A twist to the 10,000 steps advice

There has been increasing evidence in recent years that a sedentary lifestyle is bad for us. One of the antidotes has been to focus on the amount of exercise that we need to do daily with various goals such as 10,000 steps or 30 minutes of ‘moderate’ activity being prescribed.

However, a new study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology suggests that exercise alone doesn’t counter prolonged periods of sitting. A caveat here, this was a very small study however the authors do propose an underlying mechanism to explain their findings.

Prolonged periods of inactivity cause enzymatic changes in the muscles which impact the body’s processing of lipids and sugars. Not even a single big training session day counteracts this.

The takeout. Get up and move regularly during the day – every hour is a good start and if you can add a resistance component such as walking up stairs then even better.

You don't have to win to be a winner

Sergio Parisse has an unenviable sporting record. The captain of the Italian rugby team has played for his country 135 times and been on the losing side in over 100 matches. To stretch an Americanism, he is the most ‘losingest’ player in international rugby history.

And yet.

By almost any other assessment Parisse is a winner. One of the best players in the world in his position he keeps coming back for more when many others would have quit. What drives him on and what can we learn?

There are some powerful clues in recent interviews. Here is a selection of what he had to say and my interpretation of how that helps him bounce back defeat after defeat. What makes him resilient.

He said: “Every time I put on the Italian jersey it’s really important to me that I feel I’m representing the history of the team, the culture” and “I do want to leave a legacy for Italian rugby, not because others should copy me as an individual, but for what I hope I represent.”

There is something deeper to him here than just playing rugby. There is a real sense of connection and purpose in what Parisse is doing. Indeed, he frequently talks about the work that coach Conor O’Shea is doing in building for the future. We know the power of purpose and its effect in driving us on, even through short term obstacles.

He also says: “Sometimes you play well, sometimes you play badly, but every single time I put on a jersey it is a moment to enjoy.” and “I don’t get excited when people say: ‘Wow, what a good player’, or ‘You’re playing well’, and I don’t get down when people say I played badly.”

Here he is clearly grounded in the moment, not getting too hung up on the past or the future. How often do we find ourselves stuck in a rut about something that we (think) we did badly and seem unable to let go of? This ability to be fully present enables us to make the most of the situation we find ourselves in.

Parisse also has a reputation among his team mates of being a player without ego, a man who puts himself at the service of the team in whatever way is required, somebody who is very forgiving of others limitations (and his own). How often do we see the star player getting stroppy with their less able team mates? Not Sergio, he is there to support and encourage.

Sergio Parisse is a true winner. Saluti Sergio.

The stories we tell ourselves

‘I don’t have a sprint finish’ was a favourite story of mine early in my running career. I wasn’t very fast when it came to sprinting in training, I lost a few sprint finishes in races and the story took shape. With every repetition the story became more powerful and more self-limiting

It took me a long time and plenty of sprint finishes in many different types of race to change the narrative to:

‘At the end of a hard race when everybody is tired I can sprint at my maximum.’

It’s subtly different. It is framed positively and focused on strengths - in this case my endurance advantage. I started to improve my sprint finishes – I even won a British Milers Club 1500m race in a sprint against guys who were specialists in the event!

When we aren’t getting what we want it is time to re-frame the situation and create a new narrative.

Soapy balls

soapy balls

The England rugby team prepared for their match against Ireland last weekend using soapy balls. The newspapers had a field day with what looks like a bit of gimmick but there is a method in this approach. By practicing catching smooth, soapy balls the players were practising a skill that was more difficult than it would be in a competition situation.

By mastering a harder skill the player can then perform on match day using less cognitive load, making them more likely to be able to perform the skill successfully under pressure.

A similar idea has been used by some golf players when they will be competing a course with very narrow fairways. In practice they use a couple of markers to gradually narrow the fairway they are targeting until it is narrower than anything they will encounter in competition. Come the weekend that frighteningly narrow 7th doesn’t look half as bad.

We used to do something similar in Kenya – running fast on rutted dirt tracks developed balance and powerful ankles which made running on roads or a synthetic track feel (and look) easy.

This technique of making part of your practice harder than the ‘weekend’s competition’ can also be applied to other areas of life, especially when we are designing learning in the workplace.

