Learning to Compete at a Higher Level: The 5 Mindsets and Skill Sets That Drive Competitive Excellence

Compete. Improve. Compete again.

The willingness or resistance to compete at a higher level always begins at a personal level. Not just as an individual, which of course is true. Learning to compete more, better, and harder requires growing and advancing personally at a deep and difficult level. That’s why competitive excellence is so valuable.

It’s true for individual and team competitive environments. A football program, just like a business, is made up of individual performers competing together as a team to win. Every individual is also a person who leads their own life, with their own dreams, separate from work or sports.

Competitive excellence is hard to teach. It’s also absolutely necessary. When you know what to look for and you’re committed to train, anyone can learn to compete at a higher level.

What Drives Competitive Excellence?

Fearless Effort

Fear is the most intense, disorienting, and difficult emotion to control. It limits what you see. It changes what you do. It can take control of your body. Your stomach tightens, your heart pounds, your hands shake, your mind races.

Fear wants to paralyze you. Don’t let it. You won’t defeat fear by sitting still.

You can’t get past your fears if you won’t move. If you stay paralyzed, then fear stays in control. You don't actually need to overcome fear itself. You need to overcome the inaction that fear wants to create.

You can act while you're afraid. You‘ll have to.

Fearless effort is continually moving in the direction of a little less fear exchanged for a little more effort. Don’t try to eliminate fear. Instead, fear . . . less. It’s ok to be afraid. It’s not ok to stay frozen. You can be afraid and still be productive.

Don’t try to live without fear. Fear less and do more. 

Productive Discomfort 

You’re going to be uncomfortable. No matter what choices you make or what direction you take, there is no painless path. Let’s make that exceptionally clear.

There’s nothing you can do about the presence of discomfort in your life. It’s an awareness mechanism. A signal of something important. Most importantly, discomfort is the building block for growth. What you can do is make your discomfort productive rather than destructive.

You can try to escape discomfort, but that only creates anxiety. When you avoid discomfort you paradoxically create more of it. When you embrace productive discomfort, you trigger more growth, learn more lessons, and build better relationships.

There is no version of you that will exist free from discomfort. There is no future without pain. The sooner you hold tightly to this reality, the stronger you’ll be. You’re going to be uncomfortable.

The question is: what will you be uncomfortable for?

Imperfect Progress 

Progress is an imperfect process. It’s full of uncertainty and filled with mistakes. 

Commitment to compete for an objective means committing to the imperfect progress of getting there. Movement towards a meaningful and valuable goal doesn’t follow a steady, rising scale of improvement and forward momentum. It’s wins and losses, up and down, fast and slow, advance and retreat.

Detach from any desire for steady, trackable progress as you go.

Never allow yourself to expect perfect or even predictable progress because progress is always imperfect and unpredictable. Don’t wish that things were different than they are. Work with things as they are to make them better.

Expand your perspective to a higher-level.

When you’re overly committed to assessing short-term progress and it doesn’t go well early, you can get so discouraged that you give the effort. Business leaders do this all the time. If the first six months of culture change don’t show measurable progress, they take it as a sign they’re not on track and either scrap the culture initiative or let it die from inattention.

Is it more important where you are in six months or in two years? So what if it gets harder over the next six months?! Keep going! 

The next few months you may go well, followed by a month of struggle and then six months of confusion and frustration. Keep going!

You don’t need progress to be consistent. You only need progress to happen eventually. You’ll get there when you’re good enough. Do the work to get good enough.

Attach yourself only to two things. The first is to work at it every day. The second is to imperfect progress over the long-term until you hit your target.

In the short-term you may lose, but in the long-term you will win.

Enduring Discipline

Imperfect progress is directly connected to enduring discipline. The reasons are obvious. Discipline isn’t a single moment of action that delivers big wins. Discipline provides most of its value in collective and compound impact on your life over time.

No matter how great your discipline is, at some point it will fail. Doesn’t matter, get better. Enduring discipline is more important than strict discipline. Flexibility is more competitive than rigidity.

This kind of discipline is foundational, not situational. It isn’t a trick. It isn’t a hack. Discipline is a lifestyle. It’s not a program you implement. It’s a principle you live.

It will break down from time to time in moments of pressure when it isn’t strong enough, but it’s also resilient. You return to it with a better understanding and a renewed effort. Outside events knock you around but your discipline within endures.

Aggressive Humility

The difference between aggressive humility and passive humility is action. Plenty of people say the right things about humility. Aggressive humility means you act on it. 

This is real humility, practical and observable. It sees truth, listens for truth, and acts on truth. It doesn’t hide from what’s painful. It doesn’t pretend everything is ok. It doesn’t posture to look good. 

Aggressive humility goes all-in on what works and all-in on eliminating what doesn’t work. It’s quick to acknowledge mistakes and correct them. Aggressive humility is both highly honest and deeply confident at the same time.

With a mindset of aggressive humility, you can take feedback without insecurity and praise without ego. The result is you become immune to criticism and impervious to compliment.

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These five mindsets and skill sets that drive competitive excellence are always with you. Whether they are your competitive advantage or weakness is determined by what you do with this now. Knowledge is power only when you have the discipline to act on it.

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