Everyone knows that mindset, almost as much as physical prowess, is essential for reaching the pinnacle of sports greatness. That's why most elite athletes, from NBA Hall of Famers to race car drivers to Olympic hopefuls, work with sports psychologists as well as coaches and trainers.

But according to top sports psychologist turned general high-performance coach Michael Gervais, it's not just athletes who can benefit from getting their mindset in order.

"The psychology of sport and performance is the investigation into how to be extraordinary: how to develop one's inner world and organize one's outer life. There isn't one golden thread that binds together the best in the world, but there are some common ones," he insisted on excellent book recommendation site Five Books recently.

Whether you're a CEO or a linebacker, skills like self-awareness and a sense of purpose, mindfulness, and the ability to handle the unpredictable can help you achieve the extraordinary. How do you develop them? Gervais believes these five books are a great place to start.

1. The Tao Te Ching by Laozi​

It's hard to imagine a pro footballer pouring over this classic text of Eastern philosophy, but Gervais insists that the best athletes are open to any source that can improve their performance.

"We'd sit, athletes and coaches, and go through chapter by chapter, and just talk about it. It brings up ideas. Like, 'OK, that was cool 2,500 years ago, but what about now? How do we apply that now?' It just begins to open us up to different ways of looking at the very concrete world of sport," he relates.

Those chasing high performance in others areas can benefit too. "Some of what makes the most powerful people in the world--whether they are political leaders or philosophers or artists or activists or athletes--is their ability to line up their thoughts, their words, and their actions in any environment," he insists. This unexpected pick helps you do just that.

2. Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

The stories of history's greats can make us despair about our own comparative lack of talent, but that's exactly the opposite lesson Gervais says you should take from this book. 

"When people think of da Vinci, it's as this extraordinary person who is almost untouchable in genius. And of course he had incredible capacity. However, he refined his craft. He was incredibly intentional. He was incredibly curious, insatiable even," he says. 

"I think that many of us in modern times sometimes have it backwards. We work really hard, but we struggle with purpose and meaning. Da Vinci is a reminder to flip those around, and first orientate: spend deep time thinking about what matters most," he continues. 

3. Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

Gervais calls Frankl, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, "one of the most significant thinkers of our era." That horrific experience taught Frankl "the power of purpose, of orientating life in a meaningful way. No matter what the conditions are, even the most deplorable conditions that we've seen in modern times, we still have the basic right to organize our inner world," he says.  

Frankl's famous book aims to help others organize their lives around purpose and meaning. "If we don't organize our life in a purposeful way to explore what we are capable of, we become some version that is less than. And the trade winds of the world will push us away from our potential," insists Gervais. 

4. Artist of Life by Bruce Lee

Why would an ambitious professional want to read a collection of writings by the late martial arts film legend? Because, as Gervais explains, all extraordinary achievement shares certain commonalities, whether it's in the domain of entrepreneurship, athletics, or kung fu. 

Bruce Lee "was a very deep thinker and an extraordinary doer; he really had the combination of the two. He practiced mindfulness and inner investigation, as well as his external craft. He was one of the archetypes of the balance between those two, the deep commitment to exploring potential," says Gervais. 

5. Mind Gym by Gary Mack

Looking for something less theoretical and more practical? Gervais' last pick fits the bill. "One of the books I often give away is Mind Gym by Gary Mack. It's a very mechanical, easy, lots-of-white-space-on-the-page book. And it's one of my favorites, a very applied synopsis of mental skills from a sport and performance psychology standpoint. It's a super-applied practical book," Gervais explains. 

Check out the long interview on Five Books for many more thoughts from Gervais on what goes into developing the right idea mindset for peak performance. 

Correction: An earlier version of this column erroneously included books that were not among Michael Gervais's recommendations on the Five Books website.

Published on: Apr 4, 2019