The worlds of elite sport and the office may seem far apart, but some of the principles and techniques employed by top athletes can also be applied by individuals for improved business performance.
While the emotions and pressures associated with taking a World Cup winning penalty or running in the Olympic 100 metre final may seem vastly different to those normally encountered in day-to- day business life, for individuals in a company seeking to secure a big order, impress a new client, or make important strategic decisions, the implications, anxiety and stress generated by such tasks should also not be underestimated.
Whether making a critical pitch or presentation, leading a vital meeting, or managing situations where far-reaching business decisions have to be made – how employees or business managers react and perform in such circumstances or scenarios are for them in their own world just as important as Jonny Wilkinson trying to kick three points or Rory McIlroy sinking a winning putt to claim a six figure first prize.
The landscape of premier sport – and business – are inextricably linked. Success in both arenas tends to be based upon active planning, achievement of goals, and the ongoing delivery of improved performance – often under extreme pressures of defined targets or objectives. The growth in recent years of the use of sports psychologists - now commonly seen working alongside leading sports people - is testimony to the central role the complexities of the mind plays in helping athletes prepare for and achieve tangible on-field success.
Some of the principles and mechanisms applied in the lofty world of professional sport also ring true for the business community, according to University of Wolverhampton’s Professor Andy Lane. “Having to deal with a one-off performance, while obvious in the world of sport – think of an Olympic swimming final or grand slam tennis final – is also a situation that faces many in the business world on a daily basis. You only have to think about making presentations or pitching an idea or product to a potential customer to realise that these too are focused circumstances or ‘events’ that can be the culmination of extreme time input and effort – similar in its way to the commitment a swimmer must make for the chance to win a gold medal at a major championship.”
For people facing a challenging presentation or perhaps leading an important strategic meeting, preparation like any top athlete, can ultimately, help deliver improved performance levels.
While the outcome – an order placed, an idea developed – will be unknown, nonetheless Professor Lane believes adopting the right approach will only help and not hinder matters. He says: Sports psychologists would say for those faced with scenarios like a pitch that has a finite beginning and end of maybe a 10 minute timescale, it is important to rationalise the event and to put it into perspective so that it does not becoming all consuming. Life will still go on after the pitch – successful or not – and looking at it like this will help lessen a tendency to let the event itself run away with you.” “People should utilise mechanisms to prepare themselves so they arrive totally confident about what they are doing and the circumstances they find themselves in. Preparation can take many forms. A golfer will practise putting until it is second nature, so people can apply their own practice techniques. Using imagery is often advocated by coaches as a way of focusing positively upon the situation about to be faced. Think about the people you will be addressing, think about the room; imagine what thetemperature will be, maybe how the room will be laid out?
Allied to this type of preparation, people should also use what I call the ‘semidaydream’ state so that whatever the location – for example on a train or in a lift - you are able to quickly rehearse in your own mind the key elements of what you want to say and how you want to say it. This rehearsal and visualisation technique will make the actual scenario seem more familiar and help to build confidence. These are the types of visualising and practice methods actively utilised by the famous sporting stars we see on our TV screens as they prepare for their own high profile events.”
As well as individual performance in one-off situations, Professor Lane also believes in the power of emotional control of both the individual, as well as the team dynamic. He explains: “Learning to recognise emotional trigger points can help to reduce anxiety levels so that people can better deal with the sorts of stressful situations they may find in the working environment and which could lead to poor performance. Once the trigger points are identified, methods can be employed to lessen the impact of worry. These could range from talking to a colleague or simple breathing exercises.”
There is certainly something quite powerful about thinking of work colleagues as the kind of team mates you would have in a sporting event. Applying that type of loyalty, understanding and consideration to not compromise the team’s performance could certainly pay dividends in a commercial environment.