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Donkin on Work - Training & Development

March 2007 – Dealing with pressure, lessons from sport

Adrian Moorhouse is living proof that nice guys do occasionally come first. The former Olympic gold medallist and world record holder at 100m breaststroke, is forging a second career in human resources consultancy as the managing director of Lane4, a business he co-founded with Graham Jones, a sports psychology professor at the University of Wales, Bangor.

Now they have co-authored a book, Developing Mental Toughness, Gold Medal Strategies for Transforming Your Business Performance*. I met Mr Moorhouse some years ago when he told me about the hard work that went in to his swimming routines.

It was a tough slog for a teenage boy, getting up at 5 am to undertake early morning sessions before school with the prospect of evening sessions afterwards, year in year out. Do swimmers and athletes possess a kind of discipline that is missing from ordinary mortals? If so, are those qualities transferable to the rest of us?

It was with some scepticism that I opened their book since I had just read a timely warning by David Fairhurst, chief people officer at McDonald’s Restaurants Northern Europe, about the dangers of using sporting metaphors in the workplace.

Writing in the March issue of Human Resources magazine, he questioned the popular use of sporting performance comparisons in employment.

“My concern is that if employers present athletes as role models, they may inadvertently be reinforcing a culture of high pressure, long hours and presenteeism.

“It’s a culture that many organisations are attempting to eradicate, and which many informed observers are now warning is actually undermining rather than enhancing organisational performance.”

His reservations are understandable. How many employees, at whatever tier of an organisation, could have held their nerve, as Jonny Wilkinson did under unbelievable pressure, to kick the winning drop goal in the 2003 rugby union world cup final between England and Australia?

It could be argued that the need to combine that kind of technique with such a supreme demonstration of level-headedness is rare in most workplaces. But armed police can face even greater pressure on occasions when forced to make life or death decisions.

In fact any job that combines tight deadlines with the built-in expectations of colleagues, customers or suppliers can create heavy pressure. Cooking a restaurant meal, waiting at table, finishing a report, completing a deal – each of these situations exert their particular pressures.

So can sporting comparisons help or do they lack relevance as Mr Fairhurst suggests? Worse still, can they do more harm than good by creating rather than relieving demands on workplaces already under pressure to perform?

Mr Moorhouse agrees that sporting stories are not always inspirational. “That’s not what we’re trying to do in the book. The idea is to give people a few techniques for dealing with pressure that we have used in the sporting arena,” he says.

“At Lane4 we have a sporting heritage but a lot of things we do today no longer touch on sport. I like to think we are known not just for that now but because we run bloody good leadership programmes.”

Nevertheless, Lane4 co-founder Prof Jones believes that companies have much to learn from sport. “Sport is a powerful metaphor for business,” he writes in the book. “Fierce competition, winning by sometimes the smallest of margins, achieving goals and targets, establishing long-term and short-term strategies and tactics, hard work, perseverance, determination, teamwork, dealing with success and recovering from failure and setbacks are all key elements of both worlds,” he adds.

But how many hamburger flippers will see their jobs this way? Mr Fairhurst had in mind the millions of individuals who are either unemployed or who are not making the best of their skills and experience, what he believes constitute “the majority of people whose work is a means to an end rather than the end in itself.”

Many of these people, he says, “are not prepared to make the kind of sacrifices made by our sporting heroes.

“This means that while it’s fine to ask staff to find sporting metaphors inspirational, we must be clear we are not expecting them to make a comparable commitment to the workplace.”

And yet managers are using the language of the sports field all the time, asking their staff if they are prepared to go the “extra mile.” Sometimes staff will respond in kind but not unconditionally and not for some faceless shareholders. If that extra performance earns little recognition or reward no amount of sporting language is going to make a difference.

But, as Mr Moorhouse pointed out, sporting language and the kind of regimes that sports people adopt do not amount to the same thing. While the mental toughness advice in the Jones-Moorhouse book is aimed more at the executive suite than the general workforce, I think there are real lessons to be learned for anyone from their sporting experience.

One thing that struck me was the number of times Mr Moorhouse mentioned his failure to win gold at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles when, as he confesses, he struggled under the weight of expectation. Today he refers to the experience as “the single most defining moment of my life.”

Another strong feature of his success was the support he received from those around him, particularly his parents and coach. All employees need the support of their managers and colleagues but I wonder how many get it?

A friend who left her job recently said she was amazed how many people came up to her at her leaving party, telling her how good she was and how valued her work was. “Yet they never told me at the time. I actually felt undervalued in my job,” she said.

Perhaps the biggest lesson from failure, one that I believe Mr Moorhouse learned long ago, is to deal with what Rudyard Kipling called those “two imposters”, triumph and disaster, and treating them both the same.

I have met a number of leading sports people over my career and the thing that I noticed most about the best of them is their modesty, even, dare I say it, ordinariness. The more they have achieved, the more you notice it.

On one or two humbling occasions I have seen them in action, close up. That’s when the ordinariness disappears. I tried to tackle Billy Bremner on a soccer pitch just the once, in a charity match after the end of his professional playing career. He showed me the ball then left me on my backside. Back in the changing rooms, he was the “ordinary bloke” again.

The book notes that the ability to compartmentalise, a characteristic of many leading sports people, is one more constituent of mental toughness. That kind of skill can be learned and applied in our work. Mr Fairhurst should order a copy today.

*Developing Mental Toughness, Gold medal Strategies for Transforming Your Business performance, by Graham Jones and Adrian Moorhouse, is published by Spring Hill, price, £14.99.

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