly, make decisions daily, and be a leader to those little humans that watch her every move. And let’s face it, even as kids get older and become adults, the impact of their mother never fades. 

That’s a ton of pressure, even though it’s for an incredible cause. As moms, we’re in an always-on role that’s high-stress and high stakes. What can we learn from elite performers when it comes to our mindset?

As a counseling and performance psychologist, Alex Auerbach, Ph.D., works with some of the most elite performers across sectors like athletes in the NFL, MBA, MLB, and Olympics, elite military units, or executives at the top Fortune companies in the world – he’s an expert on peak performance. 

A few key things go into feeling and being your best, like the habits we follow, the mindset we choose, our relationships with stress, and the ability to navigate setbacks. We sat down with Dr. Auerbach to gain insight and takeaways from those who practice excellence daily. 

You work with some of the most elite athletes and executives – what are the most significant traits of peak performers?   

A few key traits separate peak performers from the average; the first is self-regulation. It’s an umbrella term that essentially means being able to direct and control your thinking, feeling, and physiology. The research suggests this may be the most important differentiator between the truly elite and the rest. 

Another significant trait is what’s called psychological flexibility. It’s the ability to remain present with difficult thoughts and feelings while staying active and driven toward your goals and values. In some ways, it’s a part of the self-regulation puzzle. 

The list is fairly extensive, but I’d close with this – peak performers tend to reflect, rest, and recover more than their less elite counterparts. These skills consolidate learning, keep our energy-optimized, and put us in a position to self-regulate most effectively. 

Moms have one of the most demanding jobs on the planet, where endurance and mindset are crucial. What mindfulness principles can we leverage that not only work for superior athletes and business leaders but that can be applied to raising children and taking care of ourselves too? 

As a new father myself, I marvel at my partner’s abilities with our daughter. Mothers are remarkable and, yes, are absolutely in one of the most high-demand, high-stakes jobs out there. 

Mindfulness, at its core, is just about being present and directing attention. So any activity that allows for full presence and to return when you get distracted works. 

There are a few ways you can practice mindfulness and leverage these principles in daily life. With the high performers I work with, it’s about finding as many opportunities to practice as possible – walking, listening to music, breathing – anything you can fully immerse yourself in will work. The key to a good mindfulness practice is to notice when you’re no longer immersed and return back to the practice. 

Top performers undoubtedly learn to manage stress exceptionally well. Stress is no stranger for mothers. What are some of the most effective stress management tools that moms could implement? 

The first is to recognize that stress is your body preparing you to do something effortful. We’ve been conditioned in our society to view stress as bad or problematic, and the truth is, it’s only bad or problematic if you never take the time to recover. 

So the first thing to do is try to find time for recovery. That can be incredibly challenging as a parent, so it’s about finding the small opportunities. Maybe it’s taking three deep breaths every time you walk into a new room or doing ten deep breaths first thing when you wake up in the morning. Small things compound over time. 

The second thing is to remind yourself that the energy you feel when stressed can be useful. Try to find something meaningful and productive to channel the stress into so it feels helpful.

Finally, one of the best things we can do to manage stress is to seek social support. Reach out to a friend in a similar position or call one of your closest friends. People can remarkably regulate each other’s energy, so we can use social support to reset. 

When it comes to moms and our mental health, we often put ourselves last. What insight can you share on creating healthy habits and the importance of sticking to them without the pressure of perfection?

Well, this is tough, but it starts with acknowledging the reality that perfection is impossible. And, if that’s the goal you’re working toward, you’re going to be disappointed constantly. I’d start with recalibrating expectations and setting more realistic goals, and leverage the positive feelings that come with reaching goals to promote better mental health. We all feel better when we see growth. 

I recommend finding 1 or 2 regular practices you can do that help you to get in touch with your own needs. This could be a short walk, a breathing practice, or journaling – there are a lot of mental health promoting activities like this that aren’t time-consuming and have compound benefits. Many people in high-stress positions are looking for things that aren’t time-consuming – each of these practices fits that need. 

In terms of routines, it’s important to know that the human mind is essentially a prediction machine. Routines are what make our brain operate most efficiently – they are a way to optimize our brain’s predictions and make things effortless. As a result, the more routines you have around important things, the easier those things will be. If you skip a day, restart a day later – it happens! But the more you can make your world predictable, the better your brain will operate and, as a result, the better your mental health. 

How do top performers manage insecurities or self-doubt? 

Self-doubt and insecurities are a normal part of the human experience. What the best performers manage to do are two things.

First, they spend much more time focused on their strengths than their weaknesses. There’s a lot more room for big benefits by doubling down on what makes you great than there is trying to minimize the risks of your limitations. You can work on your weaknesses – it’s smart to do so – but a disproportionate amount of time for the best performers is focused on what they do well and how they can do more of it. As a result, they feel great. 

The second is practicing self-compassion. That’s basically the act of recognizing your own humanity and extending kindness the same way to yourself that you would to a friend. In a challenging situation like being a mother, it’s important to focus on doing your best, using your strengths, and giving yourself some grace when it’s hard. 

And lastly, what can we learn from elite performers when facing setbacks?

All setbacks are temporary. Elite performers use setbacks primarily as a barometer – it’s a way to get a sense of where you currently are in relation to where you want to go and what else you need to do to get there. For the best performers in the world, setbacks are another form of data they use to facilitate progress. 

This is something anyone can learn to do. It’s about training your mind to be objective when evaluating events. A simple strategy you can use is to answer three questions at the end of a setback:

  • What did I do during this event that I want to keep doing?
  • What did I do during this event that I want to do differently?
  • What did I learn?

Answering those questions (notice, it’s not what did you do well or poorly) can facilitate bouncing forward from the difficult moments. 

To learn more from Dr. Auerbach, you can follow him on Twitter at @AlexAuerbachPhD

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