Winning mind-sets of Xavi & Bradley Wiggins

The weekend saw two remarkable sportsmen achieve significant success, on top of a career defined by continued success – Xavi Hernandez and Bradley Wiggins. What is it in their makeup that enables them to be relentless in the pursuit of challenge, to get up and go again when they’ve enjoyed success, never resting on their laurels, and be determined and hungry to win every time they turnout?

On Saturday, Xavi Hernandez lifted The Champions League trophy on his last Barcelona appearance, as the club completed a historic treble in Berlin. It was his last appearance for the club, and the result confirmed a staggering twenty-fifth trophy of Xavi’s career – 777 appearances for Barca since his debut in 1998.

The 35-year-old was handed the captain’s armband as he came on as a 78th minute substitute for Iniesta during Barca’s 3-1 victory over Juventus. His cameo performance was typically astute, appropriately economic and expansive in possession and intelligently positioned when he wasn’t. This was the fourth time Xavi has lifted the European Cup and victory offered a fitting tribute as he ended his career.

Born in the neighbouring city of Terrassa, Xavi joined Barca’s famous La Masia academy as an 11-year-old and made his debut for the first-team in August 1998.  Following an injury to Pep Guardiola in 1999, Xavi inherited the principle playmaking responsibilities and soon became the lifeblood of the Barca midfield.

On Sunday, Bradley Wiggins broke the one-hour distance record, considered one of the most prestigious and iconic records in cycling. Wiggins completed a distance of 54.5km (33.89 miles), smashing the record set in May by fellow Briton Alex Dowsett of 52.9km (32.9 miles). However, he did fall short of the 55.25km target he had set himself.

When he lowered himself onto his 3D-printed titanium handlebars, Wiggins simply focused on the black line ahead of him and the next 60 minutes. Sound simple! Wiggins, current World Champion and holding all the time-trial crowns – Olympic, World, British and now the Hour – knows his place amongst the pantheon of cycling legends is guaranteed.

Success proved again that versatility has been the bedrock of Wiggins’ greatness. With his metronomic pedalling style and cadence, no other rider has been capable both of taking multiple Olympic gold medals on track and road as well as conquering the Tour de France.

James Moore’s first unofficial hour record, set on a penny farthing in 1873, was 22.3km, which is incredible considering he spent 20 minutes of his attempt getting on the bike (I made that up!). The distance Wiggins covered in an hour is roughly the equivalent of cycling from Liverpool to Manchester. Except he didn’t get stuck in the M62 roadworks, or stop for a cup of tea at the services.

When Jens Voigt sparked the new set of records last year, he could barely stand at the end. Yesterday, Wiggins got off his bike and lifted it above his head, then got back on his bike to do a lap of honour. What an athlete. Whilst Xavi has retired, Wiggins’ swansong will be the 2016 Rio Olympics.

I have been intrigued with what drives and motivates human behaviour for many years, wanting to understand the concept of a ‘winning mind-set’. We have seen the likes of Roger Bannister, Jonny Wilkinson, Richie McCaw, Steve Redgrave and now Xavi and Wiggins, and many more amaze us with their passion and drive to succeed.

I have learnt that a winning mind-set is essentially having an attitude of mind, maintaining self-belief, and being relentless in sticking with a focus to achieve. With the right mind-set you will live, work and compete at your full potential. Virtually everything you do in your life is ruled by choices that you make. You can choose to focus on the negative or the positive, you can obsess about things beyond your control or you can focus on the things that you can influence. Focus on the right things, and you become a winner.

What does being a winner mean? What are winners made of? Is there any common denominator among winners? Yehuda Shinar, sports psychologist to Clive Woodward’s England rugby World Cup winners in 2003, has undertaken an 18-year research study into the mind-sets of winners, and identified how they attained their substantial level of achievement.

Shinar concluded that there are three key criteria for creating a winning mind-set:

Be self-aware Top performing individuals have a high level of self-awareness. Knowing your strengths, weaknesses, motivations and your approach to taking risks is key to your success. They keep themselves in balance, check-in and check-out, and always know where they’re at.

Stay in the zone Individuals that perform at the highest level have the ability to manage their thoughts, feeling, emotions and behaviours, essentially they are able to ‘manage the mist’ when they are under pressure. Maintaining an emotional balance manages your physiology.

Have a strategy Winners are goal oriented, they have a sense of purpose and direction – they know how to get there. They have a holistic strategy using a whole brain approach with a vision for the future desired outcome, a plan and an appropriate set of behaviours for achieving their goals.

