Business Breakthrough Thursdays

Episode 10 — Matt Phillips on Mental Toughness

November 19, 2020 David J Fionda
Business Breakthrough Thursdays
Episode 10 — Matt Phillips on Mental Toughness
Show Notes Transcript

In Episode 10 of Business Breakthrough Thursdays, mental toughness expert Matt Phillips speaks about the true business differentiator. Matt, a former pro athlete, helps business leaders transform their teams and crush their strategic goals. His focus is the one differentiator that makes the difference between business success and failure: mental toughness. 


  • What mental toughness is and why it is important 
  • How to build a strong team
  • Why fear is your friend
  • How to respond instead of react
  • What athletes can teach business leaders about perseverance and resiliency
  • How to apply the "film review" concept to address performance issues
  • How baseball can teach you to accept failure (a .300 batting average means you fail 7 out of 10 times)

The five elements of mental toughness, according to Matt, are:

  1. Confidence
  2. Focus
  3. Emotional control
  4. Energy
  5. Consistent actions

These five elements are instilled in athletes by their coach. Matt coaches business leaders to use these same five elements in their day-to-day lives to achieve success. He offers three big pieces of advice in the podcast:

  1. Belief in yourself trumps all other beliefs
  2. Be direct, and be blunt
  3. Take care of yourself first during your entrepreneurial journey

Matt Phillips is the Founder & CEO of Pro Athlete Advantage, and is regarded as one of the leading experts on human performance and mental toughness development in the world.  A former professional baseball player, Matt discovered that peak performance requires a dominant “inner game”. Using his Mental Toughness approach, Matt teaches business leaders and professional athletes how to systematically build their confidence, focus, emotional control, and energy so they can take their game to the next level. Matt counsels corporations on how to build high performance leaders and teams to crush their financial and strategic goals. His unique business model, a five-step process called "Ignite Your Mindset," is a mental toughness program that helps corporate teams and leaders increase their self-confidence so they take consistent action towards their goals, get laser-focused on hitting their numbers and results, master their emotions, and make sure they have high energy every day so they come to work to perform at the peak of their capabilities. 

David: Hey, good afternoon, everybody and welcome to Business Breakthrough Thursdays. I'm your host, David Fionda and today I have the pleasure of having Matt Phillips as my guest. Matt is a mental toughness expert and works with companies and works with business owners about how they can achieve mental toughness. I met Matt through another person who's on the podcast Tim Fitzpatrick, and he was a guest on Tim's podcast and I just found the whole concept of mental toughness to be really, really important. 

Matt is a former pro athlete pro baseball player and he helps business leaders and others transform their teams to crush their strategic goals and focus on the one differentiator that makes the difference between business success and not in his opinion is mental toughness and we'll kind of review that, As someone who's an athlete one of the things I did in my career was I actually completed the 190-mile Pan-Mass Challenge nine times at six foot six and 395 pounds. So, yeah, I find it interesting, but I also think that, especially in today's times, being mentally tough is really, really critical. There are so many obstacles today. The ground is shifting so quickly. There are so many things to consider and I just think that someone like Matt bringing that perspective on mental toughness really has some relevance today. So, welcome Matt.

Matt: Thanks for having me great to be here, David.

David: Yeah. Great. Great to have you, Matt. So, tell me a little bit about mental toughness. What is mental toughness and why is it important? Again, our audience, our technical owners, and founders who are looking to develop productivity, operational sales, marketing, finance skills. Why is mental toughness important today or in general in business?

Matt: Yeah, a couple of things. One is, I think as founders of companies, as business owners, like you just said, I mean, we're always dealing with uncertainty, with the unknown. There are some things in our control. There's a lot of things not in our control and that's where I believe this concept of mental toughness, having a strong mindset of being mentally and emotionally resilient really comes in. It's interesting when I explain what this concept means I actually always start with what it's not. One thing when I was growing up through the athletic ranks that I see in the corporate world, I see in kind of the entrepreneurial world as well. 

But what you're taught as an athlete is never show fear, never show weakness, never let your emotions get the best of you, and what's interesting to me, because I grew up with that same mentality. I was taught by coaches. I didn't have to show up that way, but it was translated more from, take those things and package them up Matt and then bury them deep and in a dark place where no one's ever going to find it. Don't let it out to see the light of day. So, now being in the position that I'm in, having played athletics at a fairly high level, had the opportunity to climb the corporate ladder at some great companies here in the United States, in Europe. and now own my own business, I take a different approach where I believe like fears are great. It might be fear of failure, fear of success, fear of what other people think of you, having a weakness, like not knowing something, letting your emotions get the best of you. 

