EPISODE 455: Sports Mindset Expert Mike Lee Says This Steph Curry Habit Can Improve Your Sales Skills Markedly

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the Optimal Sales Mindset virtual learning session sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales on July 22, 2021. It featured an interview with elite basketball coach and mindset expert Mike Lee. Learn more about his services for sales professionals here.]

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Mike’s TIP: “Play with more gratitude, more joy, more freedom, more creativity and go deep into that belief that you are more than a sales professional, just like the Steph Curry’s are more than just athletes. I think it is something that can be a foundational element of your performance and it’s something that’s super important. I think if you can leave here and figure out a way to build some legs for you to believe in that and adopt that belief, it’s going to take you a long way, and it’s going to impact you beyond the sales arena.”


Fred Diamond: Today we’re talking to Mike Lee. Mike, you’re an elite basketball coach. You’ve worked with thousands of elite basketball performers all through the ranks. You’ve worked with some guys like my favorite player right now, Joel Embiid. Of course, a lot of our listeners know I’m from Philadelphia. I’m always excited to talk about at least one of the top first pick in the drafts that the Sixers have chosen over the last five years.

One of them we’re not really talking about right now, but I know you work with Embiid, we’ll talk a little bit about that. We’ve had some other elite basketball coaches on over the years too. Of course, you’re good friends with our good friend, Alan Stein Jr. and he’s been a big friend and just a big fan of what we do at the Institute for Excellence in Sales. I’m excited to have you here.

Mike, first of all, it’s great to see you. Thanks for being here with us. You just came out with a great article in September where you talked about some of the great habits of elite basketball performers, and how you can apply those to professional sales. We’ll get deep into some of the stuff you talked about. But let’s just get right to the top of it. Again, you’ve worked with some elite basketball players. Off the top, what are some of the common mindsets that they have that sale professionals can emulate?

Mike Lee: It’s good to see you. Thanks for having me on. There are a couple that come to mind right away. The first one is countercultural. I got this from being around Steph Curry. I was Assistant Director for his Skills Academy a long time ago back in Charlotte. Being around Steph, I saw how he didn’t just obtain his value as a human being from his performance on the basketball court. He’s somebody who gets his value from how he is as a husband, how he is as a father, how he is as an activist and even some of the social impact ventures that he is in right now with SC30.

The conclusion that I drew from that was that this is actually what allows him to perform at an elite level. Obviously, the guy is an unbelievable basketball player, he’s highly skilled, but when you watch Steph play, he plays with more gratitude, more joy, more freedom, more creativity than any player that I’ve ever seen play the game. I think a lot of that comes from the fact that he’s not putting an unbelievable amount of pressure on himself and placing his identity on the line every single time when he steps on the court.

Ironically, this is what allows him to really drop into that present moment, which is where peak performance exists, where flow state exists, where being in the zone exists. That only happens in the present moment. That’d be the first thing is adopting this belief that I’m more than my work, I’m more than an athlete, I’m more than a sales professional, and really trying to own that.

If you think about that, the pressure that we have, we think that it comes from our boss or from the market or from COVID or whatever it is that’s going on. But the reality is that pressure is only created by a thought that we have, and that pressure really comes internally from ourselves. That’d be the first one. Adopting that belief that I’m more than my work. I’m more than an athlete, whatever that is.

The second one that I would say is they focus on the process. They are highly focused on the process versus the outcomes. They’re focused on the work, they’re focused on the drills, they’re focused on the reps. They’re not so much focused on winning games, making shots, winning championships. They know that focusing on the process is what is going to drive results. Quick example is Joel Embiid, you brought him up in the beginning. I worked with Joel for about two months before really anybody knew who he was back after his junior year in high school. Long story, ended up in Milwaukee and we started working together.

At that time, we were really starting to implement the mental side of the game. We knew that focusing on the basketball skills, and your body, strength conditioning aspect was only going to take you so far. You had to focus on the mental side of the game in order to give yourself an edge. One thing that we were really preaching at that time was to lock in on the process. He completely bought in on the reps, on just doing the work every day. I’d never worked with a player who improved at the level that he did in the time that we spent with him, it’s unbelievable.

