How to Prepare a Business Meeting like Rafael Nadal

How to Prepare a Business Meeting like Rafael Nadal
October 24, 2016 Niels van Hove

In the corporate world you can drown in meetings. Estimates are, that if you’re a middle manager, you can spend about 35% of your time in meetings. If you’re in upper management, that goes up to 50%.

When we spend up to 50% of our working time in meetings, you would think that we prepare well, are focused and run them efficiently and effectively. We would prepare and run meetings like an elite athlete prepares for a game right?

Elite athletes have been using Mental Toughness, routines and focus and attention techniques for the last 30 years to increase their performance. Mental Toughness was first defined in 1995 by legendary performance psychologist Dr. Jim Loehr. He defined it as ‘the ability to consistently perform towards the upper range of your talent regardless of competitive circumstances’. He coached many of the tennis greats to peak performance in their game, among which were Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Monica Seles.

In the 1996 book ‘The mental game plan’, the authors divide a final game preparation in to preparation, focusing and execution with each of the phases having sequential visual, physical and verbal attention cues. Check out this 1 minute video from tennis great Rafael Nadal to see some of his routines, focus and attention cues.

In the corporate world however we hardly apply Mental Toughness and performance techniques. We arrive often late, unprepared, unfocused and physically and mentally fatigued at meetings. In my last post, I gave 8 tips to stop wasting time in meetings. What follows now are some tips to prepare a business meeting like an elite athlete.

Use regular performance self-talk

It was another tennis great, Ivan Lendl, who used self-talk successfully. In 1985, Ivan Lendl had a record of nine wins and twelve losses against John McEnroe. To improve his chances for success against McEnroe, Lendl decided to improve his self-talk. He began repeating to himself daily, “I look forward to playing John McEnroe,” and over the next six years, Lendl beat McEnroe ten times while only losing three time. If you struggle to speak up or challenge strong personalities or your managing director in a meeting. Try performance self-talk like “I’m looking forward to challenge the managing director” regularly during the week. When you start incorporating positive self-talk, you retrain your brain to respond to challenges with positivity.

Use a preparation cue

A cue is a signal to perform. According to Nadal himself, he takes an ice cold shower 90 minutes before the match starts. It is the last phase of his preparation and the point of no return. As Nadal says, ‘nothing else exists but the battle ahead.’ Pick your own preparation que, which can be as simple as a notification 15 minutes before the meeting. From that moment on, your focus is on the meeting and nothing else.

Use controlled distraction

Controlled distraction is a well- known focus technique. Nadal uses music on his headphone to control his environment or as he says to ‘remove me from my surroundings’. Before your meeting, remove distractions and disruptions, preferably go to an empty meeting room. To empty your mind and prevent negative thoughts, listen to a song, count backwards from 200 by sevens, or practice a mindfulness exercise.

Manage your energetic state

Match your energetic state with the one which is required for your meeting performance. Nadal exercises violently to activate his explosiveness. If your natural state is a very calm one, but you need to be energetic in the meeting, you can use ‘psych up’ techniques, like move your body or intense breathing, to increase your energy levels. If you have a high default energetic state and you need to be calm, you can use ‘psych down’ techniques like deep breathing.

Use an activation cue

The activation cue is the moment just before you have to perform at your best. There is no way back, you will be measured and held accountable for what happens next. You know it! You have to be mentally ready. You can use a verbal activation cue like, ‘Game on’, or ‘Let’s go’, whatever is unique and works for you. Or you can use a physical cue like tapping your watch, turning your wedding ring, squeezing your thumb or pump your fist quietly. Nadal adjust his socks perfectly and adjust his shorts before his serve, all leading up to his last cue, which is unique and his secret.

Use visual focusing during breaks

Similar to a tennis match, a business meeting will have breaks. An agenda change, a change of speaker or just a short comfort of coffee break. During breaks, Nadal has a routine of drinking water and visual focusing on his water bottles to ‘ordering my surroundings and to match the order I seek in my head’. In a meeting break, for just 20 seconds, focus on an item like your pen or watch and try to identify every little detail of it. Intensely focusing on something specific in the environment blocks out your surroundings, clears your head of any thought and when you look up, the focus is back on where it needs to be; the meeting.


Can we prepare and apply this in every meeting? Probably not, but let’s start with the important ones and stop wasting billions of dollars in unproductive meeting time. In our busy private and business life, the time is about right to start incorporating some of the thirty year old and proven techniques of elite athletes and improve our performance. Let start with a simple business meeting.

So go on, pick an important meeting and create your own unique performance routine. In the end, running a high performing business can be top sport too!

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