As many of you probably know from reading my articles and blogs over the years, I’m a long-time volleyball player. Not that I’m an “A+” player, mind you… At 5’9”, I’m not exactly spiking the ball over people. But whatever the outcome, I do love getting out there and running around with my Sunday group of drop-in volleyballers in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

Over my 20 years of v-ball Sundays, I’ve been repeatedly astonished by how uncannily the game parallels life and, most particularly, the psycho-social dynamics in the workplace. Take for example the topic of motivation. As I see it, there are three types of players on the volleyball court at any one time, namely:

The Recreationist

The Competitor

The Glory Hog

The Recreationist’s motivation is merely to get outside, grab a little exercise and enjoy socializing with other players. Improving her skills or achieving the “thrill of victory” is of relatively low priority for this kind of person: just being out in the park, running around and shooting the breeze with folks is more than enough to satisfy a Recreationist.

The Competitor’s goal is more aggressive, ie. “Just win baby!” A successful day for a Competitor is comprised of a series of winning matches, all of them delivering a delicious release of adrenaline. Losing is simply an unacceptable outcome – just a bad, bad day in the park.

The Glory Hog cares little about socializing, getting in shape, or even winning. His aim is basically to be the star player, the hero. In volleyball, that often translates to hitting lots of un-returnable spikes. Unlike the Competitor, who knows his winning high is dependent on his whole team playing together as one, the Glory Hog is mainly concerned with his own, individual ego boost. As long as he hits his shots and secures his moments of heroism, who cares if the team wins or loses?

Does this any of this sound familiar to you? Who in your office is just happy to be hanging out and socializing? Who is the hyper-competitive team member, the one who sees life as a battle to win? And who is the prima donna, caring only about increasing his own status? My guess is that you could peg all three personality types in your office after only one game of watching your co-workers behave on a volleyball court. (Hmm, what a good interview practice that might be!)

My point is that at work and at play, people show up with agendas. Of the three “volleyball personalities” mentioned above, only the Recreationist has control of her own experience. As long as people are willing to talk with her (not always a given, but usually so), she can enjoy her afternoon. By contrast, the Competitor needs participation and effort from the whole team in order to get that winner’s high. And the Glory Hog has it worse; if people don’t set him well, he can’t hit his spikes and grab the hero’s medal.

Whenever you come into a situation with an agenda that relies on the performance of others, you’re putting yourself into a difficult spot; with other people involved, there’s simply no way to assure that you’re going to get what you came for. But what if you shifted your perspective, from outside to inside? What if you treated each volleyball afternoon, each day at work, each 24 hours on the planet as a series of self-determined opportunities? Here’s how this might work:

Opportunity #1: No matter what happens today, I can always work on something new …whether it’s a new skill, a new technique, or a new way of talking/listening to people

Opportunity #2: No matter what happens today, I can always practice and improve on an existing skill or ability.

Opportunity #3: No matter what happens today, I can always learn something about myself and the world.

The beauty of the “Three Opportunities” is their flexibility.

Let’s say you’re on the volleyball court and your team is continually losing. No problem –you shift your attention to that new spiking motion you saw on YouTube.

Or let’s say you’re not getting set consistently for spikes. Not a big deal; you focus, instead, on improving your current footwork and passing, or perhaps your communication and leadership skills.

Or how about if you’re just having one of those uncoordinated, two-left-feet sort of days, and nothing is going right. Easy. You transfer you attention away from physical performance to emotional mastery, learning more about the nature of your own negative self talk, and how you might counter it.

How might your life be different if you said to yourself every morning:

“Today I refuse to dwell on my mistakes, errors, or frustrated ambitions. No matter what life throws at me, today I will see only opportunities and celebration. The goal for today is to try new things, refine old skills, and learn as much as I can about myself, others and the world. And that will be a great day guaranteed.”

That sounds like a big volleyball spike of a day to me, something you can control no matter what happens. Give it a try! It may just change your life.

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