While reading a book on leadership coaching, I came across a reference to the title of a Harvard Business Review article by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz that immediately grabbed my attention:
“The Making of a Corporate Athlete”
Yes!! Prior to launching Will Athletic and exploring the concept of the Inner Athlete, I had this idea of a business or corporate athlete stuck in my head. Sure, the excitement and experience of being on the field might not be there, but that sense of competition, desire for growth, and willingness to win absolutely existed. So how could we harness that athlete’s mindset and apply it on a daily basis in the office? Seeing an article about making Corporate Athletes was something I had to check out.
The HBR article addressed how traditional measures of management effectiveness only focused from the neck up which should be no surprise.
A person’s intelligence and experience are often looked at as key indicators of future success in the role. But while important, is that really it? Why is it then that people that seem great on paper crash and burn? While there is not a single answer, I would argue (as does the article) that we must look at the person as a whole and make sure they are continually working on improving all aspects of themselves to ensure peak performance.
To accomplish this, the Corporate Athlete concept addresses the significance of working on and attending to the body, emotions, mind and spirit. Sounds familiar!
The paper and research is based off of decades of work that the writers conducted with world class athletes. They started to see the similarities between professional athletes and business executives. They then started to apply the techniques to their corporate clients and saw great results. This quickly led them to the realization that given the demands on their executives, that they were and should be treated as – Corporate Athletes.
This post is a bit more academic than what I’ve written in the past, but I think it will provide some great nuggets, plus there are plenty of actionable recommendations we can all apply in our lives too! So let’s dig into the article and the parallels between the Corporate Athlete and the Inner Athlete!
Training the Corporate Athlete
The Making of a Corporate Athlete article focused primarily on taking care of the complete person to help them achieve their Ideal Performance State. The authors weren’t focused on building or improving specific skills such as public speaking or financial analysis, rather performance attributes such as endurance, strength, flexibility, self-control and focus.
By building these attributes, the corporate athlete will be better conditioned on all levels to bring their A-game whenever needed, as opposed to getting burned out or overwhelmed as the demands on their time and talent grew.
Too often we hear the tale of the executives who perform at a high level all day and every day in meetings, and at breakfasts, lunches and dinners with clients – followed of course by drinks and late nights.
We may admire them and think to ourselves that they ‘made it’, but is that type of performance actually ideal?
That pace may work for a while, but if those high-powered executives don’t take care of their bodies and well-being, then their high performance now will suffer over the long haul through failing health, relationships and career performance.
To combat this, the article digs into a concept they call ‘oscillation’ – specifically between stress and recovery.
While we typically categorize stress as a negative, stress was determined to not be the enemy since it stimulates growth. It was actually lack of recovery which negatively affected performance.
Recovery periods are becoming more talked about and focused on in the athletic arena, and need to be talked about more in the corporate / working world as well.
The authors made a great point that a focus on oscillating between stress and recovery is actually more critical for Corporate Athletes than professional athletes given the disproportional amount of time Corporate Athletes perform vs. train/practice while also operating without an off-season to recover and recharge.
Ultimately, the goal is to train our inner state to continue to perform at the highest levels despite the external pressures or impacts. So let’s walk through the four pillars to build a world-class Ideal Performance State and become a successful Corporate Athlete
The Corporate Athlete concept places a large emphasis on the body since, as the article states, it is our ‘fundamental source of energy‘ This makes sense, since if we are going to do anything worthwhile, our body needs to be able to support the required effort.
The authors noted that in their studies, the best athletes focused the most on recovery – even in-between the moments of their competition.
They used an example with tennis players where the best performers incorporated rituals between points during the match that brought them back into focus and allowed them to recover for the next point. Those players who did not incorporate recovery were found to be less focused, more frazzled and had higher probabilities of their games falling apart.
Traditionally, Corporate Athletes push themselves non-stop from the mental and emotional standpoint but not the physical. By neglecting the physical aspect, they lose out on the energy from that source – which can be substantial.
While working with one client, they found that building regular workouts back into their routine created a clear delineation between work and life while also bringing back her sense of being an athlete. The regular workout routine brought her more energy and made her more effective in her work responsibilities and relationships.
Diet and sleep were also cited as critical to ensuring the body can contribute to the corporate athlete’s overall success.