Those are all fabulous things and the reason I say that is if you shift your perspective to all those things are just giving you a piece of data, a piece of information that then you can utilize to move past or through those things. That's the big difference. So, it's almost like quit burying these things. I always joke that males, we should have like a, a Ph.D., a doctorate in suppressing our emotions and suppressing our fears and self-doubt that we all have. Women are also very good at it, of course. But we're just, I don't know we're at the next level, that emotional barrier. But it's, hey, how do we let that out and how do we start dealing with these effectively? So, that's the big piece that I talk about all the way, that it's not hide it away, it's let it out and let's take action on that and do something different.

Aside from that, the way I describe it is there's really kind of these five elements, I always talk about. It's confidence, focus, emotional control, energy, and then consistent actions. So, if I wake up every single day focused on showing up as confident as I can, as focused on the right things, controlling my emotions, and channeling them into something that's going to move me forward. If I wake up with the most energy possible each day and carry through at a high level and if I focus on and commit to taking consistent action, that's, what's going to get me where I want to go in my business and my personal life. Literally, every area of life is affected by those things. 

So, that's the way I kind of define mental toughness and if you want to be a great leader, if you want to be a great founder it starts and ends with what's going on in your head, because if you want to motivate your team for example, but you're not confident in yourself, then you're not going to have the impact that you were put on this earth to make. If you're not confident in your ability to market, then you're not going to have the impact on marketing that you know, you can. So, it's working on that confidence piece as an example first, and then go market, then go motivate your team and it's an obviously back and forth kind of process, but we've got to start shifting our mindset around this kind of topic of mental toughness.

David: You're right. I, I love your point about, it's hard for you to go market if you're afraid of marketing. It's hard for you to go if you're not sure about your marketing or if you're not about your ability to lead. It's hard to go off and do these things and these are the things that hold us back. Tell me a little bit about how you... You've got a pretty impressive kind of corporate background. Tell me a little bit about how you got to this point. As a five-time entrepreneur, I'm always fascinated with the process people go through about starting a company. I'm always fascinated with that because I love that process. I absolutely love that process. I love just figuring out, seeing a need, and doing it. So, how did you come up with the whole idea for your company?

Matt: Yeah, I think at its base, I don't really like being told what to do and my wife would laugh if you heard me say that. But when I was in the corporate world there was always something in the back of my head that was bugging me. It constantly bugged me, and I knew there was something bigger. There was something greater. Again, very fortunate. I came up through audit with Ernst & Young now EY here in the United States. A three-year international assignment over in Switzerland, which was incredible, and then moved back to the States and worked in consulting for a bunch of Fortune 500 companies in operations and accounting. It was a great path, but there was always something in the back of my mind being like, but there's more. 

There are a bigger impact and people, we talk about what's your purpose and what were you put here to do? And I'm a big believer in that. I think we were each positioned here and put here for a certain reason to have an impact on these people that we surround ourselves with. I was always searching for that next thing and I'd go get the next job and I'd be happy for a couple of months and then all of a sudden that voice would crop up in the back of my head, but there's got to be something more. That was honestly David the voice I started paying attention to and what ultimately led me to launching Pro Athlete Advantage and when I was in the corporate world, and I think this is just because of my athletic career, I was always so focused on how I developed myself? How do I get to that next level? How do I motivate my team?

How do I bring them up, so I've got the strongest team? I'd be going to all these leadership classes. I mean, anything, they let me do, I'd go to at these companies. I distinctly remember sitting, I was working for a Fortune 500 company, and I went to this leadership class and I was with probably 30 other people from the company and there was this woman, her name's Naomi. She was standing up at the front and for some reason, it was so impactful. She's talking about leadership, teaching us about leadership, working through these exercises and I remember thinking, distinctly remember thinking that seems like a lot of fun. That's what I need to be doing and that was the start of me formulating what the next stage was going to be like. I actually sat about six months ago with Naomi and I told her about that moment and the impact that she had, that kind of catalyst for me to start this business.

So, that was really kind of the starting point of like, yes, I'm going to talk about leadership. I'm going to teach you about... I didn't know. I didn't know-how. I didn't know what it was going to look like. I didn't even know the topics I would discuss but it started me on this journey. Gosh, 11 plus years ago where I officially launched a company about eight and a half years ago now. For me, it was impacting a ton of people in this world and I believe I've been gifted with an ability to read people and just kind of read energy and really see what they're going through and help them kind of position and go through it. So, it's morphed over time but again, going back to what I know from athletics, I know from the corporate world, I know from entrepreneurship is the what's your differentiator. It's what's going on up here. So, if I can crawl in your head and pull out those things that are holding you back and give you the tools to kind of continue to move forward and stay consistent with it. It's amazing! That's what gets me fired up and riled up.

