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Elite Sports

Elite sports provide 3 essential lessons for all businesses

By John McLachlan, co-author of ‘Rest. Practise. Perform.’

While our everyday activities might not resemble the grand stages of Wembley or Wimbledon, the insights gleaned from the world of elite sports can profoundly impact our approach to business. When researching our new book, ‘Rest, Practise, Perform.’ we found three essential lessons all businesses, organisations and solo entrepreneurs can benefit from.

We focused on football, Formula One, and tennis. The skills and team dynamics within each sport are unique, but there are also similarities and parallels – between each sport, and between the sports and business. 

Not so different

Teamwork plays an important part. Even the seemingly solo efforts in men’s and women’s singles tournaments rely on teams: in addition to coaches and physios, rackets don’t string themselves, and Iga Świątek and Novak Djokovic don’t book their own flights and hotels. Similarly, mid race, Lewis Hamilton isn’t changing tyres or managing fuel consumption. And while the “solo” sports are actually team games, the team sports rely on individual prowess – during a penalty kick, there is nothing but prayers and Paddington stares the rest of a team can do for their goalkeeper. All three sports are a collage of shifting strategies, coordinated collective endeavours and individual excellence – just like any business.

And the differences between the three sports also provide business parallels. Football is a team sport where everyone on the pitch is performing at the same time – like a company performing together for a key event. Formula One is also a team sport but where teams perform at different times – like the different teams involved in product development. Tennis is a sport predominantly about individual effort – like when a sales pitch relies on one person’s performance.

We found that strategies within elite sports use a combination of well-designed rest and a lot of the right kind of practise, all leading up to an intense performance window to produce sustainable and successful results.  

What does ‘performance’ actually mean?

Among the lessons businesses can learn from elite sports is defining performance. When researching performance in organisations, we found existing studies to be somewhat lacking in practical application. In fact, the term ‘performance’ was poorly defined, if at all. How can something be achieved if it isn’t defined?

Not only do elite sports have very clear opinions on what constitutes good performance, we found that strategies within elite sports use a combination of well-designed rest and a lot of the right kind of practise, all leading up to an intense performance window to produce sustainable and successful results.  These are the three key lessons for business:

1. Well-defined window of performance

Many organisations mistakenly equate constant activity with productivity. However, elite sports teach us the significance of delineating a clear “performance window” – a concentrated timeframe where peak performance is imperative, akin to a race or match. Rather than perpetually burning the midnight oil, businesses should pinpoint their critical moments, focusing resources and energy where they truly matter. Whether it’s a pivotal meeting or a project deadline, channelling efforts into defined performance windows minimises burnout and maximises impact.

2. Right type of rest

In many workplaces there is a widely held view that rest ‘is what holidays are for’. Elite sports have a different, and useful, perspective on rest. Instead of stopping completely and quickly losing fitness, they focus on resting that which has been lost through the performance window. That’s why so many sportspeople build in different types of activities that give them a break from intense competition. What they really need is a break from the pressure of competition, rather than pure exhaustion. Many find this in sports that they don’t complete in but do just for fun. 

Organisations can learn a lot from this and build it into their rhythm. Just like sports people, employees need to rest what it is they use up in the performance window. This may be less physical, but no less important. For example, HR professionals may need a break from intense emotional situations, project managers may experience rest by focusing on one thing rather than twenty, and creative designers may get rest by doing something practical rather than creative.

3. Practise 

Elite athletes devote extensive time honing their skills, embracing comprehensive training regimens to excel during their performance windows. Similarly, businesses should prioritise skill development. Where elite sports employ strength training and mental coaching, businesses should invest in equipping their teams with the tools needed for peak performance. These could take the form of negotiation skills, or conflict resolution skills. Your organisation may not need every business skill all day, every day, but it is important to identify the specific traits or skills that will enhance performance in your particular performance windows. So rather than invest generally in leadership skills, you may decide that your leaders need to be able to prioritise well or achieve a consensus quickly or remain calm under pressure. These are all different traits that will drive different aspects of performance.

Summary

The world of elite sports offers a treasure trove of strategies for achieving business excellence. By embracing the principles of well-defined performance windows, strategic rest, and deliberate practise, organisations can position themselves for triumph in the competitive arena of modern business.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John McLachlan is co-author of ‘Rest. Practise. Perform. What elite sport can teach leaders about sustainable wellbeing and performance’. John takes the latest scientific and

academic thinking and makes it useful and easy to apply. His approach is grounded in research and professional practice that spans 20-plus years. John holds Masters degrees in psychology and health research, and his specialist area is what organisations can learn from elite sports performance. John’s goal with ‘Rest. Practise. Perform.’ is to help leaders and organisations find a working rhythm that delivers top performance whilst also prioritising people and their health. 

Web:

www.monkeypuzzletraining.co.uk/rest-practise-perform   

LinkedIn:

https://www.linkedin.com/in/john-mclachlan/

https://www.linkedin.com/company/monkey-puzzle-training-and-consultancy-limited/