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How Sports Psychology Can Benefit Your Sales Team

16 Min
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If you think about it, your sales reps are a lot like like athletes. Every time they are communicating with prospects, it’s the same as an elite athlete playing in a Monday night game or competing for the gold. This is because there is a clear winning and losing aspect to sales, a clear differential between natural talents, and the need to execute a game plan under high pressure.

Once you start thinking of your sales team as a sports team, it opens up many avenues of how you can coach and help them improve. One fantastic way that is often overlooked, is the use of sports psychology to drive sales rep performance.

Why Sports Psychology Works for Sales

Peak athletic performance is comprised of two elements – body and mind. Obviously for sales reps, the physical aspect is going to have a limited involvement. The mental game however, is a truly critical component of driving your sale team’s performance, which is why they can seriously benefit from sports psychology.

Sports psychology is the science of maximizing the mental performance of athletes and thus can also be used to sharpen the mental game of your sales team. And no, you don’t have to be a licensed sports psychologist to pull it off either. Although there’s hundreds of techniques to improve the effectiveness of your sales team, for this article we are going to focus on three of them:

  1. Optimal Performance Zone (OPZ)
  2. Precognitive Planning
  3. Goal setting (the right way)  

The Optimal Performance (Selling) Zone

The optimal performance zone is something athletes use to define their state of mind where they perform their best. For some people it may be super hyped up while for others it may be incredibly calm. Once they have this mental state identified, they practice consciously adjusting their mood to match their OPZ during pressure situations.

Music is often used to enhance performance by putting athletes in the zone. They aren’t just jamming out, they are engineering their mental state.

Typically, most people are not conscious about their OPZ but still try to influence how they are feeling (e.g. calm themselves down when nervous). As such, the first step is to work with your sales reps to find out what their best personal mental state is during sales calls, demos, and other significant points of communication.

You can do this through discussion, studying past experiences, and specifically reviewing calls for this mental state going forward. Believe it or not, it doesn’t usually take long for people to figure out what mental state they personally need.

Once your rep has their OPZ figured out, guide them on identifying times that they should be checking their mental state. Over time, it will become second nature for them leading to a strong and consistent performance increase.

Precognitive Sales Planning

This technique revolves around mapping out mental reactions to specific situations ahead of time before they occur. Most sales teams have something like this already in the form of objection handling and sales playbooks, however this takes it a step further – deciding what you want to think and how you want to feel when specific high-pressure situations occur.

Using an elite swimmer as an example, this technique would be used to control all mental reactions during the course of the race by establishing:

  • What will I think about if I see that I’m winning?
  • What will I think about if I see that I’m losing?
  • What will I think about if I make a mistake?
  • What will I think about if I haven’t made any mistakes?  

The list of scenarios goes on and on.

Applying this to a sales call, together with your sales rep you decide ahead of time how you want them to react to every situation you can think of. How should you react if they are interested? What about not interested? Asking no questions? Asking a lot of questions? Talking quietly? The point of mapping these out, is to leave nothing up to the moment. The performance becomes methodical, planned, and executed according to plan.

It seems like it would be difficult to remember all of these, right? Wrong. You don’t need a level of detail that dips into exact words or anything that would take memorization. It’s about attitude, emotions, and mental state. Something like “I’ll start off making some jokes and if they are responding well I’ll still tone it down for the explanation of this first feature, but then I’ll throw in another right after. If they aren’t responding to my attempts at humor though, I’ll stay confident and not get offended, but I’ll switch over to a more logical/intelligent tone.”

Why Does This Work?

The reason this works is because when an individual comes under pressure, their natural first instinct is to revert to what they know. If there is thought done ahead of time, they will automatically default to it without even needing to think about it. If there isn’t anything concrete to fall back on, it becomes up in the air how you will react. You may stay a failing course when you should improvise, you may improvise when you should stay the course, you might start talking quietly or too quickly, etc. This technique controls all of that and provides a much more consistent execution with greater results.