Fred Diamond: That’s really powerful. I want to go back to Steph Curry for a second. You use the word creativity. I want to talk about that as it relates to sales. Steph Curry, obviously, is one of these guys in history of basketball who reinvented the game. Just being a six-foot-three slender and reinvented the game with being able to win the game beyond the three point arc. Obviously, that’s how the game has shifted over the last 5, 10 years.

You said you spent a lot of time with him. Talk a little bit about the creativity inside. Because again, the three-point shot has become big, of course, but he’s totally reinvented the game. Talk about his mindset with the creativity and the reinvention. Again, our show on Friday, it’s called Creativity in Sales and that’s our sales tactic show, prospecting, social selling, things that you can do as a sales professional, not the mind side but hard skills.

The reason we called it Creativity in Sales, Mike Lee, is because we started the show after the pandemic started and we said, you’re going to have to be creative. You’re going to have to figure out new things. What you were doing for the last 5, 10, 15 years, whatever, ain’t going to work anymore. We first saw, not everything, but we knew that obviously, people are going to be in homes and customers are going to be in homes, and you aren’t going to be able to meet people live. Give us a little bit of insight about Steph and the creativity and how that came about and how he’s become this person and how you can maybe apply that thinking to sales.

Mike Lee: Creativity is a side passion of mine. I love this aspect of high performance. The things that people overlook with creativity is in order to be creative, in order to improvise in the moment, you have to have the fundamentals down first. You think about doing outbound sales. If I don’t know what I’m selling, if I don’t have the script down, if I don’t know exactly what my value proposition is, and I can’t communicate that clearly, there’s no way that I’m going to be able to navigate a question or a barrier or something or an objection that I’m coming up on a call. I have to have those fundamentals down first.

I think it’s the same thing with Steph. You see him pre-game and he’s doing his two-ball drills on the baseline with his assistant coach and he’s doing the basic reps. Things that we would do at a basketball camp with 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th grade kids, right? He’s still doing that before the games. I think from a skill set standpoint, that’s what then allows him to innovate. That’s what allows him to play with more creativity because he has such a trust in his fundamental skills.

I think from a sales perspective, we have to have those foundational skills first, and then we’re going to be able to be more creative when we run up against those roadblocks, those barriers, those objections. We don’t need to be creative if we’re not running up against those things, running up against those problems. Forgetting that’s going back to the basics, going back to the fundamentals. Getting great at the simple things is what will allow you to be more creative.

I know that might sound like a paradox, but there’s research that backs it up. If you want to dive into it, there’s a book called The Art of Impossible by Steven Kotler. He is an unbelievable author, he’s written a lot of books around flow state and high performance and he gets into creativity in The Art of Impossible. I highly recommend it for anybody in sales.

Fred Diamond: We have a question here that comes in from Rick. Rick says, “Good story about Steph. How coachable are guys like Steph Curry?” That’s a great question there. The elite performers, the Kobes, the Steph Currys, the Embiids.

When you look at an NBA bench, it seems like there’s 10 coaches, and there’s like 15 players. How coachable is he during the game, outside of practice? Is he grateful for coaching or is he like these elite players like, “Hey, I’m Steph, I know what I’m doing. I’m MVP twice. Got a couple rings. Thanks Steve Kerr, I got it.” Talk a little bit about, because we talk about that a lot. We talk about mentoring, and we also talk a lot about coaching. The ability to be grateful to have a coach. I’m just curious on your insights on that.

Mike Lee: Rick, great question. I look at being coachable not so much as a thing that players have to do, it’s a relationship that is cultivated through a few different things. In order to be coachable, to really drive the highest performance out of a player, I think you got to do three things as a coach. Number one, you have to have some sort of communication. You got to communicate with your players. That communication builds a connection, and that connection builds trust, and that trust is what allows you to challenge them to be better, to do more, to become a better player, to go harder than they think that they can possibly go.

That relationship and that trust gives you the ability to provide feedback, maybe difficult feedback that is needed in order to get them to another level. I look at it more so as a relationship. A lot of times, I think especially in today’s world, whether it’s pro sports, whether it’s business, as a leader, if you want to get the most out of your people, you have to go first. You have to initiate that connection and that communication and that relationship to build that trust with those people to get them to buy in.

It’s going to a completely different angle. But I think a lot of it starts with a relationship of openness and vulnerability as a leader that really will drive connection. There’s probably a lot of sports guys around here. Think about the coach that you went hardest for in practice. You went hardest for him, you dove on the floor because you knew that he loved you. You knew that he cared about you beyond the basketball court, beyond the football field, beyond the baseball time. It was that personal connection that really took your performance on the field to another level.

