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What elite sports can show businesses about sustainable performance

Formula 1, tennis and football are very different, but they share commonalities in how they organise themselves regarding performance. In the pursuit of a clear measure of performance, they busted some commonly held organisational beliefs about ‘how’ performance is achieved. Business leaders should take note.

While many organisations seek sustainable performance, the reality is often a performance struggle. This can be very demoralising for leaders and employees. You may reach your financial targets, deliver a project on time, or launch that great product to market, but how do you know you’ve actually performed? Could you have done better? Would a tweak have made a difference? Did that neglected idea have more mileage than people thought?

There are many misunderstandings about performance, we might even call them myths. While strategists talk about the importance of metrics, so much of what makes an organisation work is how its people are organised and motivated. And here lies the danger. In the absence of clear expectations and outcomes, people frequently divert to effort and presenteeism as a way of showing their value. That’s all understandable, but performance is about achieving results.

Elite sports and sustainable performance

For our new book, ‘Rest, Practise, Perform’, we studied three popular elite sports for their keys to sustainable performance. Formula 1, tennis and football are very different, but they share commonalities in how they organise themselves regarding performance. In the pursuit of a clear measure of performance, they busted some commonly held organisational beliefs about ‘how’ performance is achieved. Business leaders should take note.

We found there is much for organisations to learn from how sports achieve performance. Let’s look at three of these common myths:

Myth 1: You have to be performing 100% of the time

Sport professionals only perform at key moments. We have termed this the ‘performance window’. It represents the time period or event where someone needs to be performing at their most intensive, focused way, with no distractions. By reserving maximum focus and energy for key moments, sports people are able to perform more sustainably and get better results. After all, if you put 100% of your energy into your training, then you will have little left in the tank when you really need it.

Organisations could learn a lot by adopting the concept of a performance window. Many employees believe they have to be giving 100% (or even 110% – whatever that actually means) to be doing a good job. While a lot of essential work is done outside of the performance window—planning, preparation, experimenting, training and practice—the key is that the intensity, focus and emotional energy expending in these tasks should not equal that of the performance window.

Myth 2: If people are working hard, they are performing

Be careful of conflating effort with performance. People can direct a lot of energy, love and care into something in the hope that their effort will be rewarded, but this is not performance. In sports this is the equivalent of rewarding the person who came last in the race because they tried hard, even if they lacked skill. This is fine at the school sports day, but in elite sports, rewards are based on your ability to win, to do better than the competition, regardless of how hard you tried.

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.

Myth 3: Resting is taking a holiday

Well-rested people think more clearly, have better judgement and are more productive. Why wouldn’t you want more of this? The answer, as elite sports know well, lies in the art of taking the right kind of rest. This is something elite sports do much better than organisations. Sports people are highly competitive, so it can be hard to get them to stop or slow down. Fortunately, science now informs much of the elite sports rest cycle in a way that the sports professional can see how the rest phase actually helps performance.

The secret is that in elite sports you rest what you would use to perform, you do not do nothing. Elite sports professionals are usually resting their physical body but may still be very active in the rest phase. For example, footballers commonly play golf during the off 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.

Organisations that tend to think that holiday is the only time to rest actually miss an opportunity to use rest as part of the performance cycle. Much of the denial of a rest phase in organisational work is the concern that it will be perceived as a weakness of some kind, but in fact it could be your secret sauce. The term ‘a change is as good as a rest’ was coined for a reason, but rather than doing lots of random activity you can design your rest phase so that it enhances your performance by resting whatever part you use to perform in your work.

For example, 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 maybe working in a more practical way or in collaboration with others for some time gives you respite from that aspect of your work.

Conclusion

Organisations often struggle to know if they are truly performing, that is in part down to a lack of understanding of what performance actually looks like. This creates a risk that the performance that could be achieved is missed due to myths that hinder, rather than help. We found that elite sports think and act differently, they’ve cracked these myths and, if they are to achieve similar levels of sustainable performance, organisations need to do the same.

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