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Mental toughness : Are you developing yours?

September 5, 2013
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Everything hasn’t always been rosy in my safety career, just as things haven’t been in yours. At times there were difficult conflicts, personal attacks, layoffs and political battles that tested my resolve.

david sarkus
David Sarkus (left) and Oliver Luck

I never gave up — my sports background and upbringing didn’t allow for it. That’s where mental toughness comes into play.

Mental toughness is about getting knocked down and getting back up with greater resolve, focus and energy. But it takes a certain mental fortitude not to cave in to self-defeating thoughts that tell us to “quit” or “take another career path.” It’s about not giving in to the possibilities of failure.

Successful athletes and executives have a well-developed mental edge, tenacity and competitive drive that catapult them to higher levels of personal achievement. Can it be learned or developed? You bet! Mental toughness can be strengthened, refined and embraced as an individual resource.

Mental toughness helps us to drive for the implementation of new processes, a formidable budget increase, the engagement of a key organizational leader, even sustained safety excellence. It gives us an edge that helps to define success over failure. But what can you do to get mentally tougher?

Sharpening your edge

Be self-critical. In the mid 1980s, while working at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), I found myself presenting to the center director and his safety advisory board. This was the highest level safety meeting at KSC. During my presentation, I over-projected, my mouth dried and I couldn’t stop coughing. I was so embarrassed! In the end, I was OK, but not pleased with my performance.

Over the years, I was determined to improve, and I worked on my speaking skills. I read more, scheduled practice time, rehearsal time, and I dug in to be my best whenever presenting to all types and sizes of groups. Little did I know that my ongoing self-critique and hard work would lead to a career as a professional speaker, consultant and coach. Being self-critical paid big dividends. If you want to become really good at something, be self-critical, develop a plan, prepare, practice and deliver.

See it through. Safety professionals get started, stalled and stopped because of new or persistent organizational challenges and various forms of resistance. Maybe a given task is mundane, difficult, or it forces you to work with people who aren’t very supportive. But if you want to improve your mental toughness as a safety professional, this is the type of resistance training you need in order to become mentally stronger. Make it a personal challenge to be placed in difficult situations as often as possible. Hold yourself accountable to see new safety projects through until the very end. Don’t make excuses — make plans for greater success!

Coaching is key. Individuals who want to get better and increase their focus and resilience, regularly seek out a performance coach. Somebody to assess their strengths and weaknesses, to guide them, provide unique insights, direct them, and hold them accountable by setting up a plan for improvement. It’s just that way — especially today. Safety professionals who want to be their best need a coach to help them become their very best. Every great performer has a coach to facilitate higher levels of achievement.

The need for safety professionals

This past decade, I have witnessed the need for an increasing number of safety professionals to improve their mental toughness, relationship skills, communication abilities and professional presence. That’s why I am delivering a seminar addressing those particular opportunities for improvement. My friend and former college teammate, Oliver Luck, will be a featured speaker. He is a former NFL executive and NFL quarterback who will discuss developing mental toughness. I’ve always admired Oliver’s drive and mental toughness. In business, I’ve seen him in action; he’s seemingly unflappable. In case you are wondering, Oliver is the father of Andrew Luck, star quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts. Oliver knows what it takes to develop mental toughness, and he’s had a lot to do with Andrew’s resilience and ongoing success.

We can learn a great deal from athletes like Andrew Luck. There isn’t a young professional in sports tougher than Andrew. He gets knocked down but keeps coming back, stronger and with more tenacity. He’s also the consummate professional. Andrew has an exceptional work ethic, communicates well, is a great teammate, has leadership presence, and again — he’s tough as nails! Andrew has obviously had great coaching.

The topic of mental toughness has been spilling over into the business arena for quite a few years. It helps to create a point of separation, from good to great, and allows us to connect with others and inspire them! Safety professionals, like you, need to tap into this kind of knowledge and become your very best. Your organization is counting on you!

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