Fred Diamond: You just had a great article you published in September. I want to focus on some of the things you talked about. You talked about what sales professionals can learn from the elite basketball performers, which, of course, is what we’re talking about today. In the article, you talk about the concept of one for one. What does one for one mean and how do we apply that to sales?

Mike Lee: One for one is a concept that I came up with when we we’re putting guys through shooting drills, through shooting workouts and we would see that they were trying to just get through the drill. You’d have a drill where maybe they got to make three in a row from seven spots around the arc in 90 seconds. They were just trying to get through the drill. You can tell by their body language and just their lack of focus.

I came up with this concept called one for one where it’s really we’re just trying to lock in on one shot at a time. I’m just trying to hit one shot every time throughout those 90 seconds of the drill. We live in this world of distractions and chaos and disruption throughout our days and it’s a concept that we can use just to lock in on the moment. If I’m going to make 50 calls today, I’m going to go one for one on that first call. Then I’m going to go one for one on the second call and I’m going to go one for one on the third call and just be fully there in the moment. I think it’s a concept that just helps you lock in on the task at hand.

Fred Diamond: A follow up to the one for one. You talk a lot about the present. We just talked about that a couple minutes ago. It sounds like a lot of what you’re talking about here is really being in the moment, locking everything out, really digging down but not just with two minutes left in the game but also throughout the entire game. When your team has the ball, you think about making a shot, if you will. How about long term thinking and how does that apply to mindset?

For example, Steph Curry, he’s under 30, 31 I guess, 32 maybe. Is he doing things to keep his career going for another five years? Or the elite performers, do they think about what are they going to be doing in five years, what their legacy is going to be doing? I ask that question because a lot of times at the Institute for Excellence in Sales we talk about career and career process. A lot of people ask me, how do I become a sales manager? How do I become the VP? How do I get to the next level? We talk about strategies and steps. Talk a little bit about some of that as it relates to the elite basketball performers, and how that might look from a career perspective.

Mike Lee: I got several answers to this. The first thing is really, you have to start with the end in mind, you have to start with the vision in mind. If a player wants to be a better basketball player, what does that look like? Does that mean I want to play Division I college basketball? Do I want to make it to the NBA? Do I want to be an NBA All-Star? What is the vision? What are you trying to get to? Then you talked about breaking that down into the micro steps, the micro goals. What do I have to do daily, what do I have to do weekly, what do I have to do monthly, in order to move the needle towards bringing that vision to life?

I think lots of times we don’t get what we want out of life because we don’t know what we want. I think there’s a lot of power in really articulating a vision with clarity that we are emotionally connected to because those meaningful goals are what give us focus in the moment. I think going back to now talking about Steph and the arc of a career, I think a mistake that a lot of people make is that we focus so much on the championships and the titles and the top line and the quarterly goals and the yearly goals.

The challenge with that is we do things not because of actually achieving something. Every single thing that we do, we do because we’re trying to create a feeling. We’re trying to create a sense of fulfillment, if you really get to the root of it. When I hit that quarterly goal, when I hit that weekly goal, when I sell that million-dollar contract, when I win the NBA finals, what’s next? That feels great for 10 minutes. That feels great for an hour, maybe a day, a week at most, and then what’s next? You have to have something else that we’re going after.

I think the key is not to focus on the top line or the outcomes, but to focus on the pursuit of our human potential, whether it’s on the basketball court, whether that’s as a sales professional. Then when we get to a certain level where you know what? I won six NBA titles, I’ve been doing $5 million in sales a year for the past 10 years and that’s just not fulfilling anymore. What is fulfilling is then reverse engineering your process and taking that and teaching it to somebody else and I think that’s the next step of your career.

Fred Diamond: Mike, in the article you also talk about going one-and-oh. It’s an interesting idea. Again, I’m based here in the Washington DC area, you’re doing today’s show from Los Angeles. A couple years ago, the Washington Nats won the World Series and they were way behind in May. Then they had an unbelievable second half or second two-thirds of the season. David Martinez, the manager would always say, we’re going to win the day. Talk about that a little bit and how that sucked into the mindset of the elite basketball performers.

