Applying sports psychology to business

Adrian Moorhouse , 03 Dec 2012

Adrian Moorhouse

Sport is, and always will be, a powerful metaphor for business. Fierce competition, winning by the smallest margins, achieving goals, determination and teamwork are all key components of both worlds. But beyond metaphors, principles from the world of sport psychology can be applied to organisations to enable them to perform better.

If you were asked to take the stage and give a piano concerto to an audience of a thousand people, with 5 minutes to prepare, most people would refuse. "I don't know how to play" or "I don't know the music" they would shout. Yet we ask people to give company-wide presentations, to be an inspirational line manager or lead a review meeting without giving it a second thought. Sport psychology talks about 'deliberate practice' - dedicating time and effort to not only practice a skill or an action, but to do it in a mindful way. Not only does mindless experience, or practice, not automatically lead to expertise, but there is evidence that performance can get systematically worse with experience. It's the quality of that practice that counts - breaking tasks down into their component parts, honing in on any weaknesses, practising in a realistic environment and receiving immediate, honest feedback.

In business we can use development centres to deliberately practice business skills and actions - having difficult conversations with your line manager or making decisions under pressure, for example. Athletes spend 90% of their time practicing to spend 10% of their time performing (on the field of play). In business, we're lucky to have the inversion of 10% time to practice as we're expected to spend at least 90% of our time performing.

This concept of 'mental toughness' comes straight from sport psychology research and focusses on the personal resilience needed by an individual to perform at their peak. Research with some of the world's best athletes shows that mental toughness is the capacity to respond positively to multiple, and sometimes conflicting, pressures in order to deliver consistently high levels of performance.

It is underpinned by four core skills:

* Handling pressure

* Self-belief

* Motivation

* Focus

Take 'handling pressure', for example. Sports psychologists have found that athletes who have developed Mental Toughness are able to find ways of keeping symptoms of stress under control.

Stress can result in both behavioural and physical symptoms that are often difficult to manage. Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, visualising a calm pre-performance routine and challenging negative and unhelpful thinking patterns are extremely helpful in controlling these symptoms, and are used frequently by athletes. Employees can start to tackle their reaction to pressure by first identifying factors that exacerbate stressful situations - such as not getting enough sleep, or not eating properly - and tackling those head on.

Mentally tough athletes are also able to identifying what is within their control and what is not so that they can exert as much control as possible. They accept that there are factors in their performance environment that they cannot influence, identify what they are and then focus on things they can control. For example a golfer can't control the course conditions, or the scores of his competitors, but can focus on his foot positioning and swing, which will have a beneficial impact on his own performance. Employees in an organisation can't control the actions of a competitor, or the market conditions, so shouldn't stress about them. Instead, concentrate on the options for action that they have in the situation, and making wise choices.

Talent identification In sport they have very sophisticated methods and programmes to identify and develop talent, with some athletes having been involved in programmes since childhood. They test for the obvious things required in sport - physical attributes (such as height for a rower) and skillsets (such as hand-eye co-ordination for hockey) but they also attempt to test their potential talent by looking for a learning mindset. A learning mindset includes a belief that abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work - a belief that creates a drive for learning and a resilience that is essential for any great accomplishment.

Good learners are also able to critically reflect on their own performance, take others' perspectives, embrace feedback, accurately understand their own strengths and weaknesses and embrace opportunities for stretch, amongst other things. Never before has a learning mindset been more important in business - Since the future is unknown, the ability to learn and adapt is likely to be an important predictor of future high performance. The ability to learn from experience (both positive and negative experiences) will be a key differentiator of talent for the future. Learning and adaptation is important to enable individuals and organisations to thrive - now and in the future. Specifically, the high performers of the future are considered to be those most willing to embrace new experiences, stretch themselves and adapt.

Adrian Moorhouse (pictured) won the 100 m breaststroke gold medal at the Seoul Olympics. He is managing director at performance management firm, Lane4

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A psychologist comments

Dr Craig Knight 03 Dec 2012

This article is wrong on so many levels and paints - unintentionally - sport as a poor, even an inverse corollary for business. That this author is one of the finest swimmers this country has ever produced is a pity. Tough mindedness as a psychometric construct – and yes you can measure it -- is probably one of the last things your business needs to succeed but one of the most likely to drive it out of business. Tough mindedness is measure which comprises callousness, a lack of empathy, a lack of rapport, a self-centred attitude and the frequent causing of offence. Tough-mindedness may work fine for a driven sports person where selfishness and bristling testosterone may even be seen as a pre-requisite for success. However it is a sure fire way to cock-up any business. If you want a business to succeed you are far better advised to look for beta rather than alpha traits. Empathy, trust and autonomy are far superior predictors of success in business than macho-posturing and unpleasant attitudes. It is one of the many reasons why a feminization of the workplace would be such a good idea.

Author comments

Adrian Moorhouse 04 Dec 2012

Thanks very much for your comments Craig and for your interest in the article. ‘Tough Mindedness’ is not the trait that I’m talking about in this piece, but aspects of the sports psychology concept ‘mental toughness’ which we at Lane4 prefer to call Personal Resilience for all of the reasons you’ve listed above (such as the pre-conception that ‘tough’ means callous, lack of empathy, lack of rapport etc). One key aspect that I went on to discuss is that of handling pressure– which in this current climate of constant uncertainty is a trait that I would recommend all people in business require. The beta traits that you mention (empathy, trust and autonomy) can also infact be found in sport – for instance high performing teams and the coaching relationship between athlete/coach, both of which can benefit businesses. I understand you think my article emphasised traits that would be unhelpful in the workplace, however I maintain that ‘deliberate practice’, aspects of Personal Resilience (which I’ve referred to as Mental Toughness in the article) and talent development lessons from sport can be applied to business in a way that will enable them to perform better. Once again, thank you for taking the time to read and comment on the piece and I appreciate your thoughts on this subject

Mental toughness is resisting screaming at the system!

Andy Lippok 06 Dec 2012

Adrian, you need to take great care when attempting to apply the sporting analogy to business. With reference to the section on mental toughness in your article, this is based on a significant and quite false underlying assumption that people are in control of their individual performance at work. I believe the analogy is being stretched far too much and here does not work at all. What Deming, Senge, Ackoff, Seddon and many others have shown is that an organisation, because it is a system, cannot be significantly improved by focusing on individuals. They demonstrated that when considering the performance of an organisation, about 85% to 95% is determined by the system (i.e. the design of work, the methods and structures, the policies processes and procedures, the equipment, the materials, the other people, the culture and environment, etc.) and less than 5% is under the direct control of the individual. Therefore, unlike the athlete who has much more control over their performance, the employee has virtually none. Because of the interdependency of all the elements, simple improvement strategies focused on the parts, e.g. performance appraisals or coaching, do little or nothing to improve the system. I think your are overoptimistic as to what the employee can actually do. For me the mental toughness actually required of the employee is to resist screaming at the myriads of things that clearly get in the way of doing a good job!

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