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What Olympic Athletes Can Teach Entrepreneurs

Elite athletes encounter many of the same mental challenges that successful entrepreneurs face on a daily basis, according to JoAnn Dahlkoetter, a sports and performance psychologist in San Carlo, Calif. She should know.

Athlete and Businessman
Comstock Image | Getty Images
Athlete and Businessman

In addition to coaching business leaders, Dahlkoetter currently counts five Olympic gold medalists as her clients. She finds that many of the same strategies athletes use to outwit mental obstacles work in business as well.

Here's her advice for overcoming three of the most vexing psychological challenges, whether you're a startup or established entrepreneur looking to grow.

Challenge No. 1Negative thinking

Slumps happen in athletics, business, and life. Start asking positive questions when you find yourself thinking: I'm not good enough. I can't do this. Nothing is going right.

Try: What's good about this situation? What tools and resources do I need to move in the direction I want to go? Asking yourself better questions can help you move forward.

Perhaps the big client you lost wasn't the best fit anyway, and now you have the bandwidth to service a bigger, better customer.

The more you actively turn around negative thinking, the easier it gets to see opportunities in adversity, Dahlkoetter says.

Challenge No. 2 — Exhaustion

Just as athletes experience injuries and burnout, even the most resilient business owners can get fatigued from putting so much into their businesses.

In addition to the sage advice of eating healthfully and getting enough sleep, Dahlkoetter says it's critical to plan breaks ranging from a few hours where you disconnect to a few days away.

If that's not possible, take a "mental vacation."

Get to a place where you'll be uninterrupted for five or 10 minutes. Breathe deeply and visualize yourself relaxing in a beautiful setting, like at the beach. Sound hokey?

Research has long shown the positive effects of meditation on stress levels and health. In fact, a new study from the University of Washington found that regular meditation can increase concentration and make you more productive.

Challenge No. 3 — Fear

During the Olympic games, a decade or more of preparation and training can lead to a single competition.

When fear becomes paralyzing, you've got to go back to the basics, Dahlkoetter says.

"Remind yourself of the skills and talents that got you to the level of success where you are now," she says. "Visualize yourself having the outcome you want over and over and over again."

Then, focus on the moment. Don't think about the past or worry about the future.

Instead, determine the very next thing you have to do to get the outcome you want. If you're worried about closing a big deal, make a list of the tasks that will give you the best possible advantage—studying competitors' strengths and weaknesses, writing a killer proposal, polishing your presentation—and then tackle those to-dos one by one.

Taking positive action is a strong way to dissolve fear, she says.

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