Top 5 lessons that elite sport teaches business about performance errors

Author Karen Meager offers five tips that can be used to teach leaders about improving sustainable well-being and performance…

As organisational psychologists, we are interested in behaviours that can be successfully adapted and adopted for the world of work. In researching elite sports for our new book, ‘Rest, Practise, Perform we observed approaches that can help leaders avoid some of the errors that can damage performance. By studying what elite sports people and teams do well, we identified five fundamental performance errors that organisations dismiss or overlook.

  1. Lack of clarity

Just like in sports, businesses need clear goals and strategies to succeed. These goals must be specific and achievable, and they have to be measurable. In elite sports there is a ‘gameplan’. Teams know what they are called upon to do and who does what. You won’t see a better example of a highly performing team than in the blur of activity of a Formula 1 pit stop.

In business, a lot of time and energy can be wasted because staff are unclear. If people are unclear, it can be very stressful, having a negative effect on their health. It can be demoralising to see a lot of work go nowhere, and if this happens a number of times, peoples’ health can deteriorate fast. As a leader, the more you can do to make sure that your team’s work will contribute to performance, the more likely you are to avoid this pitfall.

You want to ensure that everyone is clear about what good looks like in terms of their role, that they are clear about how their work contributes to the overall business goals, and that they are clear about where they have freedom and autonomy and where they do not. Think of the difference between the creative play of professional football players in the flow of much of a match and the predetermined and specific tasks the players are assigned during corners, free kicks and penalties.

  1. Lack of data-driven decision making

Elite sports teams leverage data and analytics to gain insights into performance and make informed decisions. Businesses can adopt a similar approach by collecting and analysing data to understand customer behaviour, market trends, and operational efficiency, leading to more informed decision-making.

Elite sportspeople always follow up after a match or race. They analyse who did what, what went well and what could be improved. For a business, having some way of tracking and following up can make a huge difference. Use tools and technology to keep track of key things you need to follow up and have a separate ‘follow-up list’ from your to do list. Set clear expectations, give a ‘why’ for short deadlines, and avoid arbitrary or false deadlines. Do have conversations with others about why things haven’t been done, but avoid going into blame mode.

  1. Low levels of trust

Trust is essential in elite sports. The most effective and high-performing teams instinctively know where their teammates will be on the track or pitch. The same goes for management. Coaches build trust with their players which helps them understand why decisions that they may not like have been made.

Aside from the obvious benefits of creating trust in an organisation, if people do not trust each other, they will spend more time checking, questioning, trying to understand and challenging. This can be a huge waste of time and energy. Creating trust is not about being nice, or telling people what they want to hear. It’s about being honest and consistent.

Trust is frequently eroded by well-meaning leaders who say all the right things but then never deliver them. Some key elements of building trust can be easily achieved by doing what you say you are going to do. Don’t make too many promises, but make sure you deliver on the ones you commit to. And keep people updated, even if there is bad news.

  1. Poor collaboration skills

When an elite team reaches the final stages of a tournament, they are there because they have learned to collaborate. That’s what pre-season and training camps are for. It’s here that they learn how to understand each other and find their rhythm. In organisations, collaboration sounds nice but is fraught with difficulties. People have competing priorities, complex interdependencies and their own personal needs; working with other people can be a drain.

You should prioritise team building as part of your team’s rhythm, the more people know each other the more easily they will create a shorthand, saving time later. They will also resolve more of their own tensions. Make sure everyone is trained in negotiation skills and managing conflict. These are under taught but critical skills. And put in place a clear process for the resolution of disagreements where there is a stalemate. This avoids people ruminating or making difficulties personal.

  1. Getting the wrong kind of rest

In many workplaces there is a widely held view that rest ‘is what holidays are for’. Elite sports have a different, and useful, perspective on rest. Instead of stopping completely and quickly losing fitness, they focus on resting that which has been lost through the performance window. That’s why so many sportspeople build in different types of activities that give them a break from intense competition. What they really need is a break from the pressure of competition, rather than from pure exhaustion. Many find this in activities (such as golf) that they don’t complete in but do just for fun.

Organisations can learn a lot from this and build it into their rhythm. Just like sports people, employees need to rest what it is they use up in the performance window. For example, HR professionals may need a break from intense emotional situations, project managers may experience rest by focusing on one thing rather than twenty, and creative designers may get rest by doing something practical rather than creative.

These five errors are not easy to solve, but even marginal improvements in each of these areas will have a knock-on effect on your ability to improve and sustain performance.

Karen Meager is co-author of ‘Rest. Practise. Perform. What elite sport can teach leaders about sustainable wellbeing and performance’. For more information go to:

Chris Price