WHAT CAN BUSINESS LEARN FROM ELITE ATHLETES THAT PERFORM UNDER PRESSURE?

Dr Tim Rogers is a Consultant and Sports Psychiatrist whose work involves helping elite athletes. His clients include prospective olympians, Premier League footballers, jockeys and international cricket and rugby players, to name but a few. Tim provides expertise in performance under pressure, resilience, mental health and wellbeing. In addition, he is a strong proponent of the potential for technology as a tool: to drive individual and team performance; mental fitness and psychological skills.

Here, Christopher Lorenz, Co-Founder and Head of Science at Soma Analytics, speaks with Tim about the challenges elite athletes face when required to perform under pressure and how business can learn lessons from the world of elite sport.

Christopher: Tim, you are seeing many of Britain’s elite athletes on a daily basis, including those preparing for Rio 2016. What are the key challenges they face?

Tim: Being an athlete isn’t easy! Let’s take a Premier League footballer for example. He has to perform to his absolute peak 40 or more times in a year, week in week out. If we’re honest we probably struggle to do that once a month!

If he’s good at his job, he’ll have to do that in front of 20 000 people each time. If he gets some career progression, he’ll have to do that in front of 60 000 people each time. If not, then his job is on the line and he’s on the bench. Being able to perform under pressure is a critical skill.

Their competitors, like them, have often strived all of their lives to achieve a level of expertise that almost no-one else has. It’s an environment where tiny margins – fractions of a percentage – mean the difference between success or failure – survival or relegation.  It is surprising but, even among elite athletes, mental skills and resilience are (still) often the areas that remain overlooked, especially relative to stamina, strength and conditioning, nutrition, etc. We, as sport psychologists and psychiatrists work with the mind muscle, in many different ways.

Christopher: You mentioned that performing under pressure is a critical skill and this definitely strikes a chord with me. When we visit clients we see a consistent theme. There is more and more pressure. More and more demands. Ultimately, in many cases, this leads to an imbalance between demands and available resources – resulting in negative stress.

We recently surveyed one of our clients in the hospitality industry. It turned out that 96% of their employees claimed that stress had affected them over the past month. The CIPD also ran a survey that showed stress to be the number one cause of long-term sickness absence.

You said earlier that athletes must perform under pressure. Yet it appears athletes spend 90% of their time training and just 10% performing. Whereas in business, we must perform 90% of the time and train 10% of the time. So, where do you see the parallels between performing under pressure in sports and performing under pressure in business?

Tim: It is understandable to imagine that for a professional, there are discrete, short periods of time when they must perform under stress. However, in my experience, it’s not like that. Let’s again take professional footballers for example. Even when they’re training, they still have numerous stressors: coach’s perceptions, whether they might get picked next Saturday, whether their contract is going to get renewed, who might look to transfer them, the media, how to find a way to win their next match – and more. These worries can weigh on an athlete in the same way that an employee may worry about deadlines and things like that.

It’s tempting to believe that the most stressful events are big life events. However, there is research available – a Whitehall study involving civil servants for example  – showing that it is actually the cumulative effect of lots of little stresses over time that is actually most harmful. So, I think there is a similarity between athletes and everyone else because we all need mental skills to be able to deal with pressure. More than that, our bodies, fundamentally, all contain the same distress systems and stress hormones whether we play sport or play the markets for a living.

Christopher: One of the key challenges faced by business leaders and HR professionals is that they often address the issue of stress reactively, as a part of a tertiary intervention, rather than preventatively, as part of a secondary intervention. So, based on your experience, why should a sports team invest in building resilience? What’s the return of investment going to be?

Tim: In medicine and psychology, we trade in evidence. We need to know that there’s a scientific basis to what we’re doing, and that what we’re doing is effective and does make a difference. We are always appraising the evidence for the interventions we employ and we use those ones that are shown by research, scientific and clinical trials, to help performance.

For example, there is a study by Damian Scarf, in Otago, who found that social identity (a concept relating to group “belongingness”) predicts better stress management and longer term resilience. This is useful because we find that intervening to build social identity and belonging within organisations and teams can help their performance. There is perhaps no better recent example of this than Leicester City winning the Premier League against the odds.

In sport, as in business, there’s a bottom line. So, a club’s cash flow is related to its results and its performance on the pitch. A club pays a price when players are injured or unable to train or play. I think there’s an analogy there for commerce, too. Our aim is to show through science that what we do does make a difference.

