Sports and business are performed in vastly different physical environments, but there are massive similarities between them. Having spent time coaching both elite professional athletes and corporate leaders, I have seen success in both domains. The term I use for the business leaders I work with is “cognitive athlete,” as having an effective cognitive function is a key to their success.
Let’s first understand what the similarities are.
High stress and mentally demanding situations
A significant similarity between elite athletes and top business leaders is the physical and psychological demands their high-stress careers place on them.
In sport, winning is everything – with the margins between success and failure often being minuscule. Every year it’s easy to look back at significant tournaments and see success or failure in a single moment.
In the business world, high-stress situations, including presentations, meetings and negotiations — when done successfully — can result in huge benefits for the company and leader, ranging from reputation growth to share price increase and higher profit margins.
I often ask my business clients how they prepare for these critical moments. I’ve been researching the area of “flow” for some time. Flow is the term used to describe moments of peak performance. It was first bought to our attention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-American psychologist. In the academic field, it is defined as the “optimal state of consciousness in which you feel your best, and you perform your best”.
As a coach, our role is to support our athletes to get into this state of peak performance. In business, the same principles apply. As a leader, what have you done, or what are you going to do to put yourself in the right state in the face of important events?
Travel has long been associated with high-powered corporate careers. The extent to which this will change in our current situation is to be determined. However, a number of my cognitive athletes have already started to resume travel since lockdowns have been lifted. Humans love to interact, in person. Most of our communication is non-verbal, which simply doesn’t happen in quite the same way during an online meeting. This is one of the main reasons many office workers are feeling online meeting fatigue these days. We are using a lot more energy to interpret the reactions and ideas of our counterparts on the other side of the screen.
Elite athletes are required to travel hundreds of thousands of miles during the year. Competition, training camps, media events, presentations, negotiations and visits come with the job.
However, there is a vast difference in how this travel is done between these two types of athletes. Jetlag planning is an area of vital importance in performance. Planning helps to reduce the adverse effects of travel and changes in time zones. One of the most significant points is ensuring that the sports athlete has enough time to mitigate these effects.
This is not the case for cognitive athletes. They are expected to perform in close time proximity to landing at their destination, often within a couple of hours before hopping on a plane again to their next destination. One of the best ways to help with this process is to time shift. Time shifting is a small process of adjusting your body clock to the time zone you are going to perform in. So either going to bed earlier or later, make sure that you are getting the right amount of restorative sleep. Simple shifts of 15 mins per day, can have a significant impact.
Being an individual in a team
We are all different. In both sport and business, we need to work as a team to achieve a goal consistently. Therefore it is hugely important to understand people and what helps them. Peak performance is a whole picture. What happens outside the office and training ground has an enormous impact on achievement. For example, how much sleep you are getting, how positive the relationships are outside of work and sports and what other issues are going on that might affect your performance.
Consistency is key
The best performers are the most consistent. Success is not a one-off event; it is small achievements, repeated over time. Athletes that are available to train and play regularly are the ones that succeed. “The best ability is available”. Business is no different. Being healthy and fit allows you to perform consistently and have a higher cognitive function. As Socrates said, “Better to do a little well than a great deal badly”.
The need for recovery
Recovery is an area that the business environment does not appreciate. Supercompensation, or the adaptive cycle, is a model that highlights how the body and mind respond to stress. Recovery plays a vital role in an athlete’s ability to adapt to training, and therefore improve. “The ability to recover determines your ability to train” – anonymous. For cognitive athletes, this is the same. Stress is stress. Overtraining leads to underperformance syndrome, whereas overworking leads to breakdowns – or burnout, which has become an epidemic in the modern day workplace. Success comes from training and working hard, of course, but also recovering equally well.
I hope that this article has made you think about your performance and helped highlight the crossover between athletes and cognitive athletes. Next time, I will be discussing how we plan for peak performance.