David: So, tell me a little bit about what don't business owners really struggle with many times, and how do you help them through it? Give me some examples again because I think that, I mean, any business owner at a baseline is mentally tough. They have to be.

Matt: Right. Yes.

David: Every business owner has the courage to escape whether it's an electrician or whether it's a corporate CEO or whether it's a 20-year-old engineer, they have the courage to escape the cocoon of a regular paycheck. I mean, that's the deal. I mean, it's like every two weeks I get paid, it's a regular paycheck. They have the courage to escape that because they believe that their vision like you did and like I did, that their vision is viable and going to be sustainable and they're going to enjoy doing it while they're doing it. So, they've got to be mentally tough to start with. I mean, you start a business and started five of them. It's not easy. No, no, no, pivot, pivot, pivot, pivot. So, it's not easy. So, they've got to be mentally tough to start with. That's at a baseline, but then again, I agree, the business owners I work with, I also do some mentoring and coaching with the MassChallenge Startup Competition.

A lot of the business owners I work with they do stand in their own way and they don't see kind of what the possibilities are. I had someone I was mentoring, and he was a technical founder, finance background, and his company had done a whole bunch of great things, but he kept focusing on the things they hadn't done, and  I said you need to focus on what you have done. So, give me just a couple of examples of where business owners struggle and kind of help how you helped them through it.

Matt: Yeah. I'll give you two examples that are really, really fresh. Actually, I have conversations this week and I always have conversations about these couple of things. The first one is really around the emotional piece of running a business because listen, we get into these businesses because we have some emotional pull where we feel that excitement, we feel that joy, we feel that happiness, that kind of draws us towards these opportunities. There are ups and downs that happen all throughout the day sometimes moments that we have to deal with. One thing I find with founders and business owners, especially is if they're not careful, and this is true of me as well, this is true for everybody. If we're not careful about how we react to those emotions, that can really derail us for potentially a really long time.

So, when I talk about something going wrong and it's really around anger and frustration. These feelings of being overwhelmed they cause this emotional reaction in us and maybe somebody, one of our employees says something to us, maybe a client says something, but whatever the situation is, maybe technology goes haywire as it does. It's all about how we control that emotional reaction. So, what I see happen a lot is that that frustration and anger take over, and then all of a sudden it starts as a vicious downward cycle of not moving yourself or the business forward.  It stops progress. It pauses it. So, it's understanding and learning like this one guy I was working with down in Florida and still continue to. Him dealing with his team around him. He was super frustrated by the whole thing.

Well, that would lead him to not doing anything and that's a massive problem because he has a massive impact on the organization. So, it was helping him reframe. Okay, become aware of where your emotion is, adversity is coming. It's not going away. But when we talk about being mentally tough work, we're closing the time gap from getting off track to getting back on. So, those things that used to derail you for five days, as you train, as you learn, as you grow, that becomes five hours, and then it becomes five minutes, then it becomes five seconds. 

So, it's understanding oh, I'm having this emotional reaction. What do I want to do with it right now? What, what am I willing to do? How am I going to reset? Do I need to call someone? Do I need to write something down? Do I need to pump up myself? Whatever it is, ready to go on a run. What do I need to do to reset as quick as I can right now to get the train back on the tracks moving forward? So, that's a big thing with founders and business owners and frankly, anyone, that emotional control piece. I talked to them a lot about that. I'm super frustrated by this and I do all this. I'm overwhelmed here. How do we kind of reset that emotionally? 

David: It's kind of like losing a game. It's kind of like losing a game. A lot of people try to dwell on these things. They're conditioned from school to whatever. Once sometimes teachers make an assessment of the kinds of students you are, they constantly hammer that tin. He can't move on from that  and I mean, great coaches they go look at games over. It's done. We're moving on here. I think it's great that you work with business owners too. I mean, I'm a business owner too. We do dwell on these things and also you're talking about that kind of reactivity. I'm Italian so my natural reaction is that in my family, I got a bunch of crazy... Love my family, a bunch of crazy Italians, they go off and the journey that I've had is to be able to manage that reactivity and to be able to not go off and really say something that you really don't want to say is to take. It's like anything else. I like working in small teams because I found out pretty early I don't like managing a lot of people. Not that I'm not good at it. I am, but I just don't like it. So, I think what you're saying about helping them manage that reactivity, but also turning the page. I tried this strategy; it was a failure. Okay, let's move on to the next strategy. Try...

Matt: Interesting.

