HBR: How the Best Get Better

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For many years, Graham Jones earned his keep as psychologist to high-performance Olympians and other world champions. Along the way, he discovered some key findings about how elite athletes operate in a world in which records are continually broken and consistently brilliant performance is required to maintain a berth. He teamed up with Olympic gold-medal swimmer Adrian Moorhouse in 1995 to transfer his findings to Fortune 500 companies intent on developing a pool of high-performance, elite senior executives. Jones writes about the lessons learned in the June 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review.1 “Sports is not business, but the parallels are striking,” he writes in the article. “In both worlds, elite performers are not born but made. Obviously, star athletes must have some innate, natural ability—coordination, physical flexibility, anatomical capabilities—just as successful senior executives need to be able to think strategically and relate to people. But the real key to excellence in both sports and business is not the ability to swim fast or do quantitative analyses quickly in your head; rather, it is mental toughness.” To illustrate, Jones begins with an anecdote from English miler Roger Bannister, who broke the barrier to the four-minute mile in 1954, when physicians and scientists believed that a human being was incapable of running a mile in less than four minutes and would die in the attempt. Bannister recalls getting up after breaking the four-minute barrier and collapsing at the finish line, saying, “I figured I was dead.” Jones concludes that the main obstacle to achieving the impossible in sports and business is a self-limiting mindset. Jones has distilled the modus operandi of elite athletes into five categories: they thrive under pressure, they fixate on long-term goals, they use competition to propel higher achievement, they understand the need to reinvent themselves continually, and they know how to celebrate. Performance under pressure: In pursuing their goals, elite athletes do not get distracted by the victories and failures of others, but instead focus single-mindedly on their own progress. Elite athletes have learned that managing pressure is easier if you focus on your own performance, Jones believes. “They concentrate on what they can control and forget the rest,” writes Jones, who calls these athletes “masters of compartmentalization.” Jones maintains that the ability of star athletes to thrive under pressure is aided by their seeming facility in turning off one pursuit and picking up another, whether it is a secondary passion, a hobby, or a night at the symphony. “Unless you are able to put the day behind you, as elite athletes can, you’ll inevitably run the risk of burning out,” Jones writes. Elite athletes are also undeterred by failure: when they do fail, they do not indulge in self-flagellation, but move on to the next contest. Eyes on the long-term prize: The elite athlete’s ability to rebound from defeat, Jones writes, comes from a singular focus on long-term goals. High achievers also understand the need to engineer short-term goals so that their performance will peak at major, not minor, events. Adrian Moorhouse set a four-year goal of swimming the 100-m breaststroke in 62 seconds or less at the Seoul Summer Olympics in 1988. To get there (and he did), he set and met short-term goals in all areas that would affect his performance, such as strength training, nutrition, mental toughness, and technique. Jones also shares the experience of an IT manager for a low-budget airline whose three-year goal was to become a senior executive. Working with Jones, she set short-term goals in several performance areas in which she was required to shine, including increasing her reputation and influence among executives in other departments and managing complex projects. By monitoring her progress in meeting the interim goals, the IT manager met her long-term goal when she was asked to lead a separate business unit. Competition as food: The best athletes know that stiff competition is a great way to raise their games. Jones recalls that a British Olympian sprinter arranged to have the silver medalist train with him. To raise their own games, Jones advises executives to work under people who will push them the hardest. “Smart companies consciously create situations in which their elite performers push one another to levels they would never reach if they were working with less-accomplished colleagues,” Jones writes. Self-reinvention: Jones maintains that while it is difficult to climb to the top, staying there is even harder, and it requires a continuous cycle of self-reinvention. Jones suggests that elite athletes do this by leaving no stone unturned and no avenue unexplored in their efforts to perfect themselves, and by welcoming and processing feedback. Jones offers one note of caution regarding feedback: be sure it is constructive by honestly interrogating negative feedback. Feel free to ask for more specifics. Celebrate a job well done: Elite athletes know how to party, Jones maintains. Celebration involves both rewards and self-congratulation, as well as a deep level of analysis and enhanced awareness of one’s capabilities. As with failure, don’t dwell too long on success. “Celebrate, but push on,” Jones suggests. “Don’t get stuck on the rituals of success. At the end of the day, getting to the next level of performance is what celebrating is really all about.” As we move into the rituals of the Summer Olympics in Beijing, Jones notes that there will be many more losers than winners. What separates the high achiever from the elite performer is the will to get back into training and fight to the end. “That’s what the Olympic athlete does,” Jones writes. “If you want to be an elite performer in business, that’s what you need to do.”