When competitors become partners for growth

In the world af athletics it is common to see some of the biggest rivals training together as they seek to learn from each other and reach for higher levels of performance.

Colin Jackson and Mark McCoy were the world’s two best sprint hurdlers in the early 1990’s and they worked together under Malcolm Arnold. Mo Farah and Galen Rupp trained together before taking Gold and Silver in London and when I trained in Kenya two of the best Tanzanian’s were welcomed into the world class group in Nyahururu.

Its starting to happen in business too. Groups of professionals from different organisations getting togeter to share their challenges and learn together. I’m involved with the new ‘Think Tank Thursday’ in Zürich – a group of Talent and Learning professionals coming together to get better at what we do.

Yet in team sports its still a rarity. Real Madrid and Manchester United doing a joint pre-seaon training camp? No chance. 49ers and the Packers swopping play books, ha ha. So it was refreshing to see the Wales and England rugby teams announcing a get together for a few days of intensive training designed to learn from each other’s strengths in the scrum and lineout. I’m sure they will both get a huge amount from it.

Where are the hidden learning opportunities in your business?

Stress - a new perspective

November 1st is Stress Awareness Day.

In recent years we have been conditioned to believe that stress is bad. We need to remove stress, banish it from our lives for ever.

The truth is more nuanced than that and we are now understanding much more about how the body responds to stress. As humans we are actually well adapted to deal with stress – in small doses.

Life always contained stressors: finding food; avoiding becoming food; producing offspring, meeting the neighbouring clan. Our fight or flight response helps us manage acute stress and over time we adapt to stress. Training is a great example of this. Training is a stress. Too much and we get hurt or ill but with appropriate recovery we adapt and get stronger.

Where stress becomes a problem is when it is constant, always on stress, that gives our body no chance to recover. Unfortunately the modern world has ‘stressors’ everywhere. From blue light emitting electronics to always on email, relentless social pressures to fit in, long working hours, insufficient sleep, lack of deep contact with other human beings and more.

The good news is that there are simple strategies to help us better manage ourselves and optimise our stress levels to support better performance.  Athletes are often (but not always) good at striking this balance. With double Olympian Mara Yamauchi I am offering a series of masterclasses desiged to help you ‘Perform at your Best’.

Take a look and see how we can help you and your business this winter


Fitness - banking life quality deposits for the future

Jack Daniels measuring the fitness of Jim Ryun

Jack Daniels measuring the fitness of Jim Ryun

A recently published study (Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 16th August 2017) looked at the change in fitness for a group of highly trained athletes over a period of more than 40 years. The group were originally tested by Jack Daniels in the run up to the 1968 Olympics (1500m silver medalist Jim Ryun, left) and were retested most recently in 2013.

The athletes in question carry out quite different exercise levels today, with some exercising a lot and some almost not at all. On the weight front, some had gained more weight than others. Not surprisingly the athletes were among the very fittest of people of their age to be tested despite it being many years since they trained seriously with markers such as resting heart rate remaining very low.

It seems that being very fit as a young adult gives you a buffer for later in life even when you stop training. Think of it as making fitness deposits in the bank of personal wellbeing. You can draw on this later on to ensure a higher quality of life than your peer group who were less active in their youth.


The surprising comeback of a 6 time Olympic Champion

Surprising, because very few people knew that 6 time Olympic Gold medalist Jason Kenny had even hung up his bike in the first place. Kenny is the self-styled quiet man of the track. An elite athlete so comfortable out of the limelight that you hardly know he is there - until he blasts past you in the final stages of the Sprint or Keirin.

For the last 12 months Kenny has been on sabbatical, changing nappies and doing other stuff. He admitted that the break had left him feeling 'like an 18 year old again' and has caused to reverse his decision to retire. Kenny is not the only one to take long sabbaticals. Designer Stefan Sagmeister famously shuts his studio for 12 months every seven years. I took a long break from business in 2003 and recharged my batteries by living in East Africa and running like a lunatic with some of the best in the world.

