There are some clear parallels between how athletes and business leaders should prepare for optimum performance, says Olympian and businesswoman Alison Gill
Following the success of the 2012 Olympic Games and with a summer of superb annual international sporting events nearing a close, it’s a great time to remind ourselves of the lessons from sport which can translate to improved performance in business. There are some obvious – and also some more subtle – parallels to be drawn between how an athlete and a business person should prepare for optimum performance.
Both sport and business require the development of technical skill. For a sports person, it might be the ability to run fast; for a business person, to spot a gap in the market before others see it. Both activities require preparation, planning and practice. Both require mental and physical resilience to enable individuals to perform consistently at a high level over a sustained period of time.
This requires a holistic view of the factors necessary for high performance and a need to develop the body and the mind to be resilient, cope effectively with pressure and be in a state of resourcefulness for the greatest length of time possible. With this holistic view of performance in mind, both sports people and business leaders should call on experts to support them with certain aspects of their performance. One example here is the coach. The athlete and coach relationship has success- fully crossed the boundary from sport to business. The focus on tennis player Andy Murray’s choice of coach in the run up to Wimbledon 2014 showed just how important this relationship is. Just a few years ago, having a coach could be seen as a sign of weakness, but over the past decade or so, this relationship has increasingly been emulated by senior business people.
Having worked with leaders in both realms, I have come to realize that there is much knowledge to be transferred both ways. Increasingly, I can see that there are three lessons that are key to both. The first is to train the brain; the second is that physiology underpins how you think, feel and behave, and, finally, that practice does indeed make perfect. High performance in both realms requires strategic planning.
Train the brain
The brain is a powerful weapon and many of its secrets are still unknown. Self-awareness is a prerequisite; there is no room for Imposter Syndrome as coined by Pauline Clance in her book or self-doubt in sport.
Athletes don’t just set goals; they know why their goals matter, so that when the going gets tough, they can sustain the motivation and energy toward the goal. They use positive words, affirmations and mantras that they write everywhere (often in indelible ink on the body in races), so that they are never far from sight. They keep a bank of positive memories, testing themselves again and again, and using those positive memories to remind themselves of their ability to cope. They practise visualization – using every sensory mechanism to see, hear and feel when they are at their best, and they channel their energy, focusing on the here and now, the next manageable chunk, ticking off each step or stroke, so that the end goal always gets closer and is never allowed to feel too remote or too impossible to achieve. In short, they train the brain.
Mental resilience, the ability to focus on what is important and to deal with pressure in the run-up to an important event, are all essential. Dr Steve Peters is the psychiatrist who worked with Olympic gold medal winning cyclists Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton in the run-up to the London 2012 Games. Peters has developed what he describes as a mind-management programme, known as the “Chimp Paradox”. An individual’s emotional, irrational side is depicted as the chimp and there is a constant struggle between the rational side of the individual and the doubting, confusing, hijacking chimp. Optimum performance requires a thorough understanding of what is going on in one’s head and an ability to manage the chimp, particularly during important competitions and races.
Arguably, sports people are more advanced than business people at not only recognizing that thoughts, feelings, emotions and distractions exist, but also in developing and implementing tools and techniques to move to the right state for high performance.
Get the physiology right
In both worlds, sport and business, there are some tough truths to face with regard to physiology, body shape and developing physical performance capacity. There is a myth that surrounds athletic performance about the ability to consume as much food as one needs. Yet most athletes, despite a ruthless training regime, must learn to watch what they eat and drink carefully. Optimizing hydration and nutrition is vital to performance success.
Research from the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, by R J Maughan, has shown that even modest levels of dehydration of only 1-2% of body mass can cause alertness and concentration levels to decline significantly. Hydration is taken so seriously in sport that individuals always have a water bottle close to hand and urine is tested daily to ensure that fluid intake is meeting the individual’s requirements.
According to Olympic rowing medal- list Alison Mowbray, athletes must also learn the significance of different food types that help them to perform; a milk- shake straight after weight training; 50 grams of carbohydrate consumed within 30 minutes of a training session; half of what we eat should be fruit and vegetable; eat low Glycaemic Index (GI) foods. These simple rules enable athletes to learn what their body needs to optimize energy levels and concentration. Athletes know that physiology fundamentally underpins how you think, feel and behave. Food and drink are fuels rather than just a response to hunger. The most likely lunchtime food to see when wandering around any business district is still the sandwich, a high GI choice that will leave the individual full of energy for a while, before plummeting into a trough of lethargy. Prolonged high performance requires energy levels to be moderated across the course of the day and business people should think of their food choices as fuel rather than just something to fill the hunger gap.