To take one obvious skill that would benefit from this approach. How often do you practice giving a presentation with one slide / only images / in half your allotted 20 minutes etc.?

With a bit of creativity, the sky is the limit. Time to go and experiment.

A tale of two football sackings

David Wagner became the latest Premier League manager to get the sack (or leave my mutual consent) with his Huddersfield team at the bottom of the league. But will replacing him make any difference?

Arséne Wenger once famously said that the manager was perhaps worth a 10% performance gain and Chris Anderson & David Sally, in their excellent book ‘The numbers game’, showed that the best coaches are actually worth about a 15% gain.

Premier League wage bill correlation

So, when should changing the manager make a difference? Fortunately there is now quite a lot of data and some good analysis that can help clubs in making this decision.

A good starting point is to look at the relationship between playing staff wage bill and league finishing position (left. note this only until 2014).

The data shows a strong correlation between the two and in addition that it is very difficult to build a squad capable of winning more than 70 points in a season without having a top 5 wage bill. Indeed, in recent years the exceptions to the rule have been Liverpool and Tottenham (several times) and Leicester City in their title winning year. Other over achievers (in the sense of finishing higher than their wages would predict) have been Burnley and Bournemouth who have both finished mid table several times in recent years with basement wage bills.


With this understanding we can come back to David Wagner. Huddersfield Town had the smallest wage bill in the Premier League last season (left) so it is no surprise that they are bottom of the league this year. Indeed this would suggest that Wagner overperformed in avoiding relegation last season. Looking at the data you wonder what difference replacing the manager will have – certainly in the medium term once any short term ‘bounce’ effect has worn off.

So when do you replace the manager with a realistic expectation of improvement?

Manchester United this season were a great example. With one of the biggest wage bills in the league and languishing in 6th place a full 19 points behind the leaders it was clear that Jose Mourinho was underperforming for whatever reason and a change was justified.

Then lo and behold, with a new manager in place the team start to perform to the level they should be at based on the wage bill, winning 6 games in a row and climbing up the league table. There is a small caveat here in that 6 games are not as statistically reliable as a full season of results. With a win percentage, even over the last 5 seasons, of just over 50%, winning six in a row is like tossing a coin and getting heads 6 times in a row - not an everyday occurrence but not that improbable either.

In a future post I will take a look at what was happening at the underperforming and over-performing clubs that may explain the performance gap with some interesting implications for leaders of teams in business and other organisation settings.

Resilient thinking

Watching slalom skiing over the holidays I was struck by two very different mindsets on display when athletes missed a gate. For most skiers, a missed gate meant the end of their chances in the race, and they stopped before slowly skiing down to the finish.

However, with Marcel Hirscher, something different took place. Highly placed after the first run (slalom skiers get two runs, the second being in reverse order and the combined time deciding the final positions), Hirscher missed a gate and ended his chances of a podium, a top 10 or even top 25 finish. However, undeterred by this setback he walked back up the steep slope to go around the gate correctly and continue on the course. Why?

By the next checkpoint he had lost lots of time but then it started to get interesting. At the next split he had lost no further time, he was going as fast as the leaders and then over the final part of the course he set the fastest split time of all. He was still last in the overall results but in his mind had ‘won’ the last section of the course which he could use as confidence for his next competition.

What was on display here is what I call a resilient mindset. Hirscher was realistic about his situation: ‘I’ve missed a gate and I can’t finish on the podium’ and he was also positive about what he could still achieve: ‘If I continue I can still ski the fastest final section’. So that is what he did.

There are many opportunities for us each day to demonstrate this element of a resilient mindset, we just have to commit to taking them.

Embracing failure

Early in the second half in Saturday’s rugby match between Ireland and New Zealand, Ireland’s Jacob Stockdale receives the ball in his own half. These are the world’s top 2 teams, the scores are tight and the match could go either way. In front of Stockdale is the 2m tall Kieran Reid and beyond that open space, however behind him is also space which leaves him vulnerable if he makes a mistake. Stockdale tries a risky kick over Reid but he leaps high and knocks the ball down and beyond Stockdale. The crowd hold their breath, Reid is one of the world’s best. A double World Cup winner and captain of the All Blacks. All he has to do is gather the ball and run to the line to score potentially match winning points. Un-characteristically he fumbles it and a sigh of relief echoes around the ground.

