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Five ways business professionals can become corporate athletes

Psychology lecturer Dr Phil Clarke works with athletes on the path to Olympic glory. In a guest blog he shares his thoughts on how business professionals can become corporate athletes.

Have you ever had the feeling that your working day has been like running a marathon, or that you are always sprinting from challenge to challenge?

There are a lot of similarities between people in elite sport and in business – but also one important difference. Athletes will spend 90% of their time training and only 10% of their time competing. In the corporate world it’s almost exactly the opposite because most people are expected to perform 90% of the time with only 10% of their time spent training.

In the case of the Olympics, just over the horizon in Tokyo in 2020, athletes can spend four years building up to what might be just 10 seconds of performance in the case of a 100 metre sprinter.

So, what are the secrets of an elite athlete’s mindset?

Here are five things that business people can learn to become a “corporate athlete”.

Have the right mental approach

Pressure and stress is part and parcel of performance. Successful elite athletes view high pressure environments as a challenge rather than a threat.

A ‘challenge mindset’ lets you see situations as an opportunity to develop and master skills and see competition as an opportunity to win.

Your outlook also influences how your body responds. A challenge mindset means that you release adrenaline – the fight or flight hormone – which opens your arteries so there is more blood, glucose and oxygen going around your body and you are better able to make decisions and respond quickly.

If you see something as a threat you release cortisol, which constricts the arteries around your heart, meaning there is less oxygen going around the body and your performance suffers. In this state you don’t want to move around much. It was this reaction that made our cavemen ancestors stay hidden in their caves and wait for the threat to pass.

Michael Phelps was the most successful and most decorated Olympian of all time, with a total of 28 medals. Here are his thoughts on pressure: 

There’s no such thing as failure

In life and in business we all have positive and negative experiences. An elite athlete learns from EVERY experience, whether they win or lose.

The only time you fail is when you don’t learn something from an experience – even the positive ones.

When things don’t go to plan you need to learn and develop and be prepared for future experiences.

We often look to learn from the experience of people that we respect. We are motivated and inspired by them. Be your own inspiration too – sometimes we spend too much time looking outward for inspiration when we should be looking inward.

Recovery time is of paramount importance

The most important room in an athlete’s house is the bedroom, where they sleep and recover. But in business, sleep and physical and mental recovery is the first thing we tend to let slip when the pressure is on.

The same mindset you bring to your performance (commitment and focus) you should also bring to your recovery.

In business I see a lot of emphasis placed on time management. As we develop and enjoy some success, we want to achieve more but we still only have 24 hours in a day. Therefore, it is not about time management, it is about energy management. It’s not about how much time we invest in a task but how much energy we invest.

If you are in an hour-long business meeting and you are finding that your mind is wandering and you are losing concentration that tells you there is something wrong with the energy you are putting in to it.

Whether an athlete is in a 90-minute, high intensity session, or a 60-minute recovery session, they are fully committed and focused in that session. Elite athletes realise that to bring this energy to these moments, they need to recover.

Be the best version of yourself – always

In business and in sport you will not always be at your best, but that doesn’t mean you can’t perform with intensity.

One thing that athletes adopt is what is called a 100% mindset. This means you bring 100% intensity to every situation. So, if you feel a 7/10 when you wake up, an elite athlete focuses on being the best 7 they can be. If you constantly compare yourself to the best version of yourself, there will be a lot of times that you will feel that you are not at your best, and that can bring on anxiety, apprehension and frustration. The aim of the 100% mindset is to bring the best version of yourself at any time – if you’re going to be on the bench, be the best bench player you can be. If you are feeling 6/10 in the morning be the best 6 you can be.

A great example of this is the rugby player Brian O’Driscoll. On his last tour for the British and Irish Lions, he was dropped from the team ahead of the third game. He wasn’t even on the bench. Obviously, he was gutted but his response was ‘I’m still part of this team so I have to make sure that these guys are best prepared. I’ve got to be the best person to make sure these guys bring their top game even though I’m not going to play’.

Brian O’Driscoll talking about the importance of training and how every man is crucially important:

So, from a business perspective, if you are supporting a colleague on a project, be the best support that you can be. You need to find a purpose in every situation.

Think flexibly

The final thing that people in business can learn from elite athletes is psychological flexibility.

In a world where the environments or targets are constantly changing, we must be able to be flexible in our mental approach to meet these demands. If we remain fixed in our thinking, then we’re just waiting for the right environment to line up with our mindset.

It’s important to be versatile, creative and to engage in effective problem solving. Have you ever had a situation, where you and someone else see a situation in different ways – and you are both convinced that you are right?  Flexible thinking means being able to see things from other people’s perspectives and realising that there are multiple ways to get from point a to b.

By Dr Phil Clarke

Phil supports talented Derbyshire athletes on the path to becoming world champions and Olympians through the unique Derbyshire Institute of Sport (DIS) organisation. Businesses that partner with DIS can access support from the backroom staff who train world-beating athletes and parathletes and unlock a host of PR opportunities through association with success, high-performance and overcoming challenges. Contact - chloemaudsley@derbyshireis.co.uk