With Martin G. Moore

Episode #236

It’s All in The Mind: The mental game of leadership

Have you ever wondered why people who are clearly at the top of their game all of a sudden have a steep decline in performance? Things that they’ve been able to routinely do at an elite level all of a sudden seem to be beyond their reach.

I saw an example of this just recently, where a professional NFL footballer inexplicably lost the plot. His physical abilities were no different after the slump in form as they were prior to the slump. But it looked like his mental state was night-and-day different!

What happens if you have a crisis of confidence in your own leadership? There’s a big difference between having healthy doubts, and having the sort of mental collapse that hijacks your very ability to perform.

In this episode, I discuss those differences, and give you some tactics for dealing with any performance declines so that, at worst, they’re short-lived, and at best you emerge from them even stronger than before.

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Episode #236 It’s All in The Mind: The mental game of leadership

Have you ever wondered why people who are clearly at the top of their game all of a sudden just have a steep decline in performance? Things that they’ve been able to do routinely at an elite level all of a sudden seem to be beyond their reach?

Well, I saw an example of this just recently where a professional NFL footballer inexplicably lost the plot. His physical abilities were no different after the slump in form than they were prior to the slump, but it looked like his mental state was night-and-day different. This happens to people in all walks of life and at all levels.

So what happens if you have a crisis of confidence in your own leadership? There’s a big difference between having healthy doubts and having the sort of mental collapse that hijacks your very ability to perform.

Today, I want to examine those differences, and give you some tactics for dealing with any performance lapses so that, at the very least, they’re short-lived.

  • I’ll begin with a story from a top sportsman who recently had a bit of a Chernobyl.

  • I’ll then explore why this happens even to the best of the best.

  • I’ll finish with some tips for how to know if you’re suffering from a crisis of confidence, and what you can do about it.

a top sportsman’s fall from grace

Brett Maher is an NFL kicker who plays for the Dallas Cowboys, which is known as America’s Team. Kickers don’t get on the field very often, generally for only a handful of plays each game, when they kick the ball after a touchdown or they attempt a field goal. And for this, they’re paid pretty well. In the season just ended, Maher was on a one-year contract with the Cowboys worth roughly a million dollars. But the website, spotrac.com estimated his value at $3.76 million per annum, with a three-year market value of over $11 million. In their estimation, he’s the 15th ranked kicker on the market.

In 2022, of the 32 professional NFL teams, Maher was a top 10 kicker in terms of the percentage of kicks made, and in the regular season, he tied third-highest in terms of points scored by kickers. By all accounts, this is a man at the top of his game.

If you don’t watch American football, let me just give you a couple of the basics. After a touchdown is scored (and a touchdown’s worth six points), the kicker has an opportunity to add an extra point to make a total of seven. It’s a bit like a conversion attempt after a try in rugby, but it’s always taken from the same spot: right in front of the posts. For this reason, kicking an extra point is a relatively routine task for these highly trained professionals.

In the 2022 regular season, the percentage for all extra point attempts across the entire NFL was around 95%. So in other words, kickers on average tend to miss only about one in 20 attempts. And in the 2022 season, Maher was right on target here. He made around 95% of all the extra-point kicks he attempted. He also landed 90% of the field goals he attempted, and these are much harder than slotting an extra point because they’re generally taken from a much greater distance away from the posts. To this point, Maher made over 80% of his dozen or so attempts from more than 50 yards out.

This guy is good… but in January it all fell to custard. On the 8th of January, the Cowboys played the Washington Commanders in the last game of the regular season. In this game, Maher missed his only attempt at an extra point in a surprising Dallas loss. But, hey, it can happen to anyone, right? You miss one in 20. It’s an anomaly, but it’s nothing to worry about.

A week later, in the wild card playoff game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Maher kicked only one extra point from five attempts. He missed his first four attempts in a row after missing his only extra point attempt the week before. That’s 0 for 5.

Now, it just so happens that I was backing Dallas to win, so after the second miss, I must confess, I was yelling at the TV, “Mate, one job! You’ve got one job.”

By the third miss, I was incredulous… but by the fourth miss, my heart was bleeding for this poor guy.

The good news is that it wasn’t costly for the team. Five extra point attempts means five touchdowns scored. So, that’s 30 points without Maher’s help, and they gave the Bucks a toweling. But that wasn’t going to cut it in a tight game. So the following week, Dallas took on the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional playoffs. What does Maher do? He comes out after Dallas’s only touchdown, and again… he misses the extra point.

