How Executives Can Learn from High Performing Athletes

How Executives Can Learn from High Performing Athletes

Aoife Harrington, May 2011

The performance of elite athletes and those who excel in business is alike in many ways and both of these high performing groups can learn much from one another and how they excel in their relative fields.  Countless research endeavours have found that how top sports people approach their respective games – and often their professions – is akin to how business leaders drive change and growth in organisations. Therefore, by looking at some of the key techniques and approaches used by high performing athletes, we can isolate new ways in which business leaders can continue their professional development and, importantly, continue to exact successful outcomes.

6 Lessons that Business Leaders Can Learn from the World of the Sporting Elite:

  1. 1. Learn the Fundamental Skills

Mastery of basic skills and competencies of a game is the most basic ingredient of success for any athlete. Where many athletes have been found to fall down, is spending too much time on learning the tricks of the trade to the neglect of learning and embedding the trade itself. For both athletes and executives, therefore, the basic skills or competencies need to be learned and relearned until they become second nature.

  1. 2. Develop Drive and Focus

One quality that all successful athletes have in common is their drive for success. High performing athletes tend to be very focused in one particular area – often referred to as single-mindedness – and they tend to go the extra mile to be excellent at what they do. Drive has been found to be closely related to having a clear vision for success. This illustrates the importance of spending time deciphering your vision – what you really want to achieve and where your passion lies. Your vision can be made all the more real by writing it down, in a sentence of two, and reefing to it regularly – thinking of it as your personal mission statement.

  1. 3. Practice Visualisation

Many sporting greats over the decades have acknowledged that one of the most important steps in their preparation for a game was visualisation of that game in advance. They reported that this gave them the feeling of ‘having done it before’ and that when they got out onto the field of play it felt almost second nature. Visualisation typically involves going through a performance step by step ahead of time. The good news is that virtually anything can be rehearsed ahead of time – like giving a good presentation at work or delivering tough feedback to a colleague. By mentally taking yourself through the steps that will be involved – from entering the room, to greeting the audience to the effective delivery of the task – actual performance can be enhanced and you are likely to feel more relaxed and at ease in your delivery.

  1. 4. Be You’re No 1 Competitor

Striving to better your personal best is what sets elite performers apart from the average sports person – ability aside of course. Top athletes have reported that setting personal goals that are relevant to their own performance is much more potent that setting themselves goals against a competitors standards. Top sports people rise to the challenge not to just win but to do their very best. Setting your own personal learning or competence goals rather than just following goals that are set by others (in a performance review for example) will return control to you – the executive – control over your expectations, your goals and the resultant effort you invest in order to achieve these.

  1. 5. Elicit Feedback and Take it on Board

Getting feedback from a trusted source and listening to that feedback is integral to sporting – and indeed business – success, as it can help a person to understand what they are doing well but also what they are not doing so well and thus what they can improve upon. It is very important, however, that you elicit feedback from someone whose opinions you trust and respect and that you are willing to take action to rectify the skills or performance deficit identified. A mentor at work, a trusted colleague or even your own personal coach can be very useful in this regard.

  1. 6. Learn from Defeat

Adversity, and your personal response to it, is central to continued high performance in both sporting and business arenas. Athletes lose games all the time – just as business leaders fail to win clients or that much sought after promotion – but it is their personal response to this and what they do after the loss that will differentiate the average from the great.  Great athletes and business people, although they will feel a sense of loss – their focus is likely to be on what they can learn from the situation, what weakness or deficit it may have exposed and what changes they need to make to ensure future success. Setbacks are both normal and inevitable in life. It is your response to them, however, and your impetus to change following them that will determine the likelihood of your future success.

The 6 key approaches outlined above which are frequently utilised by those who excel in sporting arenas, can easily be transferred to the organisational context to drive performance of executives at work. Basically it’s about mastering the fundamentals, visualising success, refining vision and drive, learning from mistakes, taking feedback on board and striving to go one better every time. Just like in sport, a business or executive coach can help you to gain focus, clarify vision and revitalise drive – they can hold you accountable to your goals and they will challenge you to think differently, do better and aim higher thus making the most of your skills, abilities and attributes.

For more information on how the highly experienced executive coaches at DavittCorporatePartners can help you to achieve this and more, call us on +353 16688891 or consult our website for more information on our executive coaching, leadership development and other services.