David: Talk about that process of kind of what happens when the mental toughness process of let's take a scenario. I've taken something, it failed miserably. What does a business owner or founder naturally do and what do you help them do?

Matt: Yeah. So, what they will naturally do in that case is over-analyze the entire thing thinking from the start how they should have done it, how they could have reworked it. How they should have done this, should have done that, which ultimately then leads to self-judgment, and then all of a sudden we're not good enough and we start going down this rabbit hole. We've all been in that vicious cycle. What I help them do is to take a step back. There's a concept in athletics called film review. 

Every sport has some equivalent of film review. I helped them do that of, hey, let's take a step back. Let's put the movie up. Let's watch what happens real quick. We're going to assess what happens. We're going to figure out what went well, what went wrong, what adjustments possibly we can make going forward. Then I'm going to stop the tape. I'm going to burn the tape and then we're going to take what we learned and let's go move forward and let's apply it over here. It's that simple in its kind of highest form that let's take a step back and look at the facts of what happened and gauge what we need to learn and then let's use that as fuel to move forward.

That's really what I help do in that case. Just like me watching my baseball swing and understanding what I need to learn so that I cannot sit there and watch it over and over and over again, but that I can go mentally do reps and then also go physically hit the baseball to improve upon that. It's the same thing in business of how do we apply what we learned. That's really simply kind of what I do and how I help them move forward.

David: What position did you play in baseball? Outfielder?

Matt: No, I was shortstop second base in high school, third base and college, and then shortstop overseas. 

David: Oh, cool. Cool. 

Matt: Yeah, I'm a natural middle infielder.

David: But you're the guy, because if you don't do your job... You're the pivotal person in the infield as a shortstop correct?

Matt: Yes, yes. Yeah, the middle of the field. So, you start with the catcher and then obviously the pitcher and you have the middle infielders, mainly shortstop and then center fielder, that's seen as kind of the leaders of the field. I mean, we're orchestrating things. We're, I guess, the quarterbacks of football if you compare it to football. So again, always communicating, always moving, always shaking making sure we know the situation, and taking on that leadership role. Absolutely.

David: It's funny because when you look at athletes, I think who the leaders of the team are in football, you said, it's the quarterback. In baseball is a shortstop. In basketball is the point guard. I coach basketball, it's the point guard and it's funny. Looking at your size, I'm like, well, he looks like an outfielder, but you have the mentality of a shortstop because you get that they have to be natural leaders because everybody looks to them. You talked a little bit about how you train people and how you get them to look at game film and that's a great metaphor. It really is because I remember one time, I can't remember if it was Belichick or somebody else. They had such a horrible game. No, maybe it was Al Gross. They physically dug a hole in the back of the practice field and buried the game tape.  They physically dug a hole, put the game tape in it, and put it over. I love that metaphor of game tape allows you to objectively assess. 

Matt: Yes. 

David: Because too often the emotions come in. What's the biggest driver of an entrepreneur, of a business owner? What is the biggest driver in your opinion of an entrepreneur or a business owner? What drives them forward every day?

Matt: I believe that truly it's they know the impact that they can have, and that's what drives them forward every day. That they can be successful, they will be successful and there's just this kind of inner drive to find out what's possible and this kind of belief they can change the world and have an impact. I see that, that's true of myself. I have a journal that I write in often and, and there's a couple of pages in there that are static pages, so they never change. It's focused on what I call my stand and it's something I read every day, but it's what are the principles and values and actions and behaviors and reactions defining my daily decisions. It's kind of putting out there who I want to be and the impact I want to make but focused on taking action. 

I've got another document that I read which I wrote out why I need to achieve my goals. Why must I achieve my goals? A lot of that for me is grounded in my faith, it's grounded in me watching my father go through a two-year battle with cancer that unfortunately, he lost that battle. But watching him have such a positive impact on people while he went through that and knowing that, for me, and I know this is true of entrepreneurs. I'm like let's figure out what's possible. Let's launch this. Let's find out what's inside. I describe it like there are business owners, there are founders, there's also entrepreneurial-minded people. Financial advisors, insurance producers, there are people out there building books of business, building businesses. They all have that drive of I want to find out what's possible and it's that at its core level. That's what gets people fired up and excited and gives them the staying power to stay in it, especially when it gets tough.

David: What about fear? What about fear as a motivator? I know personally if the fear of failure is a motivator. What do you think about fear as a fuel to drive entrepreneurs and business owners?

