Dr. Engbert, What do you do in your role as a sports psychologist? Where and when are you involved?
Dr. Kai Engbert: As a sports psychologist, I support performance. I help ambitious people achieve their goals and deliver performance when it matters. But it’s not just about being there when it’s down to the wire at the Olympics or other tournaments, that’s the smallest part or my work. Of course, we work with the athletes during competitions. But 90 percent of our work is in coaching; it’s about long-term development and achieving, modeling and prioritizing performance. You don’t win the Olympics without mental strength. Keeping your cool, no matter how the competition is going, is already a strength – this is especially true in sports where you are very much on show, like tennis.
How important is mental attitude in top-class sport? And also outside the world of sport: how does our mind influence our performance?
Dr. Kai Engbert: Physical fitness is the basis; you can’t run a world record with mental strength alone. This physical basis is of course the main focus, comparable to professional qualification in the business world. But in competition, athletes have to perform under special conditions; they often have only one all-or-nothing attempt. And that means pressure.
You can mess things up mentally. Physical and mental performance interlock like puzzle pieces. This can be compared with professional and social competence in companies. If I am only strong in one area and have no idea about the other, that doesn’t add value.
In business, people like to draw sports comparisons. Do you see any similarities between top-class sport and everyday corporate life and the people behind it?
Dr. Kai Engbert: In companies just as in top-class sports, it is a matter of summoning up and delivering performance. What top athletes have in common with very high-performing people in companies is goal orientation. These people are good at defining goals and developing a suitable plan of how to get there. This skill can certainly be learned, but some people have it naturally and are very successful with it. I often find that successful people have high self-efficacy. They are convinced that they can achieve something.
What can you apply from top-class sports to your everyday (work) life?
Dr. Kai Engbert: We were able to demonstrate in an interesting study that young athletes in particular are disciplined and stick to established plans. Goal orientation and willpower also help in the long run at work. It is not, after all, a single presentation that leads to success, but perseverance and discipline. Many competitive athletes also motivate themselves by imagining what they can accomplish. They then work towards this vision, competing in the Olympics, for example, and link everything to this positive image. Many athletes do this intuitively, and we also work with this in sports psychology. You can use this at work and channel your ambition towards a specific goal.
How do you manage to stay not only physically fit, but also mentally agile at all times?
Dr. Kai Engbert: One important thing when it comes to staying mentally agile is the exact opposite, i. e. introducing calmness. In everyday working life there are often many changes and projects going on, just like in private life. To deal with this effectively, I think it’s important to slow down the pace of everyday life again and again, for example with yoga or going for a walk. This enables you to pause, take a “helicopter perspective” and examine yourself. I think this keeps you very flexible, although at first glance it seems like the opposite of performance. Moreover, I think it’s good to step out of your comfort zone regularly, or at least stick your nose out of it from time to time. It’s not about pushing boundaries or confronting fears, but taking on small challenges, trying something out – and seeing that as an adventure definitely keeps you agile.
Dr. Kai Engbert is a graduate psychologist, psychotherapist and sports psychologist. The former competitive athlete works with athletes from various top Olympic and Paralympic federations. He shows ways to develop and maintain mental strength and helps with mental blocks or crises. Furthermore, Kai Engbert supports company employees and executives with presentations, seminars and individual coaching sessions to help them improve their performance, achieve their goals and stay healthy.