Fast forward 5 minutes. Stockdale is this time in the New Zealand half. The scores are still tight when he receives the ball with the even taller Brodie Retallick in front of him. The scenario looks familiar. Space in front of Stockdale if he can get the ball past Retallick and space behind which leaves him vulnerable if he makes a mistake. What does he do? He tries the chip again … this time it is a bit higher, he sprints round the New Zealand defence, gathers the ball and runs to the goal line to score the match winning try.

Now think about some organisations that you know. What would the response to that first error have been? Indeed, would that sort of move even have been ‘allowed’ in the first place?

A frequent theme when I’m coaching teams in business is the need to be more innovative in pursuit of better results. That typically leads us into a discussion about the behaviours that get rewarded and the organisation’s reaction to perceived ‘failure’. The answers are usually revealing and new leadership choices start to appear.

The Irish team have created a culture where it is fine to have a go and ‘fail’ and then have a go again. That is how innovation leading to better results happens. Saturday was the first time in 113 years that Ireland have beaten New Zealand in Ireland.

What makes the Ryder Cup so special?

Every 2 years I fail to get excited for the Ryder Cup. Until it begins that is. Then it becomes utterly enthralling for 3 days of dramatic ebb and flow.

In the last 25 years, since the players have been evenly matched, USA have tended to have the upper hand in the Sunday singles (one v one matches) while the European team has had the upper hand in the the fourball and foursomes (a pair from each team playing either with one ball per player or one ball per pair) on Friday and Saturday.

As an outsider it appears as if the American’s are typically playing for the flag and themselves. They get pumped, the chants of USA go up, and the one on one duel of the singles appeals to their individualistic approach. On the other hand the European team don’t really have a Flag/Nation to play for. Instead they have a strong sense of shared purpose, they know what they need to do to succeed and they play for each other - which is critical in the pairs matches, especially the foursomes. You can see the longevity and success of some of the pairs from Olazabal/Garcia and Faldo/Montgomery to Rose/Stenson. Add in the points from pretty much any pair that Ian Poulter plays in - a classic example of a good but not great individual making the team better than the sum of its parts - and you can see the foundation of European success.

With 12 points on offer in the singles and 16 across the various pairs matches is it a surprise that Europe have dominated in recent years?

Team trumps individualism, that’s my rather simple hypothesis anyway. Would love to hear other people’s explanation and even an insider perspective or two!

Service - it's how you 'save' the screw up that really counts

We all make mistakes, drop the ball, screw things up. How we respond to rectify the situation is what sticks in the customers mind.

A few weeks ago I was trying to renew my Headspace subscription. The link to the special offer didn’t work properly. The service chat connected me with Joe who walked me through some techy stuff to do with clearing my cache. Still no luck. Some other bits of fiddling around. No luck. A different route to renew using a code got further but the payment part was falling over…

Just at the point where I’m getting frustrated and ready to walk away an email from Joe. ‘Sorry this still isnt’ working, we are having some issues that we are trying to fix. We appreciate the hassle you are having and I have just added a year’s subscription for you. Enjoy’.

Now that is a ‘save’ – fantastic customer service. My lasting memory will be what Joe did, not the original problems I had.

The bigger question is what does it take to create such a service culture in an organisation?

Sleep deprivation and its effect on performance

Two eye opening pieces of research from Matthew Walker’s outstanding book ‘Why we sleep’.

·      Partially depriving people of sleep for 6 straight nights resulted in the same level of impairment as somebody kept awake all night.

·      Keeping people awake for 19 straight hours (i.e. from 7am until 2am) resulted in impairment levels the same as for people who were over the legal drink drive level.

If you are like me then you have experienced both those sleep deprivation scenarios.

Even more alarming is that when we are even partially sleep deprived we are terrible at estimating the negative impact it has on our performance - much like the drunk driver confident that they can walk straight down the line!

The message is that even small amounts of sleep deprivation starts to add up to have a serious impact on our ability to perform even basic tasks.

