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NFL Draft Psychology: How to Master High-Pressure Moments

The same psychology NFL draftees use to keep cool under pressure you can use to overcome the highest pressure moments in the business world.

Tonight, an event at New York City's Radio City Music Hall will captivate the nation. 

But it's not a stand-up comedian, or a musical, or a concert. It's the 79th NFL Draft, an annual rite in which the National Football League's 32 teams take turns selecting college standouts for their rosters. 

For the players, the draft is a judgment--and not always a fair one. Who will be chosen first? That mostly depends on how well a player performed in college. But it depends, too, on a player's measurable attributes: Not only the obvious ones (height, weight), but also on results in the 40-yard dash, the bench press, and various jumping and agility drills. On top of all this, the NFL teams try to evaluate a player's work ethic, maturity, and intelligence. The teams gauge those qualities the same way you do: Through interviews, testing, and reference-checking. 

NFL teams record all of these measurements--and conduct many in-person interviews--at another annual rite called the NFL Combine. This year's combine took place Feb. 22-25, more than two months before draft night. As you might imagine, the combine is a high-pressure event for the players. They can justifiably feel as if their entire life's work is on the line. It is a setting where one thoughtless answer or one sluggish dash can undermine years of training, practice, and preparation.

Does that sound familiar? Of course it does.

The business world is filled with comparable stress-filled moments, where it can feel as if the fate of your entire career--and the years you've spent building a business or a product--are all on the line during one key meeting, presentation, or elevator ride. 

Preparing for Big Moments

How do you prepare for potentially life-altering moments like that? Since 1999, NFL draftees have relied on a company called EXOS (formerly Athletes' Performance). The Phoenix-based company, which has just under $30 million in funding, teaches football players the techniques and mechanics needed to ace the physical testing (here's an EXOS training montage).

Of course, a key component of physical training is mental training: Staying motivated, keeping your focus, remaining positive after a negative result, and--perhaps most important--learning to be poised under pressure. 

Trevor Moawad is the man at EXOS who specializes in all of the above (see him at 7:57 of the video). In his role as vice president of pro and elite sports, he leads the implementation of what's called "the new mindset education program."

This year--his 14th prepping players for the draft--he's worked with top prospects such as Jadeveon Clowney, Greg Robinson, Blake Bortles, Eric Ebron, and Odell Beckham. 

Trevor Moawad, vice president of pro and elite sports for EXOS (formerly known as Athletes' Performance), on the sidelines with the Florida State Seminoles.

Results, in the Business World

Moawad's expertise does not just apply to the sports world. On the day I spoke to him, he was in the midst of a consultation with Teva Generics, the largest generic manufacturer in the world. "Whether it's leading by influence, changing behaviors, motivating within or the proper preparation techniques, Trevor's mental conditioning applies directly to what we do every day," notes Todd Jones, who has 76 direct reports as the company's Area Sales Director for the southeast. 

I asked Jones if he could provide at least one measurable result that working with Moawad had brought about. "We asked Trevor to attend our Southeast Area Sales Meeting in September last year with the focus of 'Finishing Strong for Q4,'" Jones explained. "With eight regional sales managers and 68 sales representatives in attendance, it was imperative that we had everyone focused on the deliverable of a strong finish for 2013."

At the meeting Moawad provided Jones' eight teams with a motivational talk, a blueprint for overachievement, and some practical tools. The results? Six out of the eight teams finished in Teva's top 12 (out of 29 national sales teams in all). This allowed Jones' entire team (the southeast region) to finish the year as the company's top regional unit. 

So how can Moawad's wisdom help you and your team achieve positive results under high pressure? I put the question to Moawad himself. He replied with four key takaways: 

1. Pressure is a reflection of ambition. Moawad attributes this quote to legendary track star Michael Johnson, with whom he worked for 10 years. The idea is that nothing worth having--whether it's a gold medal or a promotion or an infusion of venture capital--is going to happen without pressure. So rather than viewing the pressure as a negative, look at it as a great opportunity. It means that you know what you want, and that you actually have a chance of obtaining it. 

2. Preparation guarantees nothing. "You may have done everything right to get ready for this opportunity or this quarter or this promotion, and you still might not get it," he says. You must simultaneously grasp this harsh reality and at the same time continue to prepare as best you can. Why? You can control your preparation. What you can't control are outcomes. Negative outcomes hurt, but they hurt a little less if you know you did everything in your power to create a positive one. 

3. Anxiety comes when we don't know what to expect. "You have to understand what it is you're getting ready for," he says. Say you have a big meeting at 7am in a hotel lobby, and you'll be flying in the night before. You need to not only practice your presentation in general, but also to practice giving it under those circumstances. Will you be able to perform early in the morning on no breakfast after a bad night of hotel-room sleep? That's what you need to prepare for. If you know you can do it, your anxiety level will diminish. 

4. You can only have a few priorities, or it's no longer a priority. "Great athletes simplify their focus," he says. "They are similar to an average person in a grocery store. If i don't have a list, I'll come home with a bunch of things I didn't plan on getting." His advice, in business settings, is to keep a very simple focus on what you need to do in the short term to be successful. Measuring that short term is important, too. "Great coaches and athletes create finish lines. There's a reason 90-day diets work. That's all we're focused on."

If all of the above sounds incredibly simple, well, that's the point. Remember, simplicity of concept doesn't mean ease of execution. You know you'll lose weight if you eat less and move more. Likewise, you know your business will succeed if you earn more than you spend. Knowing it is easy. Doing it--day in, day out--is hard.

"What confuses people is how simple it is," says Moawad. "But when you work with great athletes and great leaders, you notice these common denominators. There are certain principles of performance. And if you want results, you're going to have to do those things."

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