You don't have to go to those extremes to get a break though. Many of the Kenyan runners I trained with would think nothing of taking a couple of months off at the end of the season, heading back to the shamba to spend time with family and tend the livestock before coming back to their 'work' of running fully renewed. Winston Churchill used to disappear for a few weeks painting, even while leading the war effort and Bill Gates had his week in his log cabin to let his mind run free of day to day Microsoft stuff and get some fresh perspective.

The key for all of these people is that when they take a break from their regular work they spend time doing something different. It may still be intense but in a different way to business as usual. It is popular refrain that we are too busy to take proper time off but the payback from doing so for even a short time is enormous, both in increased productivity and creativity.

With Olympic 6th placer and London Marathon runner up Mara Yamauchi, I have created a 'Recovery for Performance' Masterclass designed to help people in the workplace to be optimally recovered to perform at their best. Spoiler alert - it doesn't involve spending a year in the jungle!

You can get more information on this and our other Masterclasses here

To hack or not to hack

Everywhere you look somebody is offering a sports hack, marketing hack or other life hack. Anything to take a short cut, avoid the hard work, get an instant result.

The thing is, they don't usually work. Or if they do then the consequences cause more trouble than the thing you were trying to hack your way around.

That sports hack may boost your fitness but it gets you injured (or busted for cheating). The marketing hack boosts short term sales but long term damages your brand. Your life hack denies you experiences and learning.

If we want to get better at our thing, we need to be prepared to put in the hard work and do the miles.


Effective learning in the digital age

There was the old way of adult learning. We sat in a classroom for a day, or a week, or if you did an MBA then for a year - listening to a teacher and taking notes. If we were lucky it was called a 'workshop' and we also got to do some funky exercises which have long since faded from the memory. Perhaps we read a book or many books and scribbled in the margins. In the new millenium we started taking online courses - watching the videos while clearing our emails and hoping that we might remember something.

Then some time would pass while we did other stuff until the time came when we needed to put into practice what we had 'learned'. Cue frantic rummaging through A4 binders of notes, thumbing through books again (if we still have them) or hunting around for the video URL. The flaw is obvious. Without practice, actually doing stuff, there is no learning. Nothing actually changes. The information just goes in one ear, pauses for a few hours or days if you are really lucky, and then goes out of the other ear.

There is a better way though. Having a go. Rolling up our sleeves up and actually investing time and effort in speaking spanish/running/making sushi or in my case, building this website.

Even better is when having a go is combined with some expert input to show you how to do the tricky bits and give you some inspiration. The internet makes accessing this sort of expert support easy and affordable and increasingly it is well designed and fit for purpose.

Even better still is when having a go is combined with some expert input and a small community of like minded people taking on a similar challenge who can encourage, support, critique and share in your journey towards proficiency. There are some interesting new approaches out there. Seth Godin has shown a new way for executive education with his altMBA and I tried a different approach when building this website.

For my website project I took the Squarespace 101 course and became an active member of the course facebook group where I could share my weekly site development goals and get some helpful feedback. The accountability helped me get the first version built quickly (more on getting stuff out there in another post). I did the course bit by bit as I was actually creating my site. It is what an effective adult learning experience should look like. If you want to build a website I can highly recommend the experience, there is a special offer on until the end of October.

Medicating to survive - a failure of leadership

Ex-Liverpool and Denmark defender Daniel Agger has admitted that taking copious quantities of painkillers and anti-inflammatories to get him through matches significantly shortened his playing career. The only surprise in this is that it wasn't a surprise. In sport, education and business medicating your way to survive has become increasingly prevalent.

At the 2010 Bonn marathon over 60% of amateur runners who were surveyed admitting to using pain killing or anti inflammatory pills to help them race.

Some researchers suggest that up to 30% of college students take stimulants such as Adderall to help them cram and get through exams.

A 2012 survey for Drinkaware found that 44% of adults said they were more likely to drink after a stressful day at a work. A large class of something cold when you get home seems to be a pretty common remedy for stressful work environments.