Warm ups for work?

Athletes warm up for competition by practising in short, intense bursts the skills that they are going to need, so why not warm up for the most challenging activities at work?

Going into a project brainstorming session – warm up your creative process first with a random object/word association game.

Decision making meeting – perform some fast complex decision-making tasks.

Coaching a colleague – clear your ‘stuff’ first, tune in to the environment around you, sharpen your listening skills.

The trick is to take you away from what you were doing before and get your brain re-familiarised with the skill you going to ask it to perform.

Which bus are you on?

When considering great organisations approach to hiring, Jim Collins talks about getting the right people on the bus and then figuring out which seats to sit them in.

Recently, an acquaintance of mine was hired for a ‘bus’ and spent some time with his new boss trying to figure out which seat was the best one for him and the team. But it turned out that actually he had got on the wrong bus. There was nothing wrong with it; a well-maintained bus, the right people on it, going somewhere cool. But it wasn’t going where he wanted to go.

What I admire was the conversation that quickly followed leading to my acquaintance hopping off the bus and finding one going to where he really wanted to go.

When does a successful method become a liability?

Being highly proficient at the Western roll was a sure-fire way to high jump success – until Dick Fosbury came along and changed the game.

Being a travel agent able to access and compare hotels and flights from different companies and making a commission as a result was the way to sell holidays until the internet enabled Expedia, Airbnb and co. to come along.

For the last 3 Olympic cycles Team GB has had unprecedented success. 4thplace in the Beijing medal table, a record 65 medals in London and then being the only host nation to ever go better in the following games by landing 67 medals in Rio. The Paralympic programme has been similarly successful and in the Winter Games the medal factory continues in Skeleton bob (despite have no track and no snow in the UK…).

It is built on a foundation of no compromise and a significant amount of targeted funding from UK Sport designed to win medals. 

How long can the method continue to be successful for? When does it become a liability?

The programme is in place for Tokyo 2020 but after that? Will the performances be sustained and even exceed Rio?

At what point do you re-invent yourself and do something different? Do you wait for the results to drop off and then change? Or do you take the plunge and change while you are at the top of your game? That is the question being wrestled with by UK Sport.

The brave option would be to re-invent yourself now from a position of strength. Oh, to be a fly on the wall!

Coaching the whole system to deliver success

A few years back at the end of a session coaching young athletes the long jump I was approached by a parent looking less than impressed. Uh oh I thought, what’s happened here. The parent proceeded to point out that I had it all wrong. Long jump means running down the runway and jumping into a pit of sand before getting the distance measured. Having the whole group of the kids taking two steps and jumping into the pit from the side wasn’t what he was paying for.

Never mind that these were under 11 kids with a wide range of skills. Never mind that by jumping one at a time down the runway they might get 3 or 4 attempts (and didn’t have the skill to control their take off at speed) whereas jumping in from the side together they could get 20 jumps, spot their take point and practice using left and right legs to improve their skills (ask Jess Ennis about the value of being able to use either foot for take off) .

Why would the parent in question know why I was doing what I was doing if I hadn’t explained it to them? After all, their perception was entirely correct given their experience of doing long jump at school and watching it in competition. This was a bit of a wake up call for me to think more systemically about the impact of my coaching and who needed to be included in the process.

Some of the biggest stakeholders in an athlete’s development are the parents, and for older athletes, their partner. Helping them understand why you are doing what you are doing as a coach and how the parent/partner can best support the athlete’s development is time well spent. 

We are coaching more than just the athlete, we are coaching an entire system to deliver success.

Warmed up or over-cooked?

Observing some international athletes at a training camp recently I was struck by the variation in warm ups. Some of the athletes appeared highly focused and all of their warm up activities were performed intensely and with skill – they were clearly preparing to perform. On the other hand, some of the others appeared to be going through the motions – the warm ups were lengthy and looked quite impressive but on closer examination lacked intensity and specificity.

Which took me back to my racing days and some of my best and worst races. There was no shortage of races at university where as a result of poor planning/shoddy navigation we arrived just in time for the start having got changed in the minibus. Doing a 10-minute minute warm up and pinning on our numbers as we legged it to the start line hardly seemed ideal but invariably I ran well.

