8 Lessons We Can Learn From Elite Athletes

Matt Palmer 3 August 2018

They are record-breakers. They are champions. They are pushed to perform at the very best of their ability, and some can even say they are the best in the world in their chosen field. Elite athletes dedicate their lives to achieving the highest successes in their sport. With the support of their teams, they are a shining example of what peak performance looks like.

Most of us choose a different line of work (or simply don’t have the attributes to become athletes). But how can we apply the same passion and determination to reach a similar level of success in our own chosen industry? We asked the experts to find out what lessons business owners, workers and managers can learn from the sporting world, and how businesses can perform like a top athlete. Here are their top 8 tips…

  1. Don’t fear pressure.

The face of international women’s rugby,  Maggie Alphonsi MBE , has represented England no less than 74 times. With the immense pressure that comes with competing for your country, Maggie is perfectly placed to offer advice for holding your nerves and performing under pressure.

“My biggest tip for holding your nerve under pressure is to attack it head on. Don't fear it but thrive on the pressure. Billie Jean said pressure is a privilege and I live by that. To know people expect great things from me is an amazing feeling and I use that to block out any nerves I have. I also remind myself that I've done all the hard work to get to this point so I will be fine.”

“Failure breeds success. Our greatest learnings come from failure”

  1. Play to your strengths.

This doesn’t just apply to the sporting world. There are lessons that Maggie has learned from sport which also apply to business.

“I have two pieces of advice” says Maggie, “one would be to focus on your strengths and not your weaknesses. In sport we learn to maximise and play on our strengths. In business I sometimes see people focus on what they are not good at and that can consume them.

  1. Embrace failure.

My second advice would be to embrace failure. Failure breeds success. Our greatest learnings come from failure.”

  1. Set realistic goals.

Olympic & Paralympic athletics coach  Keith Antoine  explains the importance of setting achievable goals.

“Although big goals are helpful, I always try to focus on associated performance goals, i.e. goals that are in my control. For example, while I may have the big goal of helping an athlete to win a Paralympic medal, I am not in total control of that occurrence. An associated performance goal might be to raise the level of effectiveness of my athlete interactions over the coming 3 months. For each identified performance goal, there are 3 questions that I need to think through.

  • What exactly am I trying to achieve?
  • What would it mean to me personally to achieve this?
  • To what degree to I really believe I can achieve this?

Once these are all clear, I can work out the necessary steps and get on with it!”

"The key differentiator is the ability of managers to shift the balance of thinking."

  1. Empower your team.

If you’re a manager, Keith also offers advice for improving the performance of your team as a whole by empowering them as individuals.

“In today’s fast-paced, highly competitive and specifically-skilled workplaces, increasingly the key differentiator is the ability of managers to shift the balance of thinking. Either through being ‘too nice’ or through trying to maintain the illusion of being in control, the vast majority of managers do too much thinking for their team members.’ This locks the managers into spending far too much time at least one level below that which their organisation employed them to be at. Worse still, it creates an unhealthy level of dependency and prevents their team members from developing skills, knowledge and resilience. Today’s effective managers recognise the difference between being able to cause someone to think through an issue as opposed to giving or leading them to an answer to their issue. The more that managers can shift the balance, causing their team members to do a greater share of the thinking around all relevant issues, they will find themselves with more independent, resilient, capable and ultimately higher performing team members.”

One of the UK's leading figures in sport and performance,  Dr Steve Ingham  has been integral to the development of Britain as an Olympic Superpower. He is the author of the best-selling 'How to Support a Champion: The art of applying science to the elite athlete’.

Steve thinks it is critical that we should establish where we put our efforts before spending them. Businesses should take the time to find out which “key area will give them the greatest performance return on investment”.

  1. Recognise change.

Sometimes an even harder aspect of top performance is maintaining it.

“There are two major aspects of sustaining performance that we develop” Steve explains.

“First is the recognition that what gave you early success, might not be the same process to follow for future success or increasing performance. It is a difficult trap for Olympic champions to fall into, that the training that led them to standing on top of the podium, will deliver results in four years’ time. To ensure clarity of thinking we support high performers and teams by regularly reviewing what they do (a high-performance MOT) and to establish quality de-briefing methods for performers in their formative stages of development. By the time someone reaches a peak, open-mindedness to adapting is then better preserved.

  1. Be resilient.

The second feature is developing resilience, to cope with the losses, the setbacks and mistakes and to turn them into opportunities to learn and strive forward. Resilience is often this nebulous term that is thought to be the preserve of the super-humans, but there is so much that people can learn to practice that can enable them to thrive.”

“If leaders fail to invest time into creating a performance mindset, then they simply won’t get as much out of their teams.”

  1. Develop a performance mindset.

Steve also offers his advice to managers in business;

“I've learned that if leaders fail to invest time into creating a performance mindset, then they simply won’t get as much out of their teams. There is always a temptation to fill meetings with more content - focussing on the 'what we are doing'.

Where we have found problems in the teams supporting elite performers, where there has been blame, lack of empathy, disparate goals and low engagement - this is often distinctly separate from the 'what' and more about the 'how'. Therefore, if you want to get the best out of teams, if you are truly results focused then you need to prioritise the development of empathy, mindset, psychological safety and trust as the bedrock of performance.

We went on this mission heading towards the London 2012 games and found that the industries that do this well and make no apologies for it are those where the cost of getting teamworking wrong is human lives - so we learnt from these industries and apply this thinking to supporting the elite athletes and now businesses.”

For more info about  Maggie Alphonsi ,  Keith Antoine ,  Steve Ingham  or any of our other speakers, call us on +44 (0) 20 7607 7070 or email us at  info@speakerscorner.co.uk .

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