The Good the Better and the Best

Volume 8 Letter 6

With the Olympics fast approaching, our TV screens will soon be filled with high performing athletes executing flawless routines, pushing themselves past mind numbing limits. As we watch world records fall and the athletes receive their metals few of us can fathom the preparation that goes into each athlete’s performance. The stories of injuries overcome, the setbacks all have faced and the emotional challenges over which each has triumphed would fill a library.

Charles Garfield, in a landmark book back in 1986 called “Peak Performance”1, described the mental challenges of becoming a high performing athlete and offered a mental training program for achieving Peak Performance in both athletics and business. More recently Graham Jones a sports psychologist for Olympic athletes offered further insights into what makes great athletes great2. Of course there are the obvious innate abilities of coordination and speed just as high performing business managers share traits of being able to think strategically and to relate to people. The key to success in both arenas, according to Jones, is mental toughness. What has always impressed me is the parallel between high performance athletes and high performing business people.

With that in mind let’s look at the sometimes paradoxical traits that drive athletes to such heights. Are there any lessons that we as business people we can learn from this determined group of young men and women? High performance athletes:

    • Thrive on pressure: They love to perform when the pressure is on, yet they ..


    • Break away from the pressure: High performers take regular breaks away from the pressure and indulge in other interests.


    • Are fixed on the long term goal: The ability to recover from setbacks is set in a deep routed belief in the long term goal, yet they ..


    • Plan the short term carefully: Athletes plan meticulously by setting and hitting hundreds of small goals all aimed at the ultimate prize.


    • Use competition to hone their skills: High performing athletes often train with their closest rivals who challenge and push them, yet they …


    • Stay focused: Top performers concentrate on what they can control – they are not distracted by outside events and what others are doing.


    • Demand honest immediate feedback: They want constructive criticism, yet they …


    • Don’t dwell on the negative: For sure elite athletes are hard on themselves but they don’t dwell on the negative – they pick themselves up and move on!


  • Have a passion to excel: Top performers never make sacrifices – they make choices! (And money, although necessary, is not a motivator.)

As you enjoy the Olympics this summer and watch the performances think about how you can shape your career to be at peak performance.

1. Peak Performance, Charles Garfield & Hal Zina Bennett 1986
2. How the best get better and better, Graham Jones HBR June 2008 PP 123

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