Summary: It’s been a while. But here we are again, whilst Winter Olympians are racing for gold in Pyeongchang. Eveline writes about reaching your full potential and maintaining a healthy equilibrium. Why we should think of ourselves as athletes, but also why we should not exaggerate. Part 7 in a series about – but not limited to – Mindfulness.
Going for gold – the pursuit of peak performance
Author: Eveline Stolk
Reading Time: 5 min
This blog is a follow up on my earlier post: Bear in Mind: the (few) thoughts of Winnie the Pooh
Finally: the Olympics are here. As much as I love the Summer Games, the Winter edition has always been special for me, as I am an ice skating fan. I remember my grandfather writing down lap times during the 10 kilometers men’s final, which I copied as a kid. Usually I got too nervous, jumping up and down while screaming at the television. “They can’t hear you,” my father would mention calmly. It is that February vibe. A clear sky, a frosty air outside and that weird feeling in my stomach during the unbearable long silence before the starter’s gun.
The Olympics seem to never lose their magic. Athletes have been waiting four years for their chance on eternal fame under the Olympic flame. Trying to reach their peak performance at that specific date and time. It all comes down to creating optimal preconditions for maximum results. As easy as it may look sometimes, it is not.
Sadly, the most recent and tragic example is ice skating legend Sven Kramer, who did not succeed in one of the most important races of his life. After his main competitors set the bar high, Sven had no answer. Flabbergasted I looked at my screen. He was going too slow. Way too slow. My phone was ringing off the hook; people know I am a true fanatic. How was this possible? It left a nation in shock, as the Washington Post put it: “From afar, a country of 17 million seemed transfixed, while mindful of one of the Olympics’ most haunted backstories.”
Reaching your full potential. It is not only crucial in sports. Years ago, I read an article about the Ideal Performance State in the Harvard Business Review, written by Jim Loehr and Tony Swartz. After working with world-class athletes for years, the authors developed an approach for sustainable high performance that should also be applicable to another kind of athletes: corporate athletes. Executives in the business world, trying to achieve optimal results as well – just as sportsmen and women. Many professionals have to be on the top of their game on a daily basis, under increasing pressure in a competitive field.
Loehr and Swartz tested their model on thousands of professionals and found performance improved by training them as world-class athletes. They developed an integrated theory of performance management, addressing the body (physical well-being), emotions (emotional health), the mind (mental capacity) and the spirit (sense of purpose). Together, these elements form a so-called high-performance pyramid. “Each of its levels profoundly influences the others, and failure to address any one of them compromises performance,” the authors explain. It is therefore essential to consider the person as a whole. Because: “The Ideal Performance State (peak performance under pressure) is achieved when all levels are working together.”
As we all know, it is difficult to maintain a healthy and well-balanced lifestyle at all time. Not seldom we blame stress as the main threat to our system. Is that fair? True, we can suffer from stress on physical, emotional and mental levels. However, the article explains that the absence of disciplined recovery is a more serious threat to high performance than the stress itself. As one of the authors proclaims in earlier research: ‘”stress is the stimulus for growth. Recovery is when you grow.” Your muscles do not grow in the gym; they grow afterwards. Remember Joop Zoetemelk, our Dutch pride in the previous century as road racing cyclist? He stated that the Tour de France is actually won in bed. You cannot reach your Ideal Performance State without replenishing your energy reserves in a proper way.
Being physically fit is the most obvious kind of fitness. However, effective energy management involves more than that. Feeling confident and positive (emotional capacity), being able to unwind (mental) and connecting to your deepest values (spiritual) are just as important. For example: for someone who exercises every day, but is not able to disengage from work, the quality of recovery is insufficient. The same holds for someone who meditates on a regular basis, but hates his job. In another article, I found a nice metaphor. Think of the different performance components as batteries, representing the energy levels in each building block. The basic thought is that you are as strong as your weakest battery.
Recharging multiple batteries: although quite challenging on itself, that is – in my opinion – not even the tricky part. The real challenge is to optimize energy management for the right reasons. How often aren’t we trying to be a match winner in everything we do? We want to be successful at work, be a fitgirl or boy, feel zen when we get home, while having a strong sense of purpose in life. Thereby, our Ideal Performance State is a goal on itself.
I was pleasantly surprised when my employer provided a training called “The Corporate Athlete”, to enhance our knowledge about energy management. I applaud the initiative, because raising awareness is the first step. The workshop touched upon all aspects of the high-performance pyramid. While people were taking notes about optimal sleeping cycles, nutrition and meditation exercises, I looked around the room and wondered how many of them would actually change their behavioral patterns. Let alone their mindset.
Months ago, towards the end of the mindfulness training, we talked about taking better care of ourselves. Most of us acknowledged that a more balanced lifestyle would contribute to our happiness. However, we were all having a hard time implementing this in our day-to-day life. And even if we manage to do so, it does not necessarily make us feel better. Driven by discipline and the reward of feeling satisfied afterwards, we try a lot of things that are supposed to make us successful, healthy and happy. But do they?
Which question do we want to answer? How do I reach my full potential? Or what do I currently need most? Don’t get me wrong: I truly believe in the importance of recharging all of our batteries. Energy management is key, certainly to reach peak performance. But maybe, despite considerable efforts in every aspect, the important lesson is that we cannot be match winners all the time. Maybe we should try to compete less and take better care of ourselves. Where Olympic athletes strive for the race of a lifetime, we’d better not strive for a lifetime of racing.
Jim Loehr and Tony Swartz, The Making of a Corporate Athlete, Harvard Business Review, 2001; https://hbr.org/2001/01/the-making-of-a-corporate-athlete
Koen Gonissen and Alain Goudsmet, The Corporate Athlete, 2010; http://www.panview.nl/de/node/558