Mike Lee: I think it’s based around what we’ve been talking a lot about today and that’s just being able to lock in in the present moment. A lot of these are just mantras or they’re key phrases or teaching phrases that we can use to trigger ourselves to be back in the moment. This phrase I got from my college basketball coach. I remember him talking about it all the time. It was, we just want to go one-and-oh.

It’d be in a locker room before a game and maybe we were playing a team that we beat by 30 two weeks ago and we’re already looking ahead to playing the game a week from now where we got to play a team that’s number seven in the country. The truth is we can only be in the moment. The future isn’t here, the past is gone. We can only be in the moment. That was a phrase that he just used to help us lock into that game and focus on that day, that next 20 minutes, where we’re going to get out on the floor and compete. That’s the only thing that we could control at that moment.

Fred Diamond: I have a question about mindset. Again, we talked about Steph Curry and the Embiids, the elite players, if you will. Talk about a guy who’s maybe sixth best player on his team and he’s on the field, he’s on the court with Steph Curry. How does Steph Curry make that guy feel important knowing that he’s Steph Curry? I’m not talking about the Klay Thompsons and Draymond Greens of the world. I’m talking about maybe the guy who’s sixth, maybe he was a second-round draft pick but he’s on the court with Steph Curry. Talk about the mindset of that relationship.

The reason I ask that is we talk a lot about teamwork in the Institute for Excellence in Sales and on the Sales Game Changers podcast, teamwork comes up all the time. It’s been a challenge over the last 18 months because everybody is home still for the most part, and you’re not in the office, you’re not going out to lunch. Talk a little bit about how the elite performers interact with the players. I mean, they know. Steph Curry knows he’s the best player on the field and he knows there’s a couple other guys who are pretty darn good. But how does the interaction happen with the 6th, 7th, and 8th?

Mike Lee: That’s a tough thing in sports and in business is you got this elite guy, and how do we create this cohesion together? It goes back to what I was talking about before with guys being coachable. It really comes down to that communication and connection and trust and that personal relationship that people have. One thing that we used to do going back to college basketball was we used to do some things that had nothing to do with basketball. We used to go have a paintball day. We’d split up into teams, and we’d go and we compete and play.

Those type of activities really do translate to the court. It’s when you really have that depth and that connection that you can translate that into the work environment, onto the court. One thing that you can do right now in this virtual environment is we’re all trying to stay connected. We’re working with people that maybe we’ve never met face-to-face before. How do we deepen that connection beyond this virtual space? Beyond just seeing them on zoom or email or text?

One thing you can do is get out a blank card, stack 10 of them, 50 of them, whatever it is, and start writing out some letters of appreciation to the people that you are working with. Hey Bob, I love the energy that you’re bringing to the meetings, it’s great to have you on the team. Something like that where you’re giving them a specific sincere compliment.

I think the medium is so important. That note or that card that you send out, it has so much more weight and impact than you just sending them a text or an email like that. The fact that you had to pay, I don’t know what it is now, 49 cents for a stamp or whatever it is and the effort to go get a card and to write something out and put that in the mailbox. That has almost like a subconscious weight and depth and meaning to it that creates connection for people.

Fred Diamond: Mike, we have a question here comes in from Janelle. Janelle says, “How do the elite performers deal with distractions?” That’s an interesting question. Of course, we’ve all been distracted over the last 18 months. But when you’re on the basketball court, if you’re on the road, especially in a hostile environment, you’re exposed to 18,000 people. Not just that, but also, how do you deal with the distractions during the day when people are coming up to you begging you for autographs and yelling at you when you don’t give an autograph? Talk a little bit about how, especially in basketball, you’re right there, you’re two feet away from some fans who really shouldn’t be in the arena but that doesn’t really matter. How do you stay focused on the matter at hand and avoid those distractions?

Mike Lee: Janelle, awesome question. I studied Kobe Bryant a lot when I was deep into my basketball career on the court. He was a guy that I really studied a lot. I remember watching the Lakers play the Hornets back in I think 2012 or something like that. Kobe could not hit a shot. Got into the paint miss, layup miss, wide open three miss, couldn’t hit anything. It got to be about the end of the fourth quarter, there’s 22 seconds left, Kobe was over seven from the three point line and two for 20 from the field.

