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.

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 it your own

There is a scene in Cool Runnings where Jamaican driver Derice is studying the top ranked Swiss team to learn what they do that makes them so good.

He latches on to how they start with a chant of ‘Eins, zwei, drei’ and gets the Jamaican team starting with the same mantra. Unfortunately for the Jamaican’s this routine doesn’t really work for them and herein lies the challenge when we observe excellence in action with the intention of improving our own performance.

In Cool Runnings the excellence learning is actually that the Swiss have a consistency of routine before the start and they do it in a way that is meaningful for them. The impact that this routine has is that it primes then both psychologically and physically for a top performance.

Jamaica get creative and come up with their own chant: "Feel the Rhythm! Feel the Rhyme! Get on up, it's bobsled time! Cool Runnings!". Its only a small change in the grand scheme of things but their starting improves (in the movie) and the rest is history.

Whether you are a business looking at how the best do their demand forecasting or if you are a runner watching an Olympian warming up for a race you need to be able to take the time to make sense of what you have observed and work out how make it applicable in your context.

Culture is catching

I was taking an intensive German class last month and half the class consistently turned up late while the other half were on time. We were struggling to establish an ‘on-time’ norm despite the best efforts of many.

One Friday I was out at my coffee break and doing a few things when I realised I was going to have to finish up quickly and get back. In a flash my mind said to me: ‘don’t rush, its ok to be late. Why bust a gut when you know others aren’t?’. So I came back a few minutes late. And I wasn’t the last one back either. I can’t say I was proud of myself but that is the point.

Culture is catching, whether it is good or bad. Going against the grain is hard work and over time it becomes all to easy to give in. Culture needs constant attention from leaders to create and maintain the environment that they want.

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


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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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?

Set the standard

Our time is precious. When its gone, its gone. No pause and rewind. Respecting our time and that of others is a mark of a high performing individual and indeed organisation.

How often do you find yourself in a situation where people turn up late, leave early or aren't fully engaged in what we are saying and doing when we have taken time to prepare and show up? Be honest and challenge yourself as well, how good are you at respecting the time of your training partners, supporters and colleagues at work?

The best training group I ever ran with were brilliant with time. The warm up started on time, training started on time and there was no messing about. Fun yes, space to be flexible yes, but running late no. It didn't require the coach to be cracking the whip and on the occasions when he was held up the athletes got on with training. It was our culture. We were there to improve and using our time wisely was important to us.

The standard we operate to is in our gift. We can be clear when we expect to start and we can follow through on that commitment. The late comers will soon get the message when they find their training group has left without them or the meeting has begun.

Set some standards where it matters and raise the performance of yourself and those around you.

Maintain your biggest assets

Does the driver service their car regularly or wait for it to breakdown - then face an urgent and expensive repair at the moment when they need their car the most?

Does the chef sharpen his knife daily or wait for it to become blunted - causing him to cut himself when prepping the most important meal of the week (have you noticed that it's always the blunt knives that make the nasty cuts)?

Does the athlete make sure that their body is properly aligned with all the muscles working optimally or do they wait until they get injured - invariably in the lead up to the big race that they have prepared for passionately?

Whatever our work or hobby, if we are passionate and committed then maintaining our biggest asset is a non-negotiable.

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