The Importance of Emotional Fitness: What Leaders Can Learn from Odell Beckham

Odell Beckham, Jr. is a superstar athlete who dazzles the world with his dramatic and unpredictable one-handed catches, which seem like impossible feats that test the laws of physics. He has the gracefulness of a ballet dancer, the speed of a sprinter, and the strength of men twice his size. He is a once-in-a-generation phenomenon who has captured the imagination of NFL fans.

But recently, the story about Beckham has moved from his amazing physical abilities to a new storyline about his emotional state. Late last season, Beckham imploded in the game against the Carolina Panthers demonstrating fits of rage and, eventually, he received a one game suspension. Now, this season his displays of anger have led to several unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, frustrations from his teammates, and interviews suggesting that he feels targeted. Beckham is missing an essential trait, without which he may never achieve the status of Super Bowl champion and MVP. Beckham lacks emotional fitness, a quality more important than his physical capabilities.

In professional sports, the difference physically between one athlete and another is actually pretty minuscule. To be at that level, all professional athletes must be incredibly physically fit. While one may be a bit faster than another in a race toward the end zone, or stronger than another when they want to wrestle the ball away, what really differentiates super athletes who win championships from the rest of the crowd is emotional fitness.

I am an avid tennis player and fan. It always amazes me when a tennis star makes a huge error that costs her some big opportunity or puts her back against the wall, and she is still able to stand strong, be resilient, and play at her very best. Being stable and self-aware, especially in the face of adversity, creates a positive mindset that allows you to create opportunity. These qualities avoid a situation where a competitor can get into your head and dictate your play. Those who lack emotional fitness are more apt to commit unforced errors, which makes losing the game far more likely.

Our emotional fitness is exemplified by the way we play the game, or in other words, the way we conduct ourselves when facing competition. As an executive coach, I often work with leaders in organizations to help them demonstrate the type of emotional fitness that can make them win at work and create a positive experience for those who team with them.

What are the marks of emotional fitness for a business executive?

1) Being Self-aware - The emotionally-fit executive knows how others see them. This helps the leader to adjust and manage their emotions in a manner that creates connectivity with others instead of distance.

2) Being Self-disciplined - When faced with really tough circumstances, even unfair ones, the emotionally-fit executive manages their behavior in order to create positive impact instead of detrimental impact. When they feel like they may be having an experience that I call "spin anxiety," where their emotions lead them to focus on the wrong things or become unproductive, they find ways to break the spin and move back to a more productive place.

3) Listening to Truth Tellers - We say that it's "lonely at the top" for a reason. Senior leaders can experience isolation when they are at the top of the organizational chart. Because of this, leaders often do not receive feedback on their behaviors, which leads them to some degree of uncertainty at times and the possibility of being in their own cocoon. They need to find and nurture truth tellers around them and listen to those folks, even if they don't like what they hear.

4) Getting Better - Leaders with emotional fitness know they need to keep improving if they are going to stay on top. Athletes try to sure up any weaknesses in their game. Leaders need to do the same.

5) Being Authentic - "Fake it to make it" strategies never work. If you are frazzled or off your game, just own it and manage it. Don't try to power through until you finally lose your cool or show signs of weakness. Instead, own your vulnerability and never blame it on others around you.

As a Giants fan, I would love to see Beckham work on his emotional fitness so it matches his physical abilities. He is a world-class athlete who has so much promise. The coaching staff needs to find a way to help and engage him.

For the rest of us trying to shine as leaders in our own settings while we build our technical competence and core skills, we should also be overtly committed to building emotional fitness.