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In Basketball and Business, What Separates Winners and Losers?

Little things make a difference, so you need to prepare yourself well.
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In NCAA's March Madness, just 68 teams out of 346 earn spots in the tournament. It culminates with the Final Four on April 5, and a national champion is crowned just 48 hours later. The business world is a 365-day-a-year version of March Madness: intense competition, lots of losers, very few winners and one champion in every industry. Both are a game of inches where little things make a big difference.

Whether it’s college basketball, business or any kind of performance, there is something the best do that separates them from the rest. In the NCAA tournament, it’s the difference between advancing to the next round or a loss that brings your season to a disappointing end.

Related: March Madness Wisdom: Scoring Under Pressure

Does the difference between winning a championship and losing in the first round boil down to physical talent? Usually it doesn’t. Everyone that makes it to the tournament is talented. Success often boils down to which team makes the fewest mental errors. Rest assured, championship-caliber teams train in that area. The also-rans, on the other hand, put in years of physical training but little to no mental training.

Whether you’re a corporate athlete or a college athlete, mental mistakes tend to happen most often under pressure. Some famous (and costly) NCAA tournament mental errors include calling time out when your team has none remaining, fouling when you shouldn’t, being caught out of position on the final play and missing critical free throws you’ve hit hundreds of times in other games. This is the reason it’s called March Madness.

The best teams treat the NCAA tournament games as important, but not special, regardless of the fact that it’s “one and done.” The entrepreneur should treat pitching their idea to the “big investor” the same way. The sales person should treat that “big meeting” with a prospective client like it is important, not special.

Related: 5 Hiring Lessons From March Madness

Accompany your physical training with the right mental approach and you will win the important events in your life. The key is not to over-judge things or events. Bring your best and let your performance take care of the rest.

In his locus of control research, psychologist Julian Rotter found that 78 percent of people allow something outside of themselves to decide what they think and feel. That means eight out of 10 people are outwardly focused, meaning they take in information, judge it and allow something external to dictate their mood, thoughts and focus. The best, that other 20 percent, have an internal locus of control, meaning they believe events in their life are caused by controllable factors such as attitude, preparation and effort. Losers lose because they do precisely what Rotter discovered -- they have an external locus of control. They allow something outside themselves to make the event to become “special.”

With that label of special comes heavy thoughts and feelings: apprehension, nerves and thoughts of “what if.” These thoughts can weigh you down, and a heavy mind equals a slow body. NCAA tournament teams are doomed to fail on the big stage under the bright lights if they've only put in significant physical preparation yet zero mental preparation. The same can be said for a lot of competitors in the business arena. Years of physical training and product knowledge but zero mental preparation will leave you lacking in the one factor that separates the best from the rest.

Before your next meeting, acknowledge it as important, but not special. Remember, it’s just a game.

Related: The 9 P's to Prepare for Pitching Panic