As added value, we have found this to be an incredible sales meeting topic that inspires critical thought and discussion. Sales meetings are a fantastic place to get your team motivated just like in the locker room before a big game. We won’t go any farther into sales meetings during this article, but you can check out this read on more sales meeting ideas that inspire and motivate your team if you are interested.

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Effective Goal Setting for Sales

Goal setting is paramount to performance. Goals give us consistent purpose and act as a thought-out guiding star at all points in time. Without goals, we lose direction and are easily swayed day in and day out by the unpredictable nature of life, especially sales. But what makes elite athletes’ goals different from the average person? There are two main factors: depth and structure.

Depth of Goals

Effective goal setting used by elite athletes focuses on setting large ambitious goals that are then comprised of smaller goals designed to guide along the way. They have goals for the year, the week, the day, and even goals for every individual turn they take at practice. The best part? It’s not as difficult as it sounds like it would be. The strategy is that every piece of time you spend is driven by purpose and the desire to improve. These micro-goals are components of the larger goals and the structure continues all the way up (e.g. daily goals are components of weekly goals, which are components of monthly goals, which are components for quarterly goals, etc). So, what does this look like for a sales rep? An example would be as follows:

  • Ambitious goal: Make sales manager by next year
  • Quarterly goal: Increase the amount of sales communication activities by 30%
  • Monthly goal: Send twice as many follow up emails as last quarter’s monthly average
  • Weekly goal: Send 1/4th total number of follow up emails I need to hit my monthly average
  • Daily goal: Send follow up emails after every one of my calls today
  • Micro goal: Write a post-it note after this call to set a reminder in my CRM

Structure of Goals

Notice anything peculiar about the example goals above? Only the ambitious goal relies on external factors to succeed. The rest of them are completely within sales rep control.  This is incredibly vital to successful goal setting at an elite level. Simply setting goals around things like “close more deals” or some other result doesn’t work because it’s not completely under the individual’s control. Instead, goals should be 100% based on factors that are completely under your control to achieve. This puts all of the responsibility on yourself which is actually an extremely positive thing. When our success is completely up to us, it inspires and motivates us to succeed far more than relying on outside factors. Goals around sales activity levels are great candidates for this type of structure.

As an example, imagine if your goal is to close one specific huge deal. You work tirelessly going above beyond for this deal and it seems like it’s going great. However, right near the end you find out your key sponsor has a falling out with leadership and walks out of the company. Shortly after, they let you know the company’s interest in you was tied to the person that left and they no longer want to pursue a partnership. Aside from being an already devastating loss (because you are driven to win!) you now have also failed yourself by not achieving your goal and even though you did everything right, it wasn’t even up to you in the end. For most people, this is an extremely demotivating situation that hurts your drive and drains the spark right out of you.

If we play through the scenario once more with more effective goals however, it begins to look a bit different. This time around your goal was to be more conscious about objection-handling and use the techniques your manager has advised you on. The desire to win the deal is still exactly the same because winners love to win, but now you are focused on actually improving your selling performance. Even when the deal ends up going south due to the falling out, you can look at your own goals and find success even in failure. Does it still sting to lose the deal? Absolutely. But you improved your technique and thus improved your chances of winning the next deal. This failure has now actually flipped completely, from a demotivating scenario into a motivating one. Now you can build off of your progress and look to become even better at your selling technique on the next deal. You know that every time you achieve your goal to improve, your chances of winning just increase more and more, rather than “well… I guess its just not always up to me”. Finding success in failure is what allows elite athletes to do incredible things. It’s why they can work so hard with such abandon, never losing focus and never giving up.  

Your Mind is Always a Factor

Regardless of how well your first attempt may go at using these techniques, your team will have their eyes opened up to this aspect of their performance. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, our minds are always at work. The first step to mastering your mind is simply opening up to the idea that it can be improved and that your mind plays a role in your performance no matter what. You can either choose to master it and reap the benefits or let it run wild. But for any sales team that wants an edge, this is your next place to start.

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