Getting to the top of your game

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It’s interesting that Gary Bailey, football-legend-turned-businessman, describes soccer as being, “the most pressurised business in the world.” He explains further, “You’re not getