Bill Benjamin

How to Think Like a Champion

Olympic gold medalist, two-time WNBA champion, three-time WNBA MVP, successful businesswoman, wife and mother. I am none of those things, but it only took five minutes of talking to Lisa about her success for her to make a difference in my life. In my interview with Lisa, we discussed the keys to her success – in sports, in business and as a parent – and I took away key learnings that I am already putting into practice with my kids and my business.

As a guy with degrees in mathematics and computer science, whenever I hear someone talk about “positive thinking”, I want to run for the hills in order to avoid one of those “if you just think positively, everything will work out” speeches from one of those annoyingly optimistic people. I keep thinking about a Ferrari but one never seems to show up in my driveway, right?

But Lisa had a very different way of thinking about positive thinking. For Lisa, it started with her mother. “My mother drove an 18-wheel truck, but she believed that the thoughts you allowed in your mind would have a big impact on your life and your actions,” said Lisa, “and she also believed that the thoughts you put into the universe would come back to you in a positive way. But mom didn’t push positive thinking on us, she just demonstrated it all the time and it became a ‘condition’ of my thought processes,” Lisa concluded.

Lisa gave the simple example of having your keys locked in the car. Now that sucks when that happens, but at that point you have a choice: you can either make that a big deal and respond very negatively, or you can look at it and think to yourself: ‘maybe I wasn’t meant to be in the car at that particular time’ and it’s ok if I miss whatever appointment I was going to.

I asked Lisa how this helped her in a game situation when the pressure was on and the fans were going crazy. “Whether we were up 30 points or down 30 points, I would stay focused and play the best I could in that moment. If we are down 30 and I started to think about the negative outcome (losing and being embarrassed), then that negative energy would affect how I played and we were less likely to come back. Same thing if we were up 30 points; if I thought of the last time we lost a big lead (again, negative energy), I would start to get anxious and we were more likely to lose again”.

This idea of creating positive thinking as a thought process really came to life for me when Lisa started explaining how she applies it to her kids (full disclosure: I have 8 & 5 year old daughters). Lisa explained, “with our kids, if they are being negative or getting upset about something small, we would quickly acknowledge their frustration (e.g., ‘that’s too bad you spilled your ice cream’), but not focus any additional attention on it. If they keep whining or crying about the lost ice cream, we ignore it. That way, the negative behaviour is not rewarded with attention, so the child naturally stops doing it.”

Of course, if it’s something more serious – the child broke her arm – you are going to allow her to express more frustration and you are going to be empathetic. But so much of what children (and adults) have tantrums about aren’t broken arms. This was a revelation for my wife and me as we often get “drawn into the vortex” of responding to whining, crying, and getting frustrated when they are not listening or being disrespectful. The concept of simply ignoring the negative behaviour when it is not warranted had never crossed our mind.

If you then add in a positive outcome to the situation – e.g., “next time you have ice cream, what flavour do you want?” – Then you are literally conditioning your children’s thought processes to focus less on the negative and more on the positive.

Finally, Lisa recommended that “you emphasize when they respond positively, giving them lots of praise and attention, which further reinforces their demonstrating the positive behaviour”.

We thought this was such a good idea that my wife and I made a New Year’s resolution to focus less on the negative behaviour of our children and focus more on reinforcing their positive behaviour and thinking. After only a few weeks of trying this (it takes practice), we are already noticing less whining, less fussing and most importantly, less fighting between our girls over small things.

Ok, that’s great for kids, but how does this all translate into business? Lisa suggests “Think about the type of culture your company is creating. When things don’t go well, what are you modelling? Do you focus on the negative, finding blame, criticizing, and getting frustrated when someone makes a mistake or you lose a client, or are you looking for positive outcomes?” Everyone makes mistakes, so once the person or group acknowledges the mistake, thank them for owning up to it and discuss what everyone can learn so they can do better next time (I.e. a positive future outcome).

Similarly, when you are in meetings and people are being negative, do you get “sucked into the vortex” of focusing on it, or can you change the frame of the conversation to focus on a positive outcome? If you recently lost a big client, you need to determine why it happened (without blame), and then focus on what can be improved so you can keep your other good clients, or even possibly win that one back (more positive potential outcomes).

One of Lisa’s most admired Olympic coaches is Tara Vanderveer, head coach at Stanford University. Tara would often quote from Charles Schwindoll: “Life is 10% what happens to us and 90% how we respond”. So true! This is actually the last part of a great quote from Charles Shwindoll and you can see that and other great Emotional Intelligence quotes by clicking here.

As Lisa grew up, she found herself often taking the more positive mindset because of the modelling from her mother, and that being able to respond to difficult situations and circumstances with a positive outlook had a huge impact on her ability to overcome those obstacles. Given the success that Lisa has had as an athlete, businesswoman and mother, I for one am going to give this “positive thinking” thing a try.

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