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Breaking Barriers and Records—Translating an Athletic Mindset to the Corporate Arena

April 4, 2019 in

[Read Time: 4 Min]

“If you think you can do a thing or can’t do a thing, you are right.”

Henry Ford

Mind over Matter

May 6th, 1954 was a rainy and windy day at the University of Oxford. Warming up on the track was Roger Bannister, a medical student attempting to do something many believed to be foolish, even dangerous – running a mile in under four minutes. The physiology that is required by the human body to run at such a speed for so long was believed to be impossible, an endeavor that could result in a heart attack or death. Bannister commented in an interview years later with the Associated Press about the challenge he faced: “I knew enough medicine and physiology to know it wasn’t a physical barrier, but I think it had become a psychological barrier.”

While the wind that day was significant enough to have Bannister consider postponing the race, he was resolute. Bannister recounts the race as feeling effortless up until the last 200 meters, where, he says in his autobiography “…the finishing line seemed almost to recede. Those last few seconds seemed an eternity.” With 1,500 people cheering in the stands he collapsed across the finish line in exhaustion and hears his time on the loudspeaker: 3:59.4.

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA-NC

 Bannister’s achievement liberated other runners from the restricting belief of the four-minute mile, as his record was broken just six weeks later and would go on to be broken another 18 times, with the current record at 3:43.13. The story of the four-minute mile and Roger Bannister demonstrates the power of psychological barriers and how difficult they can be to overcome.

What is Your “Hook”?

Dr. Susan David studies these psychological barriers, which she calls ‘hooks.’ As Dr. David explains in her book, Emotional Agility, these hooks often take the form of self-narratives or stories about ourselves we believe to be true, often in the face of conflicting information or biased memories.1 These beliefs that we hold true about ourselves turn into self-imposed psychological barriers, which can be difficult to break through.  

The psychological barrier that Roger Bannister had to overcome had a measurable and specific outcome tied to it. However, most activities we engage in day-to-day are not as exact. Typically, the ‘hooks’ we must overcome take the form of fixed beliefs about our abilities, such as “I am not a good public speaker” or “my supervisor has it out for me.” Perhaps it plays out in the gym with visceral thoughts that you simply cannot push any further, or in a meeting when you hesitate to speak up. Whatever the case, these psychological barriers, some of which may even be beyond our conscious awareness, prevent us from taking risks, being bold, or reaching our full potential.

Psychological barriers can be the product of many years work, becoming so engrained that the resulting actions seem automatic. Getting ‘unhooked,’ as Dr. David explains, is a process that involves self-awareness, acceptance, and living out your values. If you believe that you might be beholden to limiting thoughts and beliefs, here are two techniques you can use to liberate yourself and move towards your full potential.

Live your values

The key to overcoming psychological barriers is to first have an understanding of your values and to live those out throughout the day. Remember your values and wear them on your sleeve, or as Dr. David says, “walk your why.” If you value being a respected member of the team but fail to speak up when you had the chance due to some limiting self-belief, you’ll leave the meeting with regret.

Mental contrasting

This technique requires that you first acknowledge and visualize the challenges that will stand in your way when overcoming your psychological barrier. Then envision yourself overcoming those obstacles and the positive emotion that would follow. Research has found this to be a powerful goal setting technique that can be applied to many different scenarios.1 So, returning to the aforementioned example, envision yourself speaking up during the meeting and all of the positive feelings that will follow to help give you the confidence to do so when the time comes.

It should not be lost that breaking psychological barriers often requires help from friends, colleagues and leaders. On the day he broke the record, two of Bannister’s teammates at Oxford ran alongside him at different times, helping him to stay at the correct pace to break the four-minute barrier. In his autobiography, Roger Bannister reflected on the importance of his team when he wrote, “I had been wrong to think that the athlete could be self-sufficient.” This is also true when you think of yourself as a corporate athlete. It’s often helpful to discuss your perceived barriers with your “team” and benefit from any advice or support they offer.

So, what are the current paradigms in your business environment that lend themselves to psychological barriers, and have you challenged them? Breaking thru these psychological barriers can lead to identifying innovative solutions that fuel the growth of your company. President Kennedy changed history by challenging us to put a man on the moon, and business leaders, like Steve Jobs, challenged our perceptions of home computing—both in ways that revolutionized the world we live in. Every day, leaders are challenging the status quo in medicine, technology, and business. What’s holding your organization back? Your journey in overcoming your psychological barrier is no different than Bannister’s. It requires a team around you to help refine your processes, develop your self-awareness, and push you past your self-perceived limits. The executive coaching team at Higher Echelon are here to be your pacers, to run alongside you and help you break your own four-minute mile. Contact us if you’d like to learn more about our Human Capital Services.


1.  David, S. (2016). Emotional agility: Get unstuck, embrace change, and thrive in work and life. London: Penguin.

2.  Oettingen, G., Mayer, D., Timur Sevincer, A., Stephens, E. J., Pak, H. J., & Hagenah, M. (2009). Mental contrasting and goal commitment: The mediating role of energization. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(5), 608-622.