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


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.

Get notified of new posts by Twitter

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?

When 'No compromise' becomes 'Win at all costs'

For several years now the mantra of UK Sport, the body which largely funds the British Olympic Sports, has been ‘No Comprise’. It is an approach which has brought massive success as measured by medals in the last 3 Summer Olympics.

Similar mantras have been adopted in business in pursuit of outstanding results and there is much business literature which focuses on these success stories. But what happens at the edge, when ‘No compromise’ morphs into ‘Win at all costs’ and what can organisations do to ensure that they stay true to their original intentions?

In recent years we have seen many examples of where ‘No Compromise’ strays into grey areas or even worse. In sport we have the bullying allegations at British Cycling, the McLaren 'spygate', Half Marathon winners cutting the course and the notorious Jiffy bag/shoddy medical record keeping at Team Sky. Businesses have equally been caught short. Tesco was so focused on sales targets that it lost sight of the accounting rules and importance of its relationships with suppliers while Volkswagen simply falsified emissions data because ‘everybody else does it’.

How do professional organisations run by smart people get themselves into these situations?

In pursuit of results ‘No compromise’ can lead people to stray into grey areas, especially when it comes to behaviour. The message is clear, results come first everything else second. What follows is not necessarily illegal but it is often unethical and certainly not what the original ‘No compromise’ approach envisaged. From there it is a very short step to breaking the rules when the pressure is really on to deliver results.

What can leaders do to ensure that their organisation avoid this trap?

When setting difficult targets with potentially big negative consequences there is a huge responsibility to ensure that the targets are realistic and that the resources to achieve them are available. If you are an Olympic sport with a large percentage of your future funding (and no alternative sources) determined by the number of medals that you win then straying into the grey zone becomes an option to preserve your funding. If you are a Retail or Auto Executive with impossible sales targets and your job on the line, then stepping over the line can become tempting – especially if you witness others doing it. If your people don’t believe that they can achieve the goal fairly then you are exposing your organisation to the risk that will achieve it unfairly with all the consequences that entails.

Leaders also need to be absolutely clear about where the boundaries lie. If the line is drawn at illegal/against the rules then you are inviting people to step into the grey areas, especially as every individual will have their own interpretation of what is ethical based on their own values and experiences. Leaders need to set the standard of behaviour expected and role model it visibly, calling out situations where the standard drops. The obvious consequence of this is if that standards come first then sometimes the results will not be achieved.

If you want to avoid the reputational damage that comes with straying into the grey areas of ‘No compromise’ then standards of behaviour have to come before results.

Choose your environment

I recently pulled out a stack of old DVD's and chose to watch the Shawshank Redemption for the first time in years. Its a great film and one of the many lines that jumped out at me comes towards the end when the wrongly convicted Andy is finalising his escape plans and he says to Red "I had to come to prison to become a crook".

The culture in which we live has a huge impact on us. It may be difficult to choose the country that we are born in or the family that we grow up in but we certainly have lots of choice about the  organisation we choose to work in or the sports team we train with.

How good for you are your current environments? Do they serve bring out the best in you or lead you to play below your best?


Making it look easy

Watch any master at work and they make it look easy. Lang Lang playing piano, Eliud Kipchoge racing a marathon, Sir Ian McKellen acting in the West End. You know that they have worked for years honing their craft to a level most people can’t even imagine.

Even folks who are just pretty good; like the local road running matador and those guys who make cool youtube videos that you wish you could replicate were once ordinary until they started to learn and improve.

What marks out all these people from the ordinary Joe is that they are prepared to stretch themselves. They seek out new knowledge from teachers, people who inspire them and have been there before. They work on their craft relentlessly, trying out new things, getting feedback on what works and what doesn’t. Over time their reward is increasing mastery.

Not of all of us can become a Lang Lang, Eliud or Sir Ian. But many of us aren’t even pushing to explore the limits of our potential. What could happen if we sought out a teacher and worked on improving our craft?