In this three consecutive week stretch in January, Maher kicked only one extra point from seven attempts. Just think about that. A kicker who made 95% of these kicks during the regular season landed only 15% of his extra point attempts in January, which is when it matters the most. The degree of difficulty was no lesser or greater on any of the other kicks, except for maybe some crowd noise, which these professionals blast through every week. What was at the core of this complete lack of ability for a professional at the top of his game to do a routine job?


Brett Mayer isn’t an isolated case. We see this in all different contexts, but professional sport is the most unforgiving because it’s so quantitative, and it’s so visible. You either won or you didn’t… You either kicked the goal, or you missed it… You either broke your personal best time, or you didn’t.

And in this day and age of big data, there’s a seemingly infinite number of ways to dissect and analyze performance statistics. So, for example, it wouldn’t be uncommon to hear an ESPN color commentator say something like, “Well, of all the running backs on Monday night football appearances since 2018, he’s the youngest player to average more than 4.8 yards per carry.” How do they even think to ask that question?

But as an athlete, there’s nowhere to run and there’s nowhere to hide. And we worry about who can see our birthday on social media.

The sporting world is rife with these stories. I remember vividly, in my younger days, how Ian Baker Finch (or IBF as he’s known), the Australian golfing great, completely lost his ability to play the game. After winning the 1991 British Open, one of the most coveted championships in the world of golf, IBF went through a crisis of confidence, and he was never the same. Although I must say that now, he’s an excellent commentator on CBS. According to his Wikipedia page, IBF could hit shots flawlessly on the practice range, and then as soon as he got to the competition tee, he would find a way to hit a poor shot. In his own words, he completely lost his confidence.

In the weird and wonderful game of cricket, even the greatest batsman hit rough patches. Sachin Tendulkar, widely regarded as the best batsman of all time had not one, but two quite demoralizing mid-career slumps. And the Aussie legends I used to watch all had major form slumps, from Greg Chappell in the 1980s, to more contemporary players like Michael Clark, and Dave Warner, and Steve Smith. But they all seemed to emerge at some point.

What’s behind these sudden and devastating troughs in performance? Do leaders suffer the same slumps without knowing it? The driver for these performance crashes can’t possibly be physiological. It’s all in the mind.

We released a podcast episode fairly recently. It was Ep. 229: Confidence, Arrogance, and Self-Doubt.

This is definitely worth listening to if you haven’t already. I describe the vital role that self-doubt plays in regulating our own awareness and self-perception, keeping us from the brink of arrogance. But can this go too far? Would you even know if you’d reached a point where your lack of confidence was affecting your performance? Let me run through a few of the telltale signs.


  1. Your unwillingness to make a decision.

You’ve been making decisions all your career, but maybe you get to a point where you feel the pressure in a way that you haven’t before. You become hypersensitive to the impact of your decisions. You feel as though you don’t have enough data, or that you don’t understand the context sufficiently to make a call. And you’re worried that other people will see this, even though they probably can’t. Sometimes this can come as a result of a couple of poor decisions that you may have made, or things not going your way. Other times the fear is less rational.

The impact though, is that in the absence of a decision, your performance won’t improve. He who hesitates is lost, and your team’s going to wonder what the hell you are doing, as they wait for clarity of direction and objectives. One thing’s for sure though, you won’t build your confidence back without action… more on this shortly.

2. You start comparing yourself to others.

There’s a healthy way to do this and there’s an unhealthy way to do this. It’s important to know where you are in the world, which is why I’m a huge advocate of industry benchmarking. Unless you have some comparison to draw to peers doing the same things as you, how will you know how well you’re competing and how well you’re performing? This comparison should always be factual and data-driven.

The unhealthy way to compare is to start looking at the people around you–your peers, your direct reports, your boss–and feeling as though you don’t really cut it when measured against them.

3. You find yourself frequently blindsided.

Things happen that you just didn’t anticipate. Risks that you didn’t rate highly become a big deal. People do things you didn’t expect them to, like resigning from their job when you thought they were incredibly happy doing what they’re doing. And you and your team start missing targets, most commonly, delivery deadlines and financial targets.

4. You have difficulty reading the play.

You find it increasingly difficult to work out what your boss wants. Conversations with key committees and boards don’t seem to have the clarity and precision they used to, and you can’t work out the politics of the business. You can feel your stock going down, but you’re not sure why, and you have no idea how to arrest the slide.

There are lots of other signs, too, and only you’ll know when you feel as though you’ve lost your mojo. But there are ways to get it back, and to get it back quickly.