Christopher: I agree, it’s important to look at the evidence and the science behind it. Now, one of the ways to deliberate interventions—and this is the process that Soma follows—is by leveraging technology. In our case, smartphones sit in our pockets, nearly everybody has one and they are incredibly powerful these days.

This links in perfectly with what Soma is currently preparing for. We have been awarded a research and innovation grant by the European Union as part of the Horizon 2020 Programme. Soma will conduct a randomised controlled trial using a smartphone app to reduce stress in the workplace. For further information click here.

Returning to sports and sports psychology, where do you think you can see the value of technology?

Tim: My experience is that the world of sport is often behind other sectors in the adaptation to and adoption of technology. For example, the delay in adopting goal line technology in football, perhaps the scandals surrounding online gambling within cricket and even doping within athletics, are examples where other sectors were technologically ahead of sport.

Just like business professionals, athletes are time poor. Access to a professional, whether it be a psychologist or a doctor, it is not always convenient. It can also be costly. I believe technology has the potential to help here too.  

It can  eat away and break down these barriers. Access to the learning of mental skills at a time and place which is most convenient can be very valuable.

In addition, embedding learning into our day-to-day lives is made easier with the help of a device that can prompt and remind you or even provide personalised feedback. These are unique ways in which technology can make a difference.

Christopher: Technology also gives you access to expert knowledge across a far wider global footprint. For example, we often hear about the difficulties clients face when trying to engage remote workers. In one of our studies with a global pharmaceutical company they were delighted by the spread of their employee engagement.

Tim: There are parallels in sports too. We all appreciate that the very top elite athletes have access to a plethora of professionals for nutrition, strength and conditioning, coaching, sleeping, psychology and more. They get that access whenever and wherever they need it. Yet, there is a pyramid of athletes below them, those playing at a slightly lower level, youth athletes, or athletes aspiring to achieve elite levels.

I think there is a potential for a Catch-22 situation where athletes need to learn those mental skills to get to the top, but unless you’re at the top, you don’t necessarily have access to the same learning. I believe it is the same for business as well. We need a variety of solutions to suit different requirements and resources.

Christopher: When we talk about learning these crucial mental skills, with mental fitness and mental health, there is still a lot of stigma around it. Do you think technology can help to overcome the stigma?

Tim: Stigma is a massive issue that we need navigate around all the time. Your mind and your wellbeing is everything about what you are and who you are. The idea that that could be damaged is a very scary thing. It’s easy to understand why people don’t necessarily want to face that in their day-to-day life or in other people.

The real challenge in sport is trying to get athletes to talk about mental health problems and stressors when they need to. You might not believe some of the lengths that athletes will go to, to safeguard their confidentiality, which is absolutely key.

Athletes worry about getting a new contract or progressing. They worry about their selection. They worry about their reputation. There’s the media to consider. So, there are many fears that athletes can harbour when talking about wellbeing and mental health.

Technology can help. Computerised eCBT is a cognitive talking therapy for lots of different conditions. It’s widely used online throughout the world already and it works. Believe it or not, sometimes people will disclose or confide more to an anonymous computer screen, or an algorithm, than to a real person. I think that can potentially be a powerful thing.

Christopher: So, you are saying that for some people technology might even work better than seeing somebody face-to-face or being part of a group?

Tim: Yes, in some respects it has the potential to do that.

Christopher: We have talked about how organisations can help their employees to improve resilience and perform at their best. To achieve this, we need to  mitigate stress. What are your top three #StressBusters? What are the things you do to feel less stressed and perform optimally?

Tim: I love doing sports. For me, that’s my favorite, most enjoyable #StressBuster. There is actually a scientific basis to it too. We know there’s a very robust link found between how active you are, your mood, your anxiety levels and your self-esteem. It seems to be the case that there’s a dose response effect between your physical activity and the benefits you receive. It’s like a medicine in this respect.

Christopher: We were invited to an event in Paris recently and asked 200 HR professionals what their secret #StressBusters are; the number one #StressBuster, as with you, was physical activity and sports. View the fantastic infographic we created here.

So, what else can we do?

