Top of their game

You may think elite performers and sportspeople are born that way, but in fact their innate, natural talent, was rarely enough to push them all the way to the top of their game.

After 15 years studying and working with these unique human specimens, I've noticed a number of patterns they exhibit day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year…

Many lessons can be drawn from their habits when applied to the business world, to help improve and sustain performance for the long-term and help avoid the highs and lows all too common with corporate success. Here are my top seven:

1. Know your strengths

At school most people were taught to work on weaknesses and the same holds true as we enter the corporate world. The problem with this approach is after years of effort you can end up with really strong weaknesses.

When Steve Waugh was dropped in the summer of 1990, he had a weakness in his game - and that was playing the short ball on the leg side. This meant that opposing teams would set him up by bowling short.

He challenged his coaches at the time that he didn't need to work on a shot he wasn't really good at, and in actual fact it was a shot that he didn't even need to play. So he just took it out of his repertoire.

History tells us he went on to not only captain Australia, but also go down in history as one of the best batsmen the world has ever seen. So what's your 'short ball on the leg side'?

2. Sustain energy


The world's best athletes and sporting teams understand the balance between energy expenditure and energy renewal. In fact, leading sporting teams nowadays spend more time and more money on recovery strategies than they do on training.

When I was a middle distance runner (many years ago), we'd often get the opportunity to train with Kenyan athletes who would come out to Australia. Each year a different group of athletes would arrive, and amazingly each year a new champion would emerge from their ranks: the talent pool seemed endless. What did they know that we didn't?

There's a phrase in Swahili that sums it up, 'hapa hapa'. It means slowly, slowly or is also translated as 'now, now' and that's exactly the way Kenyans approached performance. They listened to their bodies, training when they felt good and taking time off when they needed rest, often for weeks at a time.

3. Happy discontentment

Leading performers are able to find that tenuous balance between celebrating their wins and being proud of their achievements, with the discontentment of constantly looking at ways to improve and achieve more. And they also know that once you reach the top position and become the benchmark, you need to reinvent and keep setting the pace for others to follow.

When Australian pole vaulter Steve Hooker sailed almost six metres through the air to clinch Australia's only track and field gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, he didn't sit on his laurels.

Clearing 5.90m on his final attempt to relegate Russian Evgeniy Lukyanenko into the silver medal, Hooker was shown to hug his coach and enjoy a quick celebration, then immediately raised the bar to 5.96m and broke the Olympic record.

4.Great support

The world's best athletes have the world's best support teams. To stay at the top of your game it is essential you have the right people in your team.

When the Australian cricket team goes on an overseas tour, there are normally 14 or 15 players. But then throw in the head coach, batting coach, bowling coach, throwing coach, physiotherapist, strength and conditioning coach, team doctor, team manager, security guard, bus driver, masseur and the local liaison officer and you get a grand total of 12 support staff – almost one per player.

Building a world-class support team includes your immediate business (admin support, team leaders, etc), your personal life (family and friends) as well as added accountability to ensure you continue to stretch and grow (coach, mentor, financial planner). This will ensure you continue to extend yourself, as well as staying accountable and on track.

5. Rubber backside (or the ability to bounce back)

Bad things happen. Whether it's losing a pitch, a client or missing out on a promotion, we have all found ourselves in situations that drive us to feel frustrated and think that life is unfair. While some of these situations stem from bad choices, others are completely outside our control. So when bad things happen, why is that some people bounce back, pull their socks up and keep moving forward, while for others a single set back leads to a downward spiral towards depression?

The answer is resilience. Resilience refers to a person's positive capacity to bounce back from stressful situations. It is not a trait, as many believe, but rather a learnt behaviour that is key for high performance.

Think of Cadel Evans, the first Australian to win the Tour de France against all odds at 34 years of age. Evans had been knocking on the door of success for almost a decade. In 2007 and 2008 he was 2nd both years, in 2009 he placed 30th and then in 2010 he crashed and finished riding the tour with a broken arm, limping across the line in 26th place. But he was able to absorb the pressure and stress of failure and go on to achieve the ultimate prize.

6.Reverse engineer

Reverse engineering is a common phrase in the world of technology which is effectively 'un-building or breaking down' an item and studying to see how it was put together.

Elite athletes follow the same process of reverse engineering when they use goal setting and imagery to visualise their ideal race or competition. There are now several hundred psychology papers in the literature that supports the idea that prior mental practice produces measurable gains in skilled performance for both cognitive and physical tasks.

Someone who embraces this concept fully is Roger Federer who is regarded as one of the best athletes of all time. What separates him from the rest of the field is his mental approach to the game. Federer is known to mentally rehearse key plays and winning shots before major competitions to the point that when he plays a game, his mind and body are hard-wired to perform.

7.Celebrate success

Celebrating success is much more than just cracking open a few cans of beer with your mates. Winning athletes in team sport have regular celebrations to mark milestones and provide the opportunity to stop and reflect upon the achievements that have been made.

At the end of a victorious match, the whole team will come together to pop a cork and relive highlights of their success, but in the frantic-paced business world where double-digit growth is the mantra – it is all too common to achieve targets and then move onto next year's budget, with little personal acknowledgement other than asking people to achieve even more.

But just taking time out to celebrate key business milestones is a proven way to enhance trust and communication between team members and gives you a valuable opportunity to reward and recognise their achievements.

What other lessons can we learn from outside the business walls?

Andrew May is a performance coach specialising in leadership in the office and on the sporting field.

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