Kobe had the ball in his hands and an ISO situation left wing, he went at his defender, got him to backup, and he rose up over the top of his defender to hit a three to put the Lakers up by one and they went on to win a game. What we can learn from that is Kobe’s attention wasn’t in the past. He wasn’t thinking about the 18 shots that he had missed. His attention wasn’t in the future, he wasn’t worrying about miss having the ball in his hands and missing a game-winning shot. He had his attention and his energy just locked into the present moment.

When you watch Kobe play, nobody ever sped him up. Nobody dictated what he did on the court. Even the Bruce Bowens and the Shane Battiers and these guys that would be super physical with him, they never sped him up. They never made him do something that he didn’t want to do on the court. He was always playing from that place of being centered and grounded on the court. To casual observer or somebody watching on Sports Center, they would tell you, “Well, this is talent. Kobe is so talented.”

But the truth is Kobe trained his mind, just like he trained his body and his skills every single day through a daily mindfulness meditation practice. What mindfulness can do is really, it’s the equivalent of exercise to our body. When we have a consistent mindfulness practice, just like when you go on a lifting program, you see the physical evidence of change in your body. When you have a mindfulness practice there are area of your brain that actually change, areas that are associated with your focus and self-awareness, your decision making, that area actually grows and gets a little bit bigger.

There’s an area at the base of your brain called the amygdala that’s responsible for your fight, flight or freeze response. That area actually shrinks, so we’re less reactive to stress, we’re less reactive to distractions in our environment. Kobe would use his breath to anchor himself into the present moment so that he could lock in on the task at hand. You look at where elite performance is going and that’s a component of it.

The NBA signed a contract with Headspace, which is the biggest provider of mindfulness practices and exercise in the world. They signed a contract with the NBA for a reason. It is a big thing and it’s a thing to number one, improve your performance, but also improve your overall well-being and I think they go hand in hand.

Fred Diamond: We’ll have some links on the show page to an e-book that Mike has available for you that you can download, correct?

Mike Lee: Yeah, you can grab a copy of it. It’s actually a new book that I’m writing. I’m giving it away for free before it gets published. You can grab that at mindshiftlabs.com/performance. I have stories about Steph, Joel Embiid, Kobe, some different guys that I’ve worked with and how you can apply that to your own professional life.

Fred Diamond: Before I break here, I got to ask you a question. I ask this to all the elite sports people we have. Who’s your favorite player of all time?

Mike Lee: Oh, my God, depends on how old I was. I loved Jordan. As a kid I fell in love with the Bulls when they played the Lakers in the ’91 NBA finals. It varied a lot. I would say the most enjoyable player to watch has been the kids that I’ve worked with, that have gone on to play in NCAA, NBA. Just watching them and their journey and seeing some of these kids hit game winning shots in the NCAA tournament, that’s been the most enjoyable.

Fred Diamond: Mike, I just want to acknowledge you. The work that you’ve done has been phenomenal. You’ve helped not just basketball players, but I know you do a lot of work now with sales organizations, which is how we got in touch with you and you’re helping them understand their mindset. We devoted a show every Thursday called the Optimal Sales Mindset, because we believe it’s so critical for your sales success.

Just want to acknowledge you for so many of the lives that you’ve touched in your basketball world and also now in the business and the sales world, so kudos to you. As we end every Sales Game Changers webcast and podcast, give us one final action step. You’ve given us so many great ideas. How to focus on the present, how to stay grounded, how to prepare with things like mindfulness and meditation. But give us one thing specifically that people can do right now as we end the webcast or as they finish listening to the podcast.

Mike Lee: I’m actually going to use this as an opportunity to repeat what I said at the beginning and that is, go deep into that belief that you are more than an athlete, more than a sales professional. I think it is something that can be a foundational element of your performance and it’s something that’s super important. I think if you can leave here and figure out a way to build some legs for you to believe in that and adopt that belief, it’s going to take you a long way, and it’s going to impact you beyond the sales arena.

Fred Diamond: Now, that’s really powerful. We talk a lot about that, about gratitude practices and giving back. We’ve actually done some shows just on giving back and not just from a perspective of networking with people. I’ll tell you right now, anybody who’s listening to today’s webcast, or listening to this as a podcast, or has found out about this on LinkedIn, I’m going to tell you right now, your lives are better than 99% of the planet. How do you become more of a complete person? How do you give back? How do you help somebody else? How do you pay it forward? All those types of things. Mike Lee, congratulations, and thank you for all the great insights you shared today.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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