Matt: I think fear is a great thing if channeled and connected to the right thing. So, I played the game based on failure. Baseball, you fail seven out of 10 times and that means you're a 300 hitter and if you're at the highest level, you'll probably be standing in the Hall of Fame or get elected to that. But that fear of failure even though I played a game based on it, I construed it the wrong way. So, the reason I got into baseball is because I loved it. It was fun. I got to hang out with other people. We got to come together as a team and try to win. That's the important thing. So, there's this disconnect between fear and what your ultimate driver is. 

So, when you focus so much on the fear of I don't want to fail, I don't want to fail. I don't want to fail. It's like, yeah, I don't want to fail either and I know I can have an impact here, so I'm going to wake up and expect greatness to the evidence, amazing things to happen. I'm going to expect deals to close. I'm going to expect that we make amazing progress on this and I'm going to continue to take the steps forward because that's what's most important. That's the connection that we need to make and that's the connection that's often broken is where we stay in the fear instead of taking that fear and translating into like, no, let's look at the greatness. Let's look at the opportunity and get our brain... If you look at the neuroscience behind it, if we get our brain focused on looking for those great things, instead of focusing on the failure, great things show up because we're treating our brain a very specific way.

So, fear is great. Just channel it to be better connected to why you got into this in the first place. Otherwise, it's going to be a painful journey, painful journey. I'll tell you when you're standing up with a play and you've gone like one for two. You got one hit at two at-bats and this is what I used to do, and this is what I've learned. I don't do this anymore. If I am standing up for that third time well, if I get a hit then my batting average is 667 because I get two out of three. If I don't get a hit, my average is only 333 one out of three. So, I mean come on, I used to over-analyze this stuff instead of looking at it like, man, this is fun. How can I help my team now? How can I put the fat part of the bat on the ball and see where it goes. That's the only thing I can control in the situation. I've got to shift that mindset from fear-based to my batting average is going to low. Oh, goodness sake, they're going to take me off the field to, hey, let's go have some fun. Let's make an impact. Let's try to help the team win here.

David: That's great. It is about channeling. It is about the ability to channel. So, you know, as we wrap up here Matt. If you had to give our listeners three pieces of advice about how they can use some semblance of mental toughness to be more successful, what would the three tidbits of advice be?

Matt: Yes. First, your self-belief should take precedence over everything else that you do. A high self-belief, I'm not talking cockiness, I'm talking confidence. A high self-confidence level will lead you to amazing heights in your business and in your personal life. So, understand that you are enough, that you are great, that you were put here for a reason, and you need to tell yourself that over and over and over again. If you don't believe it, you need to start believing it. That's key. Build up that self-confidence. 

The second piece of advice is to be pretty blunt, cut the BS with what you're doing on a daily basis. What's most important, meaning what is going to drive your business forward? I see a lot of business owners; I get caught in this sometimes. I'm much better becoming aware of it, but we distract ourselves with the things that maybe are a little more fun, a little more exciting. Maybe we enjoy a little bit more, but might not necessarily drive the business forward. I had this exact conversation yesterday with someone who was designing this co-working space and my first comment was like, oh, well, that's nice, but how are sales coming right now, and have you made those calls? What is going to move the needle? Because when you move the needle and the cash comes in and the sales happen and I mean that's when it becomes fun because that opens up your possibility to do lots of other things. That's number two. 

Number three, let's see, where do I want to go with this one? Number three, I'm going to go a little, maybe different than you thought. You need to take care of yourself on the journey. One of our elements of our definition of mental toughness is energy. So, I want to show up with a high amount of energy and when you were sitting across from someone when you're on a Zoom call with someone when you're sitting next to someone, if you have more energy than that person, your chance of success goes up significantly but you have to take care of yourself along this journey. So, it is about what you eat. It's about sleeping. It's about taking time to recover during the day and take care of yourself because it takes a lot of energy to run a business, to start a business, to grow a business. It takes a lot of energy to focus on the most important thing, which is your loved ones you have around you. So, take care of yourself along the journey, because that's all that really matters.

David: Matt, three great pieces of advice, very, very helpful and we've really enjoyed having you on our podcast today. It's been really insightful to hear you talk about how you've kind of translated your experience as a pro athlete into a way to help business owners. I think that a lot of times business owners focus on I need more sales. I need more leads. I need more people but really at the end of the day business owners if they listen to your three pearls of advice, which is focusing on the greater good, taking care of yourself...

Matt: Yes.

David: ...and paying attention to what's important. That part of it gets ignored. That's something you have to turn inward...

Matt: Yes.

David: ...and people have trouble with that. So, I hope that folks got a little knowledge. Really enjoyed having you, Matt. Thanks for being a guest on the Business Breakthrough Thursday Podcast and we hope to have you on again soon.

Matt: Thanks, so much David.