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3 Lessons Businesses Need to Learn from Elite Sport

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The world of elite sports serves as a rich repository of strategies for business excellence. By embracing the lessons of well-defined performance windows, strategic rest, and deliberate practice, organisations can triumph.

We’ve spent time researching the winning ways of F1, tennis and football for our new book, Rest, Practise, Perform. As a result, we’ve found three essential lessons that all organisations can learn about performance from elite sport.

1. What does “performance” actually mean?

We found a wealth of performance techniques in elite sports that could be practically translated into organisations, with some thought and application. In contrast, when researching performance in organisations, we found existing studies to be somewhat lacking in practical application. For a start, the term ‘performance’ was poorly defined, if at all. How can you expect to achieve something you can’t even define? That’s not the case in elite sports.

2. Why focus on elite sports?

Our research explored three elite sports, all very different: F1, tennis and football. These three sports presented different ways to think about performance that map well into organisations. Formula 1 is a team sport where teams perform at different times; tennis is predominantly an individual sport; and football is a team sport where everyone on the pitch is performing at the same time. 

We found some performance parallels with organisations. For example, sometimes people are performing all together, like in football. This could be a key event or a sales pitch. Sometimes the work is to make sure a key person has all they need to perform, like in tennis and sometimes, like in F1, everyone is performing at different times, building up to some kind of finale. This is common in a product development process for example.

3. The “rest, practise, perform” approach 

We found that strategies within elite sports use a combination of well-designed rest and a lot of the right kind of practice, all leading up to an intense performance window that produces sustainable and successful results.  The techniques behind “rest, practise, perform” can teach you valuable tips on sustainable performance and well-being. 

Sports have a well-defined window of performance

There is a common belief in many organisations that you have to perform 24/7 in order to be successful. Far from resulting in increased innovation and productivity, this is a recipe for burnout and mediocre results. In sports, the “performance window”, the period of time you are required to be at maximum performance, is clear. It is the race or the match itself. 

Organisations should not be aiming to perform constantly but instead should define their equivalent of the race or match. When do you really need to be at your best? When will it have maximum impact on the outcome? For some people, it will be a key event or meeting; for others, it will be just before some kind of tangible deliverable. A performance window is intense and energy-draining, so be sure you are expending energy when it counts, and not wasting it on long hours and heroic efforts.

Rest is not just having “time off”

Many of us think that resting is tantamount to doing nothing. In organisations specifically, 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 people 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 but do just for fun. 

Organisations can learn a lot from this and build it into their rhythm. Just like sportspeople, employees need to rest what they use up in the performance window. This may be less physical, but it is 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; or creative designers may get rest by doing something practical rather than creative. You could organise this through some kind of rotation of responsibilities or by planning certain kinds of “rest” activities when you have quieter periods.

Practise the skills and capabilities you need to perform

This may seem obvious, but many organisations do not invest the time and resources into helping teams practice the skills and capabilities needed for performance. Sports professionals train for much longer than they actually compete. Additionally, they no longer just practise their own sport, they use strength training, nutrition and mental coaches to be all-around ready for performance. A lot of practice goes into making sure they are 100% ready for their performance window. What’s more, it’s why sports professionals are now remaining at the top of the game later in life and more are managing to stay free of injury for longer. 

In organisations, the key skills and capabilities are not always obvious. Like nutrition and mental coaching in sports, some seemingly peripheral, though essential, skills are frequently discounted or overlooked. This includes leadership and management skills, the ability to negotiate and manage conflict and time management. Organisations don’t need all of these skills all of the time, the key is to identify the specific traits or skills that will enhance the performance window. So rather than invest generally in leadership skills, you may decide that your leaders need to be able to prioritise well, achieve a consensus quickly or remain calm under pressure. These are all different traits that will drive different aspects of performance. 

Takeaway

If you’re serious about building sustainable working practices into your organisation, without losing performance, using elite sports as a model will help you to look beyond what you’ve done before. You might need more of the right kind of rest or a bit of focused practise in some key areas, but you definitely need to define what performance means for your organisation, because you won’t find a generally accepted term that is useful. In order to be sustainable, performance windows are relatively short and a performance window can look very different, even in different parts of your organisation.




John McLachlan is co-author of “Rest. Practise. Perform.”. John takes the latest scientific and academic thinking and makes it useful and easy to apply.

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