Olympian and javelin medalist Steve Backley investigates the worlds of high performance sport and business to discover how high performers deal with the pressures of their field
In our final chapter of the assessment of performance from our post-Olympic review, we look at how athletes deal with pressure and what we can learn from sport that can help business development.
It is probably the aspect of the performances at the Olympic Games that we marvelled at the most. When athletes such as Jessica Ennis, Sir Chris Hoy and Paralympians Johnny Peacock and Ellie Symonds stood strong under immense pressure of expectation; how did they do it?
What is it that athletes, who only get one chance, do to ensure that get it right?
Maybe the insight gained from Toni Minichello in his look back at Jessica Ennis’ performance along with BackleyBlack, gives us the mechanism we are looking for. Toni talked about ‘normalising’ the environment around Jessica, to ensure that she was comfortable when she started her bid to take gold in the Heptathlon. An interesting perspective given that the Olympic stadium, which I had the huge pleasure of witnessing that morning when Jessica set her blocks up to start in the 100m hurdles, the first of the seven events, was anything but ‘normal’. I would go one step further and suggest that the atmosphere of anticipation at seeing the poster girl start her bid was nothing short of electric. And yet, Jess seemed to be the calmest person in the 80,000 filled stadium.
There are two theories on this as I understand it. There is one that says ‘learn how to stay calm and deliver in a relaxed state’ and the other that says, ‘accept you’ll feel differently and learn how to compete while your heart races’. Either way, the ability to keep your head whilst those around you are losing theirs is, in the words of Kipling, is what will define you as a performer.
In business, that important board meeting, presentation or delivering a project on time is the equivalent of the above. Maybe taking risks and keeping your cool whilst selling an idea to your colleagues in a highly pressured situations where we have seen many people crumble, will distinguish you from the rest.
So, next time you find yourself in one of these situations, your heart racing and that destructive voice starts in your mind, think of the words of Toni and look to find ways of normalising what is in front of you. Take comfort in the things that are consistent with what you face every day and take it in your stride. Or, accept your internal panic and remember everyone around you is feeling the same; stay focussed and remind yourself that it is this type of nervous energy that will assist you to deliver an even greater performance. Both might take a bit of practise and may not work the first time you try them. But just as any Olympic athlete is compelled to do, learn and adapt – grow.
Another aspect of dealing with pressure is when it is of an ongoing nature. Ongoing pressure is something that athletes seem to grasp enthusiastically. Could it be that high performers in any field (sport and business) simply choose to enjoy pressure and all of the often misunderstood anxiety that comes along with it? Ongoing pressure, for many athletes is what drives them to give an even greater level of performance, without it they probably wouldn’t be half the performer that they are. So maybe that is the answer, embrace pressure. It would seem that the external force of it is one thing and how we choose to react to it is another. Could it be that it is our interpretation of what pressure is, what it does and what it could do, that is the key to driving a new level of performance. Accepting that in business too, there is expectation and there is consequence and that, just as in sport, we are going to be judged in business as to how we are performing and the leadership skills we demonstrate. Learn to love that.
Advice in sport is often focussed and positive, for example – control the controllable, try your hardest, aspire to win, stay focussed on the prize, plan and execute, stay in the present. All great advice on the sports field. Maybe it is time that these same drivers leak into everyday business performance too. The culture that will ensue will be energetic, efficient, positive and highly effective. Maybe the highly charged atmosphere we enjoyed from the Olympic Games was too extreme, accepted. But just a whiff of it now and again is something that could add the spark to a business environment to help inspire and accelerate growth.
How does this culture from sport compare with the culture in your business? And what could you do to improve it?