Editor’s Note: Grace Ueng is CEO of Savvy Growth, a leadership coaching and management consultancy founded in 2003.  Her great passion to help leaders and the companies they run achieve their fullest potential combined with her empathy and ability to help leaders figure out their “why” is what clients value most.  Grace writes a regular column for WRAL TechWire. 


Extraordinary people visualize a future⁠—then they live into it.

When I met Paige Nielsen, former captain of UNC women’s soccer team and current professional player, and told her about my Project Peak and positive psychology work, she suggested I read two books her coaches assigned.  These are the books that have helped lead the wildly successful Tar Heels women’s soccer team, whose members have included Olympic gold medalist Mia Hamm, to 21 of the 40 NCAA national championships.

The first, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance, inspired one of my columns, A virtuous cycle: Confidence adds to happiness, and happiness adds to confidence!”. On my way back from a trip to Boston, I finished the second book the UNC coaches assigned, Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence by Gary Mack, a leading sports psychologist.  Here are my key takeaways from these excellent works.

Project Peak: Climbing the Mountains of Life, Business and Beyond

The Power of Visualization

In my TED talk on obstacles and entrepreneurship, I discuss the power of visualization. Athletic coaches use visualization of every detail in the “perfect” game to yield winning outcomes. Instead of looking at all the obstacles that become so big in our mind and inhibit us, visualizing success is powerful in moving us forward. A champion wins in her mind first⁠—then and only then, she plays the game. Mental skills become as important, if not more so, than physical skills, once you reach a certain level of competency.

I cite in my talk one of the dozens of research studies that validates the power of visualization and mental rehearsal. One interesting study involved college basketball players randomly assigned to three groups. For three months, Group 1 shot free throws for one hour each day. Group 2 spent an hour each day thinking about shooting free throws. Group 3 shot baskets thirty minutes a day and spent thirty minutes visualizing the ball going through the hoops from the foul line. Which group, at the end of the study, improved its free throw shooting the most? Group 3. The imagery had as much impact on accuracy as shooting baskets.

In another case, a sports psychologist who worked with the United States Olympic ski team divided the team into 2 groups. The first group received imagery training and the second served as a control group. When the coach realized the first group was improving more rapidly than those in the control, he called off the experiment and insisted all his skiers have the chance to train with imagery.

When we have a nightmare, we think it is real. The brain treats images in front of us as if they are real. When I was training for my first marathon, my trainer told me to make a poster “Grace, the Athlete” and post copies throughout my house. This is why I encourage participants in my workshops to “make a poster!” of a situational “dream” they have or of someone they greatly admire. By using this visualization, you can turn your dream into future reality.

A virtuous cycle: Confidence adds to happiness, and happiness adds to confidence!

Positive Mindset, Fear and Failure

Athletes know how critical it is to focus on the goal and to keep a positive mindset, putting forth best efforts to toss aside negative thoughts. The mind works most effectively when you’re telling it what to do rather than what not to do. Rather than say “Don’t hit the ball in the water,” try “Land the ball ten yards to the right of the pen.” You get what your mind sets.

Ken Ravizza, one of the first sports psychologists to publish a study of the “greatest moments” in the careers of athletes found that over 80% said in that moment, they felt no fear of failure. Rather than thinking about their performance, they were immersed in their activity and were “in the zone.” Fear of failure actually makes failure more likely.

In Project Peak workshops, I encourage channeling fear to your advantage. This is not easy. Our brain treats all images as real, and we stand ready to fight, flee or freeze. Fear makes you play safe. Fear makes you play small. Fear keeps you from taking risks. And sometimes the biggest risk is not to take a risk.

Tennis great Billie Jean King said “athletes should look at failure as feedback.” One CEO client told me he viewed feedback “as a gift for which you say thank you.” All-Star MLB pitcher Greg Maddux put it another way: “Failure is the best teacher in the world.” Failure can be a better teacher than winning.

Grace Ueng: A bias for action, and joy in the climb


In my Happiness journey, I have learned that perfectionism is not a good thing. Do you know how gemologists tell a fake emerald from a real one? The fakes are perfect. Real emeralds have flaws. None of us are perfect. Those I coach often share that they harbor an internal self-condemning, critical voice. We work hard through sessions, journaling, and discussing my observations and their reflections to release this. Often these voices stem back to negative parental comments from childhood.

The most important thing a parent can give a child is a positive self-image. Critical, condemning coaches or bosses who use fear and embarrassment injure a player’s or employee’s psychological health. I’ve seen CEOs that are let go as their behavior leads to toxic cultures that inevitably leads to poor business results. I’ve also enjoyed working with CEOs who exhibit the opposite behavior of positive engagement and encouragement that leads to flourishing of their employees and in turn, of the business.

Grace Ueng: Asking life’s important questions

Speak the Future Now

One of the themes of Project Peak is “speak the future now.” Michael Jordan said, “Julius Erving, Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, and MLK⁠—people I admire⁠—all created their own vision.”

Extraordinary people live their lives backward.

They create a future, and then they live into it.

Grace Ueng: The power of visualization, and how to channel your fear

More from Grace

Thumbs up: Empowerment and the three ingredients to be happy at work

From technology marketing leader to starting a new venture: Lessons from an entrepreneurial journey

From depression to gratitude and happiness – how a three-decade journey changed me