19 February 2018
Posted in by Dr Caroline Rook

Leadership lessons from top athletes

The Winter Olympics in South Korea draws in millions of spectators from all over the world to witness top sporting performance. While not only thrilling to watch, elite athlete performance can teach business leaders how to develop peak performance in the workplace.

The need for excellence is present for both athletes and executives; particularly in times of fast-paced global competition, executives need to be on top of their game to stay competitive.

Here are a few lessons that executives can learn from elite athlete training:

Recovering energy

Recovering energy is as important as exerting it in order to create top performance. Negative stress and tension undermine performance in the long run and lead to underperformance and health problems.

Elite athletes master the delicate balance between just enough stress to challenge themselves so that high performance is developed, versus knowing when to rest in order to allow the body to recover and restore energy. They use a concept called ‘supercompensation’ where they ‘stress’ their body through various types of training that provokes transient fatigue. This results in physiological adaptations in the body systems in a gradual manner as a means to compensate for provoked physical challenge and a ‘new threshold of tolerance’ is reached – the body is able to perform at a higher level.

As business executives, if we ‘stress’ ourselves through a sustained period, for example through frequent international business travel, constant availability via digital technology etc., our body and mind have no time to recover and adapt to increasing challenges.

Leadership is a team sport

Sustained success for athletes does not only mean having excellent physical abilities. In addition to a positive mindset that allows them to believe that success is possible, they have mental toughness to cope with difficulties and setbacks along the way. In order to develop this drive for success, athletes work with coaches to build up positive mental toughness.

In business, executive coaching is becoming more and more popular. Together with a coach, leaders explore what smaller goals need to be put in place to support success and also, what emotional and cognitive capacities need to be honed in order to build up mental toughness.

Leadership is a team sport and through learning from each other’s challenges in the world of work, executives can build up their leadership capacity. Coaching each other in the journey towards organisational success, will make all the difference.

Thriving under pressure

Competing in the Winter Olympics, athletes find themselves under immense pressure to perform. Up or out! Even in the lead up to the competition, pressure during training is high and elite athletes have learned how to stay focused on their goal even when faced with a multitude of distractions or obstacles.

Performance pressures are also immense for executives. Bouncing back from challenges and taking a learning mindset towards ‘failures’ and mistakes will allow executives to develop their leadership capacity further and thrive in challenging times.

Dr Caroline Rook

Caroline is a Lecturer at Henley Business School. Her research relates to creating healthy and productive workplaces through exploring the links between leadership and well-being in organisations. Caroline investigates in particular how to manage executive stress, how to maintain authentic functioning at work and the role of coaching for creating resilience for positive leadership.
c.rook@henley.ac.uk

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