It is commonplace for sports people to see both a physiotherapist and a medic for prevention, as well as cure. Business people should think of ways of using medical support to minimize the risk of injury and illness, with particular regards to managing the effects of long periods of time sitting at a desk using a computer, such as repetitive strain injury and back problems.
Practice makes perfect
In sport, there is as much, if not more, emphasis on practice as there is on performance. This practice is not limited to technical practice, but also to the more behavioural elements of performing – teamwork, communication, problem-solving, innovation and race tactics. To change performance, you must change behaviour. Behaviour is how we do things: how we communicate, how we interact and how we focus. Doing things differently to improve performance is the work of the athlete and coach partnership.
The athlete and coach use a training diary – a databank that is used to record goals, required technical, behavioural, mental, physiological and biological enhancements, and to channel practice to the areas that need most attention. The athlete and coach are focused on a multilayered approach, working daily. Mastering the relationship between how the body is fuelled and what the athletes feels, thinks and does is the work of a great coach.
Routines are an important aspect of the athlete’s day. The race day routine, for example, involves getting up at a certain time, eating a particular type of food, consuming a certain amount of drink and warming up in a certain way. Routine is a method that enables the athlete and coach to know how the athlete wants to feel, think and act. The routine is a backbone from which to experiment and learn more about oneself. Breathing and relaxation techniques can be used to control heart rate, for example, while affirmations and mantras can be used to dispel negative thoughts and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Minor changes in routine are used to study and practice raising the performance bar.
How does this relate to business? Well, think about delivering a presentation to a large audience, negotiating a complex deal or leading on strategy development. The leaders who complain that they find these difficult are really intent on maintaining amateur status. Very few skilled presenters, negotiators or strategists are “naturally” talented – they put in the hours of practice until they are good. The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance states that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert, not just mindless practising but 10,000 hours of deliberate practise, focused on performance improvement and adjusting your execution until you get closer to your goal.
Stand and deliver
In an increasingly complex and volatile business world, leaders bear a weight of responsibility to deliver. It is incredible what human beings are capable of achieving – whether it is scaling the highest peak, developing the next and greatest innovation or breaking a world record, it is the whole human that matters. To echo the words of four times World Champion and unbeaten iron man triathlete Chrissie Wellington, “our limits are never where we think they are”. Enlightened leaders in business and sport develop themselves and their organizations holistically.
Does “the team” stop at the coach, the psychiatrist, the physio and the nutritionist? Not according to most professional sports people whose support team would also include a manager, maybe a strategist or finishing coach, as well as friends and family who have the job of making the sports person’s life on the competition circuit as comfortable as possible.
In the same way, high performing business people need to spend time – and often money – managing their personal lives so that home is comfort- able, essential tasks completed and dependents well cared for. At an event run earlier this year by the Financial Times for non-executive directors, it was suggested that business women who are also mothers should allocate one-third of their income to expenses including house-keeping and childcare.
The changing demands of the leader in 2014 has led to focus on how to develop high-performing teams that can collaborate to solve complex problems, achieve results and be responsive to the changing needs of their organization. Business people can learn from their sporting counterparts by building teams that can offer them the type of holistic support required for high performance in a competitive, pressured world over a prolonged period of time. Better physiology, better emotional management and better behaviour lead to better decisions.
● Alison Gill is a psychologist, business woman and Olympian. She studied Experimental Psychology at Oxford. Having learnt to row at Oxford, she went on to row for Great Britain at three Olympic Games (1988, 1992 and 1996)
Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming the Fear that Haunts Your Success, Pauline R
Clance (1985), Peachtree Pubs
The Chimp Paradox: The Mind Manage ment Programme to Help You Achieve Success, Confidence and Happiness, Professor Steve Peters (2012), Vermillion
Impact of mild dehydration on wellness and on exercise performance, R J Maughan, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2003) 57, Suppl 2, S19–S23
Al’s Ten Guiding Principles for a Long and Active Life, Alison Mowbray (2014), Gold Medal Flapjack, Silver Medal Life.
The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, K Ericsson et al (2006), Cambridge University Press
A Life without Limits, Chrissie Wellington (2012), Constable, London