The common feature in all three situations are cultures that not only permit, but encourage, this sort of self medication as a coping mechanism. That is a catastrophic failure of leadership because leaders shape the culture in which we operate. It is a failure by football club managers, directors, agents and senior players. It is a failure by college principals and professors. It is a failure by business owners and managers.

Change the culture. The remedy is an appropriate (manageable but challenging) workload balanced with sufficient, high quality, recovery. The upside? More engaged and productive people, less human train wrecks.

It isn't complicated but it does require bravery, effort and persistence.


Heads up or heads down

Hands up if you have ever followed your in-car sat nav down a dead end or followed the recipe to the letter but the dish is under/over cooked? I know I have.

What about your running GPS, heart rate monitor or business KPI dashboard? How do we know if the information they are giving us actually matches what we need and accounts for variability in human performance and other complex interactions?

Sometimes it pays to look through the windshield at the road you are heading down or check the food to see how much more cooking it needs. 

It always pays to listen to your body when deciding how hard to train and often the best performance data a business can get is by listening to employees and customers.

Turning out the lights

There is a notorious traffic black spot in town. Two roundabouts, fed by main roads coming from the west, plus the local business park and residential areas. Ultimately it all funnels through one set of traffic lights outside a supermarket entrance. At peak times it is a gridlocked mess.

Planners have tried every trick, extra lanes, new road layouts, re-phasing the lights and still the place is jammed up.

Then a few weeks ago somebody drove into the traffic lights (by accident I imagine) and put them out of action for a few days.

A funny thing happened. The traffic flowed, even at peak times.

Drivers, cyclists and pedestrians looked out for each other, nobody got hurt, decisions got made in the moment and the traffic flowed. After a few days the lights got fixed and gridlock returned.

It got me thinking, which traffic lights need turning off in my world?



One step at a time

This weekend tiny Yeovil Town take on the might of Manchester City for the first time in the top flight of English football. Its been a 27 year journey for the team since Yeovil Ladies were founded as Yetminster in 1990. The last 5 years have seen them progress from the 4th tier of English football to champions of the second division last season.

Its all been achieved without a fat chequebook but built on a foundation of a clear purpose, excellent coaching and a lot of hard work by the staff and players. The future looks bright as underpinning the first team are 2 more senior teams, 3 youth teams at different age groups and two development centres for young players.

As someone famous once said 'overnight success is years in the making'.

Rinus Michels

The legendary Dutch football coach Rinus Michels passed away this week aged 77.

While much has been written about his tactical innovations it is perhaps his man management that deserves a fitting last word. Rudi Krol who played for him summed up his genius thus: “Most of all he gave you a freedom. You never went on the pitch weighed down by what you had to do. He recognised your ability and gave you some respect that you would do the right thing.”

A leadership philosophy that we can all aspire to.

Adaptability – when the rain starts to fall

F1 is not a spectacle I pay much attention to – unless it rains. So yesterday I was eagerly anticipating the start of the race in Singapore as light drizzle turned to more persistent rain and the track got properly wet.

The next hour turned into a masterclass on adaptability and who could adapt the most effectively.

This was the first wet race in Singapore so the drivers had never driven the cars with a full fuel load (100kgs) and wet weather tyres. Add in that Singapore is a night race and they have never raced at night in the rain, plus, as the rain falls or stops the track changes with every lap - less grip, more grip. These were situations that they had never been exposed to before. You can see the scale of the challenge. Who was going to adapt the best?

It’s a good metaphor for the modern world. While we can practice and rehearse different situations there are an increasing number of new situations that we are exposed to that we just can't predict or rehearse. What makes the difference between those who can adapt and those who struggle faced with new situations?

A good way of thinking about adaptability is as a combination of your attitude (willingness to adapt) and your capability (having the skills to actually do something different when its required). As an example, put me in the F1 car yesterday and I might have had the willingness to drive differently from my usual experience of lapping in a go kart in the dry with my mates but I definitely don’t have the skill! Equally, you could put some very capable drivers into the car, who have the driving skills but just not the attitude to adapt, preferring to stick with their original plans or just giving up all together in the face of the challenge.

