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How Muhammad Ali taught us emotional toughness

ali A true legend and icon of sport passed this week. Muhammad Ali was not only champion of the boxing world, but also he was a world champion activist. He stood up for his beliefs with action. Ali also loved to recite poetry and was beloved for his wit. He was an inspiration to millions when he walked up those stairs in Atlanta, shaking from Parkinson’s Disease, to light the Olympic flame in 1996. Ali was many things to many people.

I looked to Muhammad Ali for his emotional toughness. I always share a poignant Ali story about his amazing emotional toughness at all of my keynotes and seminars. As I tell it, Ali grew up very poor in Louisville. His family could not afford expensive toys, but the young Muhammad Ali (back then known as Cassius Clay) saw a blue Schwinn bike at the local store which he coveted dearly. So he got a job at the local grocery store and worked all summer long so he could buy this prized possession. Finally, he bought his blue Schwinn and rode all over Louisville that day for 8 hours, showing it off to all his friends and family.

The next day, he parked his favorite bike in front of the grocery store, locked it tight and went to work. When he came out, Ali discovered that someone had clipped the lock and stolen his bike. He never found his bike again or who had stolen it.

But we all know that Muhammad Ali is a true champion of the heart, and he channeled this life difficulty into an amazing emotional advantage. When Ali would step into the boxing ring, he would point at his opponent and state, “You are the guy who stole my blue bike!”

Muhammad Ali was using an emotional toughness technique that I coach all my clients to use to get into the right emotional state. It involves 3 easy steps:
1) Recall a powerful emotional story. Like Ali, recall a time in your past that creates a powerful emotional taste in your mouth. For Ali, he used his bike story to create the right intensity level in the ring. You can use your story to get more pumped up, or your story can help you to find that peaceful feeling.
2) Find key primers related to your story. To build the best emotional state, you can use primers such as actions, images, and words. Ali used the action of pointing at his opponent, the image of his blue bike, and his words implied that his opponent had stolen his favorite toy. You need to find a statement, an action, and image tied to your story that creates a desired powerful emotion.
3) Play your story. Every time Ali walked into the ring, he would play his story to create his best emotional state. Whether it is before a key presentation, speaking with a difficult client, or dealing with an uncompassionate boss, you must create your best emotional state. You will do this by using your primers, and repeating the process in many situations so that it becomes habitual.

“Float like a butterfly, but sting like a bee” is one of the most beloved quotes from Ali. This phrase shows how he used imagery and words to create an emotional connection to the world. Performing at your best in any difficult situation takes emotional mastery. Your talent will emerge under pressure when you bring emotional toughness to the game.

Dr. Gregg Steinberg is a professor of human performance at Austin Peay State University. He is the author of the Washington Post bestselling business book, “Full Throttle.” Steinberg is a motivational speaker in Nashville who coaches executives and speaks about emotional toughness to Fortune 500 companies. Visit www.drgreggsteinberg.com and see his TED talk about super-resilience at http://tinyurl.com/o2anxsz.

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About Gregg Steinberg

Dr. Gregg Steinberg is a performance psychology expert, best selling author, and inspirational keynote speaker on the various topics relating to individual and team performance. Google+ Profile Get in touch with Dr. Gregg

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