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Sporting principles: Work like an athlete

With UK productivity levels trailing behind other European economies, companies are looking for ways to improve output levels. Could sport and high performance coaching principles offer the answer?

Published in Sports Management 2018 issue 4
Read on turning pages | Download PDF of this issue
Any type of employee can benefit from using sporting principles
Any type of employee can benefit from using sporting principles

The UK is in the grips of a “productivity puzzle”. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest that the UK’s output is so poor that the average German worker could go home on a Thursday afternoon, having produced as much as an average Brit who works the full week. In the time a British worker creates £1, a German one makes £1.35.

While the UK has lagged behind other developed nations in productivity levels since the 1980s, the 2008 banking crash seems to have hit Britain particularly hard. In 2007 – the year before the crisis – British productivity was 9 per cent below the average for the 35 OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. By 2015, the gap had widened to 18 per cent.

When looking for ways to get the best out of people, could elite performance principles used in sport be harnessed to increase output levels? Colin Wilson, co-owner of The Business Athlete – a company helping business leaders and executives improve their performance – certainly thinks so.

“The purpose of The Business Athlete is to assist organisations to fulfil their potential, using methods from sports and other high performance fields to improve productivity,” Wilson says.

“Our aim is to help companies create a high performance culture, but also a highly satisfactory culture. Our goals aren’t about achieving short-term, quick win successes, but about long-term, sustainable success.”

Wilson explains how The Business Athlete has taken 35 aspects of performance – adopted from specific principles or items from sport – and translated those into a corporate context. Each can be applied at either organisational level, team level or individual level.

He adds that the productivity challenges within companies can vary hugely – and often call for bespoke solutions. The more personal the programme, the better the results.

“A general rule of thumb is to understand what you can, can’t, should and shouldn’t take from high performance sport,” Wilson says, and offers two examples of the methods used by The Business Athlete.

“One of our principles is that each individual development plan within an organisation should be just that – individual – because everyone’s performance demand is different. In sports, you wouldn’t have a striker and a goalkeeper doing the same training routine, even though they both play for the same team.

“Another principle we use a lot is energy capacity and management. We encourage people to manage their energy levels and peak at the right moment.

“For example, you could have a sales person, all pumped up and waiting to make a pitch. They might use lots of energy to get everything ready – going through their presentations, etc. But by the time they actually get to ‘perform’, their energy levels might be depleted. That’s one of the things we can learn from sport, managing your energy so that you peak at the right moment.”

Another initiative looking to utilise knowledge of elite sports training in the workplace is The Corporate Athlete Performance (CAP) programme, developed by US-based Johnson and Johnson. It takes techniques used in the development of top level individual performance and applies them to the corporate environment.

CAP’s exercise and movement components – including the increasingly popular 7-Minute Workout – were designed by Chris Jordan, director of exercise physiology at Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute (HPI).

“CAP looks to integrate performance psychology, exercise physiology and nutrition in order to improve performance and productivity,” says Jordan.

“The programme uses a number of principles. One of these is ‘Manage Energy, Not Just Your Time’. It’s based on the principle that by merely being present doesn’t necessarily mean you are engaged or performing at your best. So it’s all about making the most of the limited time you may have – such as a working day – by bringing your best energy and being fully engaged in the moment.

“Another principle is that we believe energy to have four dimensions – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual – and each can influence the other. For us, the sweet spot of human performance is being fully/totally energised in all four dimensions.”

CAP also looks to turn a condition often seen as a hindrance – stress – into a positive force using elite training methods.

“Stress actually provides the opportunity for growth,” Jordan says. “Too much stress – such as one large dose or chronic stress – can be harmful. But too little stress can cause a decrease in capacity and performance.

“Stress must be coupled with sufficient recovery, but can lead to a greater capacity to perform. If you want to expand your capacity and improve your performance, you must push beyond your comfort zone regularly and recover – we see it as training.

“Just like training a muscle to become stronger, you must stress your emotional muscle to become more resilient and your mental muscle to become more focused and mentally tough.”

Achieving long-term results is at the heart of both The Business Athlete and CAP. The Business Athlete’s Wilson says that to achieve lasting results in improving productivity, it is important to install a high performance culture throughout a business.

“There is a very strong, values-laden aspect to The Business Athlete, which isn’t about the quick successes – which can be relatively easy to reach. It’s about achieving sustainable improvements for every organisation we work with.”

Wilson emphasises the importance of a focused, individual approach to help ensure a lasting impact. “For a sports-related approach to work, you need to contextualise the methods to the company and its environment. You should start with the organisation or individual, then see how sport and the various sport principles could help.

“It’s not just about using sports psychology, saying stuff like ‘control the controllables’, and expect everyone to perform better. It’s fine to give motivational messages, but they don’t last if you don’t have the reinforcement. It’s about achieving results across the organisation, from top to bottom.”

Colin Wilson, The Business athlete
"Everyone’s performance demand is different, so plans must be individualised"
Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute (HPI)

HPI was founded by Dr. Jim Loehr, a sports/performance psychologist, and exercise physiologist Dr. Jack Groppel. The pair initially combined forces to work on the mind and body of professional athletes to help them perform at the highest possible level.

They then developed the Corporate Athlete Performance (CAP) programme, which teaches participants how to manage and increase their energy levels – physically, emotionally mentally, and spiritually – so they can consistently perform at their best.

CAP looks to integrate performance psychology, exercise physiology and nutrition in order to improve performance and productivity.

Chris jordan, cap
"One of our principles is about making the most of your limited time by being fully engaged"
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