Its probably no co-incidence that Ayrton Senna and Lewis Hamilton, 2 of the most successful drivers of recent times are also the most effective in wet, changeable conditions. Equally Michael Schumacher and Senna have also won races with their cars stuck in a single gear which has required a level of adaptation beyond most racing drivers. Just try driving a few miles around town in one gear!

Its worth keeping in mind that adaptability can be situational for people, in other words I can be good at adapting in some situations but not others. In a future post I will take a look at some ways to develop adaptability in sport and business.In the meantime, notice the situations where you are ablest to adapt and those that you find more challenging. Is it your attitude or skill that is holding you back in those situations?

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Resilient performers

Sally Pearson, Adam Gemili and Dina Asher-Smith are three athletes who came into the recent World Championships off the back of major injury setbacks. All three had different circumstances but picked themselves up off the floor to perform at their absolute best when it mattered. What can we learn from them?

For Sally Pearson, an Olympic Gold in London 2012 must have seemed a lifetime ago. Longstanding wrist and hamstring problems had left her a shadow of her former self in recent seasons and her last major championship was in 2013. But coming into 2017 she managed to stay healthy even though her early season races were short of her best from years previously. What Sally could do tap into was the wealth of experience she had acquired. She and the team around her know how to prepare and be ready when it matters. "I've got the most tight-knit little squad, I call them Team Pearson - my friends and my mum and my husband and my training partners, (although) I've only got two of them," she said. Pearson stayed patient, kept on improving and when pre-race favourite Kendra Harrison made mistakes under pressure Sally was there to take the Gold.

Adam Gemili didn’t scale the same heights in 2012 but as a teenage breakthrough performer he was clearly a future star. His progress has been a stop start of injuries and outstanding performances, including a 4th place in the Rio Olympics last year. Early in the season he broke down and had a lengthy period of rehab. Still short of fitness at the British trials in July he wasn’t selected for the individuals 200m but was included as a relay team member. Frustrated, angry and disappointed, it would have been easy for him to take his foot off the gas and just make up the numbers in the worlds or even write off his season completely. In the event he did the opposite and went full tilt knowing there was nothing to lose. After his trials disappointment he said “I’ve just got to accept I am part of the relay team and focus on that”. Come the World Championship final he ran a stunning back straight relay leg in 9 secs in which he goes past the competition as if they are standing still and sets up the British team for a national record. The outcome, World Championship Gold, when many athletes would have been on the sofa still bitching about their bad luck and the unfairness of the selection process.

Dina Asher-Smith was another young athlete making rapid progress in recent years. For her, this was the first major injury of her career. Arriving in London less than fully fit after fracturing her right foot and having screws inserted, she took the competition one race at a time with a focus on just performing to the best of her fitness. As each round of the 200m progressed Dina got faster and faster, ending up 4th in the final just 7 one-hundredths of a second away from a medal. But that wasn’t the end. With another 2 races in the 4x100m she was able to continue racing herself fit and ended the championships with a Silver medal in the 4x100m final. Reflecting on her performance she said “Arguably, this injury has done more for me in the long term mentally than having an easy season and getting a medal would have,” she adds. “That sounds crazy as a medal would have been fantastic, but when you are young you have to go through trials and tribulations to realise what real problems are. I’d rather get all my learning experiences now – so when I am older I have got that mental prep to do the business when I am physically at my peak.”

With resilience skills like those you wouldn't bet against Pearson winning more medals and Gemili and Asher-Smith being on top of the podium at a major championship in future.

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Day by day

Fitness isn't built with occasional transformational mega sessions. It comes day by day, one training at a time, with the right recovery to allow the body to adapt.

Learning and growth isn't created with the occasional transformational workshop. It comes day by day, one action at a time, with the right recovery to allow the mind to process and integrate what it has experienced.

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Which benchmark to use?

So what should we measure ourselves against to know if we are making progress?

A competitor?

The best in the world?


