Executive Athlete 2: Positive emotions fuel your brain for peak performance

Emotions have a profound impact on our performance, the problem is most of the time we're not even aware of what we're feeling, let alone the impact.

When you watch sport, you probably associate the successful athletes with having PMA – a ‘positive mental attitude’ and doing lots of positive thinking. While I’m a big advocate of positive thinking, in my experience of competing at the highest level in sport, its positive emotions that drive peak performance. If you’re a golfer standing on the 1st tee, with everyone in the clubhouse watching, you can do all of the positive thinking that you like but if you’re still feeling the fear of the dreaded shank into the trees, that fear is going to be the determining factor in your performance.

Emotions impact performance

Negative emotions inhibit performance. It’s as simple as that and true whether you’re playing sport or are an executive in the business world. Consider for a moment what your decision-making is like when you’re angry? What is your communication like when you’re feeling impatient? How clear is your focus when you’re anxious about something? What are your energy levels like at the end of a frustrating and stressful day? You probably answered ‘poor’ to all 4 questions. Now substitute angry, impatient, anxious and frustrating with excited, interested, confident and calm and the results will be quite the opposite. Positive emotions in the work place should be embraced as a key driver of performance.

Physiological, hormonal and mental impact

The emotions that we experience impact us on a physiological level, a hormonal level and directly impact how our brain functions. For instance, every time we shift an emotion, approximately 1400 biochemical changes take place. Worry may cause muscle tension; anxiety may agitate the stomach. Panic (or any kind of negative emotion) can cause the thinking brain to shut down and then you can’t think clearly and you make mistakes. By contrast, appreciation, gratitude and optimism may calm us and help the thinking brain to function more effectively and efficiently.

Re-wire your brain to tune into positivity

When people feel good, they work better, are more creative and productive. Positive emotions are like fuel for the brain – mental efficiency goes up, focus and alertness strengthens, innovation sparks, people are more articulate in their communication, they feel energised and make better decisions.

This doesn’t mean that we need to turn into Polly-Anna, with a fake smile and pretending that all is well in the world. However we can actually re-wire our brains to tune into more positivity. We can train ourselves to be more aware of what’s worth appreciating in our lives and actively seek out people and activities that make us feel better about ourselves. Consciously cultivating more positive emotions refuels us, boosts our system and builds resilience.

Here are my top tips:

  1. Express your appreciation – think about someone in your team for whom you feel appreciation. It may be for something specific which you haven’t explicitly expressed your appreciation; perhaps write a note or email to tell them. This will improve your mood; the other person’s mood and strengthen the relationship
  2. Regularly look for things to celebrate – this might be your own achievements or those in your team. Would you agree that you respond positively when someone encourages you and acknowledges the work that you have done? Recognising and recalling your achievements builds confidence too.
  3. Use your ‘free words’ positively – we all have an unlimited amount of free words that we get to choose how we use every day. How do you use your words? Imagine if a colleague stopped by your desk and shared a kind word about a project you are working on. How would that make you feel and impact your morale? A kind word is always appropriate and appreciated.
  4. Recall an experience that generates a positive emotion – next time you’re about to engage in a task that makes you feel anxious, like public speaking, rather than worrying about your mind going blank, or the audience looking bored, recall an experience that generates a feeling of confidence and calm. The memory doesn’t even need to be related to the task at hand, it just needs to generate a positive feeling.
  5. Avoid the ‘mood hoovers’ – we all know someone who always sees the glass as half empty, can only see the downside of a situation and is constantly complaining. These people are energy vampires. They literally suck the positivity and energy out of you, they can be very toxic. Limit your exposure to such people because emotions are contagious and negativity is a powerful force that can spread quickly. Don’t go to the photocopier for the daily complain-fest. Don’t go for lunch with the grouse and grumble crowd.

To discover more on our thoughts about high performance and resilience please visit our resilience section.

Published: Friday 22 June 2018
Written by: Anna Hemmings, MBE