The Mental Game

By Kim Wright Wiley

Picture a batter stepping up to the plate. Now picture him swinging and missing. It was an easy pitch – the sort he routinely hammers in practice – and he can’t figure out what went wrong. He glances nervously at his manager in the dugout, then at his teammates waiting on the bases. As the pitcher winds up again, all the batter can think about is how he blew it, how stupid he was to choke on that last swing. What do you think are the odds he’ll miss the next one, too?

Psychologist, speaker, and business coach Jack Singer, PhD, (, has been training Fortune 1000 companies and elite athletes for 34 years. During this time, he has noted countless parallels between athletes and salespeople – especially when it comes to the mental aspects of the game. And isn’t that where half the battle is won?

“Salespeople endure precisely the same internal and emotional barriers as athletes,” he says. “But traditional sales-training programs often fail to address the single biggest obstacle to success. What stops most people from reaching their full potential is the internal dialogue that goes on inside their own heads.

“Traditional sales training covers how to make cold calls or close the deal but rarely addresses the thoughts inside the salesperson’s mind that may be sabotaging him or her on a daily basis,” says Singer. “Managers believe they’ve done all they can do to prepare their people for the field, and they don’t understand why the training doesn’t lead to more sales. Salespeople who do well in practice situations but don’t apply those same skills in front of a client are just like athletes who choke when the big game is on the line. When gifted performers can’t do their best when it matters, the culprit is usually negative self-talk.”

Thinking like a champion requires three tasks: 
•  taking charge of your internal dialogue,
• unleashing the power of your mind,
• filling your mind with optimistic expectations.

Taking charge of your internal dialogue comes down to one thing: silencing your inner critic. “Absolutely nothing gets in the way of excellent performance more than negative self-talk,” says Singer. “You can begin to improve your internal dialogue by cutting out any sentence that starts with ‘what if,’ because those two words are almost invariably followed by something bad. ‘What if the prospect isn’t there? What if I blow the presentation in front of my manager? What if she doesn’t like me? What if he’s already signed with someone else?’”

In contrast, the most powerful self-talk words are “so what.” “When your mind begins to drift toward the what-ifs, train it to go back toward ‘so what,’” says Singer. “What’s the worst thing that can happen? Usually it’s not so bad.”

The second task, unleashing the power of the mind, is largely a matter of not “catastrophizing,” i.e., assuming that if one bad thing happens, it means everything that follows will be bad, too. “Successful people analyze their mistakes but perceive them as temporary,” says Singer. If the batter who swung and missed sinks into distraction and worry – “The coach is mad at me,” or “I can’t ever do anything right” – it will indeed become a pattern of failure. But if he manages to shake it off, he’ll see the next pitch as a new opportunity, a completely separate event from the pitch that came before. “Successful athletes and salespeople stay in the now,” says Singer.

The final step is to fill your mind with optimistic expectations, regardless of any bumps in the road along the way. “Optimistic expectations are the most powerful predictor of sales achievement,” says Singer. Managers can help their teams by modeling optimism themselves and being sensitive to mood shifts in those around them. Pessimism and despair are contagious, so if you spot them, move fast before the whole team is infected.

“If you see salespeople beating themselves up, work with them in private,” says Singer. “The messages should be, ‘I have faith in you. It’s only a matter of time before your work begins to pay off. Everyone goes through these hard times, so don’t take it personally. Here’s where I think there could be untapped opportunity.’”

After decades of studying elite athletes, Singer has come up with a formula to predict success: Performance equals raw talent minus distractions. “The world is full of underachievers,” he says, “people who have talent but are so distracted that this talent never shows in their performance. By eliminating the internal distractions inside your own head, you can make sure your natural sales ability shines through.”   –