The flaw in all three is obvious. Your competitor may be getting worse not better (car makers benchmarking themselves against GM in the 1980s). The 'best' may be about to become irrelevant (film makers benchmarking themselves against Kodak in the 1990s). And perfection is unobtainable so we will always fail against that standard.

How about benchmarking against ourselves. Ourselves from a week ago or a month ago or a year ago - choose a timeframe that is appropriate for what is being measured (e.g. fitness is good to measure over months rather than compared to last week).

Are we better than our former self? It is the only comparison that really matters. Best of all, we own the progress completely.

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Use it or lose it

This week I went to Yoga for the first time in a month. Summer holidays, mine and the teacher’s, had meant a break. The class was a horror show for me. My strength had declined, co-ordination was all over the place and as for my balance…

In contrast I also did running drills for the first time in month. They were smooth and with no discernible quality difference from a month ago. So what was going on?

Yoga is a newish skill for me in the last couple of years. I practice once or twice a week with gaps here and there when I’m away on business. The result is that the movement patterns aren’t yet burned into my deep memory. Any let up in practice and I quickly start to go backwards in my skill level.

Running is a different game. I’ve been doing it since I was 18 months old. I’ve practiced specific technical drills countless times. The nerve cells in the relevant pathways are coated deeply in myelin and the complex skills of those drills are now as good as unforgettable.

Sport shines a bright spotlight on this learning regression when we miss practice but what about less visible skills. The kind of stuff we ‘learn’ on training courses at work and then practice only periodically while kidding ourselves and our boss that we really have improved.

Great training may start with an inspiring experience to show us new skills and get us going but it requires sustained, focused practice over an extended period of time to really shift our skill level to the point where it becomes automatic. It is one of the big challenges of the time for businesses - how to create that learning environment for employees (and suppliers, customers and freelancers?). There is much that can be learned from elite performers in sport and the arts when it comes to designing learning programs.

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Who is it for?

Your product, the thing you make or do. Who is it really for?

Watching the World Athletics Championships last week left me feeling that much of the time the product is made for the people who organise the event rather than the people who are paying to watch it or even the athletes who provide the entertainment.

Some examples:

1.     The final night had 5 track races and 2 field events spread over more than 2 hours. Plenty of time for everything to have undivided attention. And yet, the climax of the men’s high jump takes place during the women’s 5000m final. Where do you look as a spectator during the closing laps of the 5000m? What does live TV show? Why not pause the High Jump or jump during the early laps.

2.     Monday night had an utterly compelling women’s triple jump. Ibarguen (photo) and Rojas trading the lead several times and the competition going to the final round. But it was lost amongst all the other events. Why not shine a spotlight on the athletes – literally. Their choice of colour (and music even). Imagine Ibarguen blasting down the runway, hair trailing, in a blaze of bright light which follows her into the sky as she leaps for Gold.

3.     The call room. For non-athletes this is where the competitors assemble before their competition. At Championships this can be up to 40 minutes before the event starts. So it means you have to warm up, report to the call room, then sit around getting cold. Its part of athletics and as a developing athlete you learn to deal with this at English Schools, Regional and the National Championships so by the time you get to World/Olympic competition it is second nature. But it still has a negative impact on athlete performance – witness Bolt in the 4x100m tweaking his hamstring. Why do we do it? In the old days it was to give out numbers and lane assignments and generally to make sure that the athletes were there on time. But this is 2017 with professional athletes and electronic timing. There must be a better way that maximises athlete performance and hence customer enjoyment.

Athletics needs to take a long hard look at its product and ask who is it really made for – spectators, athletes or the organisers?

What about your product?

Call room insight - check out this excellent piece from former World Champion Dai Greene


Something small

You know the kind of thing. Its small, we know it will make a difference and yet we keep avoiding it.

When I was an athlete, one of mine was replacing a couple of my four daily cups a coffee with water. Better hydration, better sleep, prizes worth having as an athlete. For years I managed to avoid changing my situation, it was bonkers really. Then one day I just did it. And the next day. And in no time it became permanent.

What is your small thing to change this week in pursuit of better performance?