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Janine Milne

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Going for gold with former Olympians

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In sport terms, 30 years of age is probably the equivalent of 50 for everyone else.

By 35, most sports people are nudging retirement. But what do they do after that?
 
For a significant number of ex-Olympians and other sporting legends, the next move is into training and consultancy, sharing the secrets of their success and how they reached the top of their game with business leaders.
 
But why does this link exist between sporting and business excellence? Can sport really teach the business world anything? The answer is ‘yes’ – but it is a qualified ‘yes’.
 
What high-performing sports and business professionals both share is the need to cope with pressure, to stay motivated (think of the decades that Steve Redgrave dragged himself out of bed at some ungodly hour to train), know how to set and achieve goals and to learn and move on from their mistakes.
 
But sportspeople have the advantage of being able to focus entirely on honing the internal and external skills required to be the best athlete they can without the ‘noise’ or distractions of business life.
 
Steve Backley, a former world record javelin thrower, who now runs a performance-based training company, BackleyBlack, with former 400m Olympiad, Roger Black, says: “Sport is a very black and white version of life.” But while athletes may have clear goals and responsibilities, real-life is not so clear-cut.
 
At the simplest level, the story of how an Olympiad got to the top, often overcoming injury and setbacks in the process, is inspiring to hear. And that is fine as far as it goes, but it is unlikely to help business leaders hit their key performance indicators.
 
As Adrian Moorhouse, managing director of organisational development consultancy, Lane4, and a former Olympic gold-winning swimmer, explains: “It’s all very well telling a story, but how do you apply it to managing a call centre, where the goal is to deal with more calls?”
 
The business context
 
He believes that there is an overlap of about 60% between sport and business. While the former is a useful jumping off point and provides examples for learning, it has to be handled with caution as it can be a turn-off for a lot of people.
 
The thing to bear in mind most of all, however, is that everything has to be brought back to the business context.
 
Leisa Docherty, people services director at software vendor, Sage, attended one of Lane4’s sessions with 11 other managers, who had all been singled out as possible business leaders at the company.
 
By no means a sport fan, Docherty nevertheless found the activities used in the training session, which included rowing, wheelchair basketball and ballet, really helped her to think differently.
 
“It took people out of their comfort zones to learn new things, but it was all brought back to a business context,” she recalls.
 
Jo Lee, lead consultant and director of new executive development consultancy, AytonLee, set up with double Olympic gold sailing champion Sarah Ayton, says that using the model of a ‘different world’ – whether it is sport or something else – can help to break down barriers and capture interest.
 
There are clear parallels between the skills involved in getting a sailing crew ready for the big day and running a project, however.
 
Ayton explains: “In sailing, we run our own projects from financing them, planning who you sail with, your four-year goal, setting progress goals to get you there and how to keep pushing to make sure, on the start date of the Olympic Games, that you’re ready.”

Gazing Performance Systems, on the other hand, comes at the sport/business crossover from a different perspective. The consultancy teaches both elite sports people such as the New Zealand All Blacks and athlete Sally Gunnell as well as business leaders the skills required to become a high-performer.
 
Breaking it down
 
While most of the activities undertaken by those two groups are totally different – for example, it would be ridiculous to say that a call centre worker would have the same feeling before a call as an athlete on the starting blocks – there are three areas that are transferable, believes Martin Fairn, the firm’s chief executive.
 
To improve performance, both groups need a rock solid sense of the objectives that have been set; a framework to achieve them and practical tools to help them do so.
 
Beyond that, a key message that business people can pick up from sport is the importance of practicing consistently. Sportspeople practice something over and over again until they get it right and it becomes ingrained, but it rarely happens in business.
 
Yet if you break down a given activity down into individual tasks (the framework) in order to reach your goal, it becomes possible to see which specific area needs to be improved via practice. Ideally, such activity would be supported by coaching, but Fairn admits: “This transfers in principle but not necessarily in practice.”
 
He uses tennis as an example. Coaches sit down with players after a match to analyse their performance by breaking it down into components – they evaluate the individual’s serve and the number of service-return winners, they look at weak spots and then draw up a schedule to work on problem areas.
 
But while most businesses measure performance, they often fail to break it down into its constituent parts like a tennis coach. In a sales context, for instance, it would be unusual to look beyond the superficial figures and explore why they might be up or down.
 
“If you imagine a football manager who only looked at the scoreboard all the way through the match, what would they really know about the match?” asks Fairn.
 
But by introducing metrics that look beyond the numbers for root causes, it is possible to work out what could be done differently next time. And by educating leaders and managers in how to apply coaching methods to the way that they manage their staff, a powerful performance tool can be created.
 
Lane4’s Moorhouse agrees that one of the key skills involved in being a good leader is the ability to coach effectively. “My coach was absolutely rubbish at swimming, yet he coached me to the Olympics. My job is to help the guys who work for me to become brilliant,” he explains.
 
Motivation levels
 
Another key message is the need for clear goals. While some organisations make the mistake of approaching consultancies with only the woolliest of ideas about wanting their leaders to be more successful, such an approach creates a disconnect. “It’s like saying I want to get fit but don’t want to go to the gym,” says Fairn.
 
Instead it is more productive to have a specific goal in mind and break it down into achievable milestones. But leaders and managers also have to commit to specific training and to putting in the hours required to generate improvement.
 
Another common mistake is to assume that becoming a high-performer is all about having the right mind set as well as the mental toughness to cope with pressure. But in reality, believes Fairn, there is no single thing that helps individuals to deal with stress – what is required instead is a multi-faceted approach.
 
Moreover, he points out, pressure is not necessarily a negative thing. It can help people perform better by unleashing adrenalin and making them dig deeper into their own internal resources in order to perform beyond anyone’s expectations.
 
One of the key differences between high-performing sports people, the majority of leaders and the rest of the working population, however, is simply their motivation levels. “Most Olympians would do it without the money,” says Moorhouse, which couldn’t be said of most employees.
 
But looking at what motivates people in a work context can also be a useful business aid, he adds.
 
“We make assumptions that people are interested in what they do,” Moorhouse says. He uses the example of people digging up roads for the National Grid – do they think about why they do what they do beyond the fact that they are paid to do it? Probably not.
 
But if you were to tell them that their actions were helping keep a life support system working, it would help impart more of a sense of purpose. “In sport, there’s an easier connection to the end goal,” Moorhouse explains.
 
So can sports people teach business people anything? The answer is ‘yes’, but that’s not to say that high-achieving business leaders couldn’t teach sportspeople a thing or two as well.
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