What high-performance sport can teach business about raising their lockdown game

08 Jul 2020

What high-performance sport can teach business about raising their lockdown game

Business has always found inspiration in sport. And the lockdown has been no exception.

Our recent high-performance (virtual) coffee breaks heard from over 120 leaders from around 32 different sports around the world, from locations as widespread as San Jose, Munich, and Melbourne.

Wherever they are, all are pivoting, adapting and preparing in some way for a world shaken to its core by a global pandemic. And providing plenty of food for thought for business.

A new world of remote working and virtual teams?

Like business, sports organisations both found that lockdown forced them into new ways of working.

A common challenge was finding the balance between directing working patterns with rigid plans, versus letting people find their own way.

In the absence of a physical, centralised environment and the structure that brings, sport has taken different approaches.

For a leading high-performance professional working in the NBA, the socially-distanced world began with complete flexibility for players and staff.

They allowed a two-week adjustment period for everyone to get used to the new normal of life under lockdown before expecting anything from them.

The impact of giving that freedom and trust was profound and set the tone for how team, staff and athletes would work together positively in the following months.

Communication and connection

For athletes, routine, structure and discipline are the building blocks of success. Many sports have tried to keep certain aspects of work habitual, albeit with increased flexibility around it. 

The common denominator has been communication and staying connected.

Better to over-communicate than letting connectivity, patterns and relationships drift.

Most sports have incorporated daily team meetings to kick-start the day and utilised existing or new technologies to help monitor training.

At the beginning of the crisis, the mentality was to ‘double down’ and work harder. That, in turn, saw a huge amount of internal and external communicating and an increase in virtual meetings. ‘Zoom fatigue’ has been a common issue with days crammed full of meetings and people sat in front of a screen in isolation. As things settled and employees became more comfortable, this trend eased, but there remains a challenge to be met in understanding what is the right amount of communication, when and how.

Accelerating innovation

Necessity is often the mother of invention. The lockdown has played the same role for some. Many individuals working in high performance have embraced the moment to innovate and grow.  

Some sports have seen ten years of innovation in ten weeks, a huge acceleration in the disruption of traditional ways of doing things and an opportunity to gain competitive advantage.

It’s not all about technology either. There’s been an active re-definition of how individuals see their roles within teams and organisations.

Individuals are being asked to evolve beyond their traditional job descriptions. For many, that has meant more ownership on the athletes themselves, making them more accountable for their own routines, inputs and ultimately performance. There is a parallel in the business world as some managers step into new territory, allowing staff more autonomy in how they deliver their work. In turn, staff are taking more ownership and having to manage upwards to ensure that organisations are aligned with evolving customer and client needs. 

A new sense of purpose

Some sports organisations looked to provide a new purpose to fill the gap left by sport.

A number of Premier League football clubs gave players a list of staff to call in the organisation they wouldn’t have spoken to pre-lockdown. An opportunity to learn from different areas of the business.

For others, this extended to community outreach and charitable work, as well as providing personal development plans for individuals to go away and work on diverse life skills.

All of this may lead to greater understanding, tolerance and efficiency on returning to the office and is likely to feed into a wider re-evaluation around organisational culture and practices.

Sports who know when they are returning to action have focused on re-establishing team dynamics and re-socialising on the assumption it may take time for trust to come back. Not just in individual organisations, but society at large.

Mental health is a collective issue

The competitive nature of sport and all that brings is not always conducive to athletes talking openly about their mental health. This has been compounded by many athletes and colleagues living alone in isolation, uncertain about timescales. Or, for Olympic athletes, having their goals completely removed or delayed.

There are athletes who are stuck at home, miles away from families, who don’t speak the local language.

This is not only an issue in sport, it is an issue for any business that has relocated people recently.

Emerging attitudes

One of the leading Performance Directors in British sport observed that athletes and staff in their organisation fell into three categories once lock-down commenced:

  1. Those desperate to return to training and normality and escape lockdown.
  2. Those at the other end of the spectrum who are anxious over emerging from lockdown and want to stay safe at home.
  3. The third group will perhaps be the most difficult to manage: the individuals for whom emerging from lockdown doesn’t sit comfortably, but do it to conform. They are likely to suffer in silence and will need the most support through reintegration.

Professional sport has long embraced integrated specialist psychological support for years, but mostly to enhance performance.

The focus has widened considerably. For example, there’s an increased expectation of all staff to identify if fellow colleagues are struggling with their mental health. That, in turn, requires additional training, guidance and protocols for people to be able to deal with colleagues who are suffering.

For many, this coincides with a new openness of culture where it is ok to discuss frailty and vulnerability and to create a culture where it is no problem to ask for help and admit the need for it.

From a performance perspective, the hope is that the opportunity to embed some mental skills work, as well as working on physical conditioning, will stand individuals in good stead for the future.

If you’re interested in finding out more about how the lockdown is accelerating change in the sports industry, and what it means for leadership and talent, please get in touch.