Having the right mind-set and belief for achieving goals is the difference between winning and losing. Having a winning mind-set is not about being ruthless, stubborn or suppressing emotions. It requires openness to change, embracing failure rather than avoiding it. I am a strong believer that if you can dream it, you can achieve it. If you think it, you can become it. You can realise your potential.

Your thoughts become a reality and therefore you must be careful what you think about. Negative thoughts can become a reality too! There is a difference between accepting failure and being a failure. Failing at something is acceptable, accepting your failure is not.

Shinar has two further aspects to his definition of ‘winners’:

  • They repeatedly maximise their potential even when under pressure and in competitive scenarios.
  • They demonstrate constant improvement in their respective field.

His research shows there is no correlation between the extent of the achievement and the level of talent in the given area, or the IQ level of the winners, not even at the highest levels. Shinar thus defines the winning mind-set model as ‘winning intelligence’, a skill that can be learned, practiced, developed and improved, comprising the five elements outlined above, creating a model and a ‘capacity for winning’.

But what is the concept of ‘mind-set’. Mind-set is a simple idea discovered by world-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck in decades of research on achievement and success.

In a fixed mind-set, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are fixed traits and don’t develop them. They also believe that talent alone creates success. They’re wrong says Dweck.

In a growth mind-set, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work – brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.

Mind-sets are beliefs about yourself and your basic qualities. Think about your intelligence, your talents, your personality. Are these qualities simply fixed traits, carved in stone and that’s that? Or are they things you can cultivate throughout your life?

Since the dawn of time, people have thought differently, acted differently, and fared differently from each other. Why is this? Experts lined up on both sides. Some claimed that there was a strong physical basis for these differences, making them unavoidable and unalterable. Through the ages these alleged physical differences have included bumps on the skull (phrenology), the size and shape of the skull (craniology), and today, genes.

Others pointed to the strong differences in people’s backgrounds, experiences, training, or ways of learning. It may surprise you to know that a big champion of this view was Alfred Binet, the inventor of the IQ test. Binet, a Frenchman working in Paris in the early C20th, designed this test to identify children who were not profiting from the Paris public schools, so that new educational programs could be designed to get them back on track.

It wasn’t originally an intelligence test. Without denying individual differences in children’s intellects, he believed that education and practice could bring about fundamental changes in intelligence.

Who’s right? Today most experts agree that it’s not either/or. It’s not nature or nurture, genes or environment. From conception on, there’s a constant give and take between the two. In fact, as Gilbert Gottlieb, an eminent neuroscientist put it, not only do genes and environment cooperate as we develop, but genes require input from the environment to work properly.

Of course, each person has a unique genetic endowment. People may start with different temperaments and different aptitudes, but it is clear that experience, training and personal effort take them the rest of the way. I believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable), that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil and training. Did you know that Darwin and Tolstoy were considered ordinary children?

You can see how the mind-set and belief that cherished qualities can be developed creates a passion for learning and slef-improvement. Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mind-set. This is the mind-set that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.

So we have a ‘winning intelligence’ model to work into a ‘growth mind-set’ as an approach to understand winners such as Xavi and Wiggins. I recall watching Wiggins as he crossed the Tour finish line and before punching the air with joy and pride, Wiggins punched a button on his bike computer to log the ride data. He had a performance mind-set for sure.

Wiggins is also relentless, adopting Dave Brailsford’s concept of ‘marginal gains’, pursuing the tiniest gains in everything – the bikes, fitness, training regimes, clothing, nutrition, strategy. Similarly Xavi is renowned for his dedication to training, instilling learning into new habits, often being the last in the gym, out on the running track and on the practice pitch.

So whilst much of the research, philosophy and approach to determining how ‘winning’ is achieved comes from studying world class athletes, you can distil this thinking into application for a business context, to take your individual performance up a gear, by simply asking yourself three questions

  • Have you defined what the next level of success looks like?
  • Have you identified what the incremental, marginal gains will be in order for you to get to the next level?
  • How often do you examine what’s working and not working? Too often we focus on what is being done as opposed to how it’s being done.

Winners embrace hard work, they love the discipline of it. Losers on the other hand, see it as punishment and not worth the effort. Losers live in the past, they have not yet learned how to win. Winners learn from the past and enjoy working in the present towards the future. That, simply, is the difference.