What do you do if you start losing the mental strength you need? We all have stints where our confidence is down a little bit, and when these come, they’re usually infrequent, and I find they’re necessary to send us some sort of wake up call. Whether you believe in God or the spiritual power of the universe, or you’re just a garden variety atheist, these periods of doubt are designed to give you an opportunity to pause, to reflect, and to reset.

But this isn’t what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the mental barriers that clearly impinge on your performance when you haven’t had any such problems in the past. Just like Brett Maher all of a sudden couldn’t make the routine kicks that he’d made thousands of times before, and Ian Baker-Finch couldn’t find a fairway with a map and a compass.

So, what do you do? Well, I have five tips that are pretty useful, and could be applied to virtually any situation where you’re experiencing an inexplicable decline in performance, or if you see this type of decline in one of your people.

  1. Look at the evidence.

If you feel a bit out of sorts, you need to know whether it’s just healthy self-doubt creeping in, or if there’s actually evidence of declining performance. So take a deep breath and ask yourself this question:

I feel as though I’m just not cutting it at the moment, but what evidence do I have that this is true? Is my performance really suffering, or am I just feeling a little insecure?

This is an important line of questioning to pursue.

2. Confirm this assessment with an independent person.

Whatever the answer to that first question, it’s worth bouncing off a trusted advisor. And of course, you all have at least one trusted advisor, right? That’s not the person who you really like because they tell you how good you are. That’s the person who tells you the truth when you need to hear it, even if you may not like it. So pay attention to their observations because it may not be as bad as you think… or, it may be every bit as bad as you think. Either way, like asking for a second opinion from a medical professional, this is really worthwhile.

3. Ask yourself what’s changed.

Now, assuming it’s a genuine inexplicable performance decline, you need to work out how to dig your way out of it. When you pose this question and you consider it thoughtfully, it gives you the opportunity to identify the point in time when you first started feeling this way. And this makes it more likely that you’ll get to the root cause of the problem. Once the decline starts, it’s easy to spiral out of control. So you need to find the origin point as quickly as you can.

Now, those first three steps are all about problem identification. These last two are about remedies.

4. Visualize, breathe, and meditate.

One of the greatest gifts I received from my high performance coach, Rachel Vickery, is the value of visualization, breathing, and meditation. I think I’ve said before on this podcast that I’m absolutely sh!t at meditating. And look, I’m still not that flash, but now at least I have a technique that helps me to align my physical state with the outcomes I want.

So, when you have a brain explosion that hijacks your previously superior performance, the trick is to not let your physical state be dictated by your mental state. When you freak out, your pulse rate increases, you sweat, your body conserves energy in preparation for fight or flight, and this can derail the most automatic of your physical activities. Even worse, as a leader, it clouds your judgment , and so you’re unlikely to get out of that state anytime soon.

You need a mental rehearsal for success. Spend some quiet time in meditation. Now, this only takes 10 or 15 minutes. Just make sure that every muscle in your body is totally relaxed. Focus on your breathing until it’s deep and slow, and feel your heart rate slowing down. Then when you’ve reached the desired physical state, start visualizing the outcome you want as clearly as you possibly can. Just picture yourself in high performance mode and connect that to your feeling of mental and physical serenity. Any time you spend doing this is going to pay you back in spades.

5. Go back to basics.

If you can work out what’s at the core of the performance decline, go back to your tried and trusted processes. Work on the basics, the things that made you a great performer in the first place because you were able to master a set of skills and disciplines that produce the desired results.

Let’s just continue on with the decision-making example. Go right back to the fundamentals of your decision-making process, and look at this in light of your current state. Ask yourself questions like this:

  • What are the elements of a great decision?

  • What do I need to do, in what order, to be confident about any decision I make?

  • When I’ve made decisions in the past, how did I do that and what’s different now?

  • Have I changed the way I assess the risks of my decisions?

  • If so, why have I done that?

  • Have I become too conservative?

  • Or have I become too adventurous over time, which has resulted in a few poor decisions?

  • Which step in the decision-making process have I let slip?

  • How can I rally the resources I have around me to rebuild that part of the process?

Believe me, some deep introspection here, followed by some confident action is normally going to stop the hemorrhaging and get you back on track quickly.

Wrapping all this up, it’s devastating when you see great people suffer from a crisis of confidence, and they lose their mojo. If it happens to you, it’s important that you fight back with everything you have in you. If it’s one of the people who works for you, make sure you give them the gift of helping them to rebuild their confidence. You know what it takes, and sometimes it’s a long road back. Just remember, no slump lasts forever.


  • Ep. 229: Confidence, Arrogance, and Self-Doubt – Listen Here


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