Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Why Leaders Need to Train Like Elite Athletes

I'm a baseball fan, and am often concerned about the grueling schedule the players maintain. They play more than 160 regular-season games a year, and that doesn't take into account playoffs, spring training and playing in other games held around the world.
So that's why the story I recently did for Gannett/USA Today really opened my eyes. I shouldn't be worried about baseball players, but instead about the executive I interviewed yesterday. Read on....

If you saw an elite athlete like Tiger Woods play golf for 12 hours a day for years without a break, you would think he was nuts, right?
After all, how can an athlete's body be expected to take that kind of punishment? Not to mention the emotional and mental toll such a high level of performance demands.
Eventually, you might surmise Woods' body will give out and he won't be able to perform at a professional level. He might even do permanent damage to himself, you would think.
And you would be right. Top athletes know they must pace themselves. So to maintain their skills and competitive level, they factor in regular down times between performances.
Executives should take this lesson to heart, says Jim Loehr, vice president of applied science and performance psychology at Wellness & Prevention Inc.
Known for his work with Olympians and other top-tier athletes, Loehr says executives need to view their work and their bodies in the same light as a top athlete.
Specifically, that means they must be able to find ways to regularly replenish their physical, mental and spiritual well-being if they want to go the distance, he says.
If you consider that a professional athlete's career may last around seven years and an executive's career may last 40 years, it's clear that executives face burnout if they don't take better care of themselves, he says.
Still Loehr, whose company is a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, wants to make clear that the stress of a job isn't what breaks down an executive or anyone else
"People think stress is the enemy, and that's myth," he says. "Stress helps you grow. It's what mobilizes us. It is what pushes us."
The problem really is with chronic stress that comes from never taking a break, Loehr says. Without those breaks, we can't recover our balance and grow stronger to perform at a high level the next time we need to do so.
The problem with leaders not taking better care of themselves is that the results are seen in the bottom line. A recent Development Dimensions International, HR.com and the Institute for Human Resources survey finds that nearly 3 in 5 respondents report that poor top leadership has led to increased leader and team member turnover almost two-thirds report it has led to lower productivity.
Companies won't get better performances from their top corporate "athletes" unless they start giving them a break on their work demands and schedules, Loehr says. This lesson is important not only for the chief executive, but for all workers.
"The job is killing you because you haven't found a way for intermittent rest," he says. "You have to have sufficient recovery to balance the stress."
Loehr recommends the best ways to condition yourself just like a top professional athlete so you can be at the top of your game:
• Build in physical capacity. Exercising and eating right are critical because they help you develop greater endurance and enable you to recover emotionally and mentally.
Being strong physically will help you be more productive and efficient because you're relying on your health — and not candy bars and coffee — to remain energetic and focused.
Loehr suggests eating five to six small meals a day and working out three to four times a week for 20 to 30 minutes. You also need to plan on seeking recovery every 90 to 120 minutes, which means eating something, drinking water, getting up from your chair and moving around or finding a way to engage in something else mentally.
• Become emotionally stronger. Athletes often use different rituals to offset their stress and restore their positive outlook.
Many top athletes wear headphones to listen to music, which has been shown to provide relief from chronic worrying or obsessive thinking.
• Focus mentally. Using meditation techniques such as sitting quietly and focusing on your breathing can be very helpful in letting yourself recover from stress.
Doing mindless activities such as gardening or taking a shower can help clear your mind and even help you think of creative ideas or solutions to difficult problems.
• Think of spirituality. Some executives are leery of talking about spirituality in connection with their jobs, but Loehr says they should look at it as a way to connect themselves to the deeper meaning of why they do what they do.
Without that connection, persevering during tough times can be difficult.

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