Their research found that 5-6 small healthy meals a day helped contribute to a steady energy level. I personally do something different, but this is a very popular approach as well. The key is incorporating healthy options throughout the eating schedule that works for you and your lifestyle. I would add, don’t try to be perfect or you will drive yourself crazy. I try to incorporate an 80% rule where I eat the right things 80% of the time, while giving myself the flexibility to enjoy ‘less healthy’ options here and there. The authors also referenced 7-8 hours being the optimal target for sleep to ensue proper sleep cycles and recovery can occur – no burning the candle at both ends if you want to be a high performing Corporate Athlete!
After hitting the physical attribute of the Corporate Athlete, the authors touched on the emotional which they considered to be the ‘internal climate that supports peak performance‘. That description is pretty spot on, although I would note that it can also be the internal climate that prevents peak performance if we don’t keep our emotions in check during the big moments and games.
Loehr and Schwartz surveyed their clients to see how they described their feeling during their best performances. Overall, the most common answers included: calm, challenged, engaged, focused, optimistic, and confident. They also referenced how their top athletes commented that they were having fun during some of the biggest moments in their sports careers as opposed to being nervous or anxious.
They also explored the other side of the emotional coin and found that the negative emotions and feelings drained energy, elevated blood pressure, increased muscle tension and crushed performance. Essentially, those negative emotions became toxic. That should serve as a great reminder and lesson to fill your life with positivity over negativity because whichever you choose will breed more of the same.
Much like the physical section, the authors recommended regular exercise for clients which created an outlet to burn off tension and the negative emotions.
‘In the moment’ tactics were also used for those that were self-aware when their emotions started to get the best of them:
The authors had their clients focus on breathing, relaxing their face muscle, softening their voice, empathizing with the person they were dealing with and framed their response or reaction in a positive way.
These simple steps were very powerful in not only positively altering their reactions, but also creating better relationships and respect among their colleagues.
They also highlighted the importance of music which helps shift brain activity from the rational side to the more intuitive and creative side. This approach gives the rational side a breather while also working out the creative side which can help generate new and innovative thoughts or ideas.
Close relationships were also highlighted as a key approach to controlling emotions and balancing work and life. Prioritizing and committing to the important relationships ultimately promoted recovery and supported more effective work-life boundaries.
Traditionally, this is where most people focus their time and attention within the work environment – the cognitive realm.
The authors prioritized improving their Corporate Athletes’ capacity in the areas of focus, time management and positive and critical thinking skills.
Meditation was a core tool used to increase focus. They also used ‘mindless’ activities such as jogging, yard work or listening to music to provide a mental break from the cognitive portion of the brain to facilitate that oscillation from the stress zone to recovery.
Some clients instituted monthly get-a-ways or shifting work hours to leave early enough to enjoy more family time.
Another simple yet effective tactic referenced was to set a timer for 90 minutes. When the alarm when off, it was time to get up, walk around and perform some form of exercise or deep breathing in order to give the mind time to recover.
More frequent breaks were preferred, however some form of recovery time was deemed absolutely necessary after the 90 minute mark.
Visualization was also a critical tool used to set a positive and success-focused mindset, and was a tool I touched on as part of an earlier post. Visualizing what you want to happen helps to build the mental muscles necessary to perform successfully under pressure.
Finally, the authors touched on the importance of the spiritual attribute of the Corporate Athlete.
‘Spirituality’ is often a touchy subject these days, but a very important aspect for all of us to explore. The authors’ definition of Spirituality for the Corporate Athlete was, “energy released by tapping into one’s deepest values and defining a strong sense of purpose“. Basically, a strong focus on appealing to a person’s values and purpose – their ‘why‘.
Several tools were mentioned to help with the creation of rituals as mentioned earlier. The most effective tools were meditation, journal writing, prayer and service to others.
Through creating rituals built around those tools, they helped refocus their clients from a perpetual state of doing and triage to a sense of being and a renewed focus on the bigger picture.
The Road Ahead
Whether we find ourselves competing in the corporate landscape or elsewhere, I think we can all incorporate some of the tools, that Loehr and Schwartz use with their Corporate Athletes to immediately improve our own lives.
The important lesson within both the Corporate Athlete and Inner Athlete models is to ensure you are focusing on improving and nurturing all aspects of yourself. While there will be times when we need to rely on the physical, emotional, mental or spiritual more heavily that the others, we need to build in the recovery time to balance that internal sense of self.
That may sound ‘woo-woo’ or ‘touchy-feely’, but it is the best strategy and approach to ensure we can always be ready to perform and be our best whenever we are called into the game.
So let’s hop up off the bench and be the best athlete we can be today.
Discussion Question: Which area of your life mentioned above can best use a ‘Corporate Athlete’ upgrade – physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual? Pick one or two of the tools mentioned based on your answer and start applying them this week.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."