Tim: Well, I’d probably choose a mental skill. I’m interested in the Theory of Challenge and Threat States in Athletes. It’s derived from the study of other areas of psychology. What we know is that our body has two distinct modes of operating when we’re under stress; a challenge state and a threat state. We switch between these states depending on how we appraise the demands that are placed upon us. If we look upon these demands as something to be relished, we see that as a challenge. Alternatively, we might view these demands as a threat to be feared.

In a challenge state we can use adrenaline to help us perform better. In a threat state, we activate a distinct, additional system in our body, a distress system, which means that we have more stress hormones like cortisol coursing around our body. This reduces the efficiency with which we can use energy. It reduces the blood flow to our brain and to our muscles. What we know is that athletes who can steer their thoughts towards a challenge state, where they relish what they’re about to do and enjoy the stress that’s before them,well they are much more likely to win and perform well.

Christopher: So, to recap, there are two different states that our mind and body operate in. One is the challenge state and one is the threat state. Does that mean that we should work on changing how we think about things?

Tim: In part, yes, but It’s not quite as simple as that! Certainly, if we notice we feel under stress, I think it can be useful to step back and reflect upon whether and why we have got into a threat or a challenge mode of thinking. However, there are many ways, many different techniques and various factors that influence which mode we are in. Athletes use various methods to move themselves from a threat state to a challenge state but we all make these same basic psychological appraisals in our minds. Also, the same distress systems exist in business people as in athletes. So, those same techniques used in sport to move from a performance impairing state to a winning state can be applicable to business people too.

Christopher: Can you give me an example of how to do this?

Tim: There are many. For example, sometimes athletes train themselves to use their imagination differently to other people but a simple method to try is through building self-efficacy. That’s basically confidence, the degree to which you believe in yourself to do what you need to. What we know is that the more confident you are in general about a particular task, the more likely you are to see it as a challenge. Confidence, too, is just a skill that can be trained. So, confidence is a simple, easy way to help manage stress.

An example of a technique to build confidence might be to start with a blank piece of paper. Set aside 5-10 minutes in the day or in the evening, and write down what you think your strengths are, what you think your best skills are and what you think your positive qualities are. Then when you’ve done that, write down what you think other people would your say about your skills, strengths, and positive qualities if you were to ask them. Then perhaps think about the positive things in your last appraisal, or the positive things that your partner or parent might say about you. If we take time and think about it, most of us can probably fill a piece of paper with those things. Once you take a step back and look at that, it’s easy to see how quickly, when under stress, we lose sight of all those skills and abilities that we have. Reminding and prompting in this way is an example of a technique that athletes might use to take confidence into a situation where they know they need to stay in a challenge state and not worry that things that might go wrong. That’s a bit of a complex explanation, but it’s solid advice!

Christopher: So, for your second #StressBuster – take a piece of paper, fill it with your strengths, but also what other people think might be your strengths and prompt your mind not to overlook those. Room for one final #StressBuster?

Tim: How about the the humble ‘nut’.

When we’re busy and stressed, many of us have worked through lunch or skipped a meal. In those times, it’s much harder to avoid going for an unhealthy snack or a high sugar drink from a vending machine. What we know about high sugar snacks is that they help you – they give you a sugar rush that lasts for a while – but the insulin that your body produces in response to it quickly brings your sugar back down and it can overshoot. You might find yourself hungry before too long and at risk of snacking again. You may feel guilty about not having eaten how you wanted to, particularly if you’re an athlete on a special diet.

So, my suggestion is the humble nut. A bag of nuts can immediately be slipped into your handbag or sports bag. Nuts are full of slow burning carbs and good fats and other healthy things. They’re long-lasting, and they can stay there until you need them.

Christopher: So, your third and final #StressBuster – the humble nut. Buy a bag of nuts, have it with you as a healthy performance enhancing snack.

Tim, your insight into the world of sports psychology has been fascinating, thank you. We’ve come to the end of our session, so let me quickly recap our discussion.

We started by talking through some of the challenges that athletes face. We established that there is a parallel between sports and business – and that performing under pressure is a critical skill in both sectors.

We then talked about the role that technology can play to help us perform at our best and we agreed on three key benefits: technology can broaden access to expert knowledge, it can remind us to implement learnings into our daily lives and, in the particular case of mental skills, it can help us to overcome the barrier of stigma.

Once again Tim, I’d like to thank you very much for joining me today. It’s been fantastic.

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