Tuesday, June 17, 2008

How the Best of the Best Get Better and Better

By: Jones, Graham,
Harvard Business Review,
June 2008, Vol. 86, Issue 6

Interesting points

Graham Jones is a sports psychologist.

As a sports psychologist, I spent much of my career as a consultant to Olympic and world champions in rowing, swimming, squash, track and field, sailing, trampolining, and judo. Then in 1995, I teamed up with Olympic gold medal swimmer Adrian Moorhouse to start Lane4, a firm that has been bringing the lessons from elite athletic performance to Fortune 500 and FTSE 100 companies, with the help of other world-class athletes such as Greg Searle, Alison Mowbray, and Tom Murray.

Elite performers in both arenas (sports and business) thrive on pressure; they excel when the heat is turned up. Their rise to the top is the result of very careful planning -- of setting and hitting hundreds of small goals. Elite performers use competition to hone their skills, and they reinvent themselves continually to stay ahead of the pack. Finally, whenever they score big wins, top performers take time to celebrate their victories.

A thing that helps star performers love the pressure is their ability to switch their involvement in their endeavors on and off. A good way to do this is to have a secondary passion in life. Rower Alison Mowbray, for example, always set time aside to practice the piano, despite her grueling athletic-training schedule. Not only did she win a silver medal in the Olympics in 2004, but she also became an accomplished pianist in the process. Richard Branson is famous for his hot-air balloon adventures.

Much of star athletes' ability to rebound from defeat comes from an intense focus on long-term goals and aspirations. At the same time, both sports stars and their coaches are keenly aware that the road to long-term success is paved with small achievements.

Celebration is more than an emotional release. Done effectively, it involves a deep level of analysis and enhanced awareness. The very best performers do not move on before they have scrutinized and understood thoroughly the factors underpinning their success.

Most of those participating in the Olympics this summer will walk away from the games without grabbing a single medal. Those with real mettle will get back into training again. That's what truly separates elite performers from ordinary high achievers. It takes supreme, almost unimaginable grit and courage to get back into the ring and fight to the bitter end. That's what the Olympic athlete does. If you want to be an elite performer in business, that's what you need to do, too.

Graham Jones (graham.jones@lane4performance.com) is a cofounder of Lane4, an international performance development consultancy, and a former professor of elite performance psychology at the University of Wales. He is based in Princeton, New Jersey, and is the coauthor, with Adrian Moorhouse, of Developing Mental Toughness: Gold Medal Strategies for Enhancing Your Business Performance (How To Books, 2007).

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