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Elite Sports

Can your business learn from elite sports?

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

If you are in business, you set goals. Achieving these goals is important, but don’t confuse hitting targets with performing as well as you can. Afterall, you may be setting your bar too low. As any football fan knows, teams can achieve wins without playing well, but without consistently performing to a high standard true success is almost certainly out of reach. It’s the same in business. And there are many lessons to be learned from elite sports such as football, tennis and Formula One. 

For our new book, ‘Rest, Practise, Perform’, we studied these popular elite sports for their keys to sustainable performance. Whilst all three sports are very different, they share a commonality in how they organise themselves towards performance. We found that in the pursuit of such a clear measure of performance, they busted some commonly held organisational beliefs about ‘how’ performance is achieved. 

The 100% Performance Fallacy

Elite sports professionals operate within defined “performance windows,” where they channel maximum focus and energy during critical moments. This approach allows them to perform sustainably and achieve better results. Businesses can adopt this concept, recognising that not every task requires 100% effort. A lot of essential work is done outside of the performance window—planning, preparation, experimenting, training and practice—but it is important that the intensity, focus and emotional energy expending in these tasks should not equal that of the performance window. By understanding the importance of designated performance windows, you can optimise energy for key tasks while efficiently managing other aspects of work.

Effort vs. Performance

A common misconception is equating effort with performance. At your child’s sports day, it’s okay for everyone to get a ribbon or sticker for taking part, but in elite sports, rewards are based on outcomes, not just effort. Similarly, a business should shift its focus from acknowledging hard work alone to defining clear performance outcomes. 

The problem with acknowledging effort alone is that organisations end up with more of what is rewarded. If you reward people for working hard, instead of outcomes, you will just get exhausted people trying to make even more heroic efforts in order to be appreciated. Instead, focus on defining performance outcomes for teams, individuals and the organisation overall. If people understand where they need to head towards, they will focus their energy on that, rather than attempting to prove themselves in a way that adds nothing to the organisation and may well be detrimental to all.

By aligning rewards with actual results, businesses can encourage a culture where energy is directed toward achieving tangible goals, contributing meaningfully to the business.

Rethinking Rest

Rest is often misunderstood as simply taking a holiday. Elite sports master the art of taking the right kind of rest, a practice often overlooked in organisational settings. In sports, rest involves activities that rejuvenate the body and mind. For example, footballers commonly play golf during the close season, professional golfers hit the gym after competitive rounds to balance the body after a lot of repetition, tennis players cool down using an exercise bike. They don’t just perform and then sit still.

If you are running a business, you should recognise the value of incorporating rest into the performance cycle. Instead of perceiving rest as a weakness, a business can design tailored rest phases that enhance overall performance. 

If you are a leader carrying a lot of emotional burden for your team and this is an important part of your performance, you may need emotional rest. Some leaders who fit into this category plan their one-to-ones so that they have a week each month with none so that they can focus on a technical aspect of their work, giving them a break from the emotional aspect of their work.

If your work involves a lot of focused thinking, you may need mental rest, so perhaps working in a more practical way or in collaboration with others for some time will give you respite from that aspect of your work. Whether it’s emotional or mental rest, aligning rest strategies with specific performance needs can be the secret sauce for sustained success.


Businesses frequently grapple with assessing true performance, often hindered by pervasive myths. Drawing insights from elite sports, which have successfully debunked these myths, as a business leader, you can reshape your approach to performance. Embracing a nuanced understanding of effort, optimising performance windows, and redefining rest can pave the way for sustainable success in the corporate arena.


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.