On the other hand, national championships where we had to register hours in advance and report to the call room 30 minutes before our start provided ample opportunity for a long and comprehensive warm up. But that was a blessing in disguise as the temptation was always to do too much. On reflection there were times when I was definitely over-cooked.

By the time I was racing marathons I had finally got the hang of a short, focused warm up despite having plenty of time available before racing. In fact for my first marathon I had a sheet with my pre-race routine typed out with every activity from the moment I woke up to the time the gun went. It ensured that I did what was required and nothing more – it worked like a dream.

All of which should serve as a reminder. The purpose of a warm up is to prepare the body for competition while minimising the expenditure of physical and mental energy. Time to rethink your warm up?

Routine – the key to performing under pressure for Harry Kane

In his pre-match interview yesterday, England striker Harry Kane was talking about the pressure of taking penalties in the World Cup with the eyes of the world on him. Looking relaxed he said: “I have a routine, it’s the same in practice as in a match. I do the same preparation, the same breathing, the same …”. It’s no wonder he was relaxed and confident.

You get the picture. To perform under pressure the skills required need to be deeply ingrained in the sub-conscious. That means practicing and practicing deeply.

The principles apply whether you are an elite sportsman, an actor, a lawyer in court or a businessman taking decisions and running meetings.

How well prepared are you to perform when it really matters?

The value of proper downtime

Top performers consistently make space for proper downtime to re-charge their batteries and prevent burnout. Whether its athletes taking an end of season break, writers taking time off between books or academics taking a sabbatical.

When these longer ‘macro recoveries’ are combined with good ‘micro recovery’ habits such as sleep, exercise and nutrition then high-performance levels can be produced consistently when required.

Unfortunately the temptation for many performers and especially their bosses is to keep going to the well – ask the player to play one more match, the employee to take on one more project or the writer to crank out the next book. It may produce short term results but at what long term cost.

It is time for organisations to get strategic with downtime and focus on both the micro and macro recovery required for top performance.

Making mistakes when you are part of a team

At the weekend I was listening to Graeme Le Saux talking about the 1998 football world cup and the England team culture in relation to making mistakes. It’s worth recapping Graeme’s key points because there is a powerful message in it for teams in any setting.

Graeme made a mistake in the second game which allowed Romania to score, condemning England to defeat. He felt that the other players were thinking ‘I’m glad it was him and not me’, the team environment was not supportive of each other. Come the next game Graeme was highly conscious that in that environment another mistake could mean the end of his international career. This had consequences, he played more conservatively, not his usual attacking style. I wonder if that is what the coach and his team mates really wanted?

A question I often ask when coaching teams in the workplace is ‘what is the deal between you when somebody makes a mistake?’

It is important to be clear about how we respond and the implications of that for our team’s performance. Do we have each other’s backs or are we just happy that it wasn’t us who made the error?

Altitude’s contribution to England Rugby’s defeat by South Africa

All of the post-match analysis that I have read/heard about this weekend’s rugby test in South Africa has been focused on South Africa’s speed and England’s indiscipline. There is another likely contributory factor that deserves an honourable mention – altitude.

Johannesburg is at 1700m above sea-level, sufficient altitude to have a negative impact on performance if you are not adapted. In a stop/start game like rugby you can start at a high intensity just as at sea level but you will be accumulating more oxygen debt compared to at sea level for the same effort. At some point this catches up with you in the later stages when performance will start to drop off. Fatigue and hence being slower to the ball typically causes sides to give away more penalties. Starting to sound familiar?

What to do about it? There are basically two strategies to performing at altitude. Adapt by living/training at altitude for long enough or arrive and compete straight away. Throw in to the mix that different players respond to hypoxic (low oxygen) training in different ways and you can see why England went for the second option, no doubt judging that being able to train at their home base in Pennyhill outweighed the benefits of being altitude adapted. I’m also curious about whether England considered using a ‘sleep high’ strategy while training at sea level i.e. sleeping in altitude tents.

The second test in a week’s time will be interesting. Will it have been enough time at altitude to have a noticeable impact on England’s performance at the lower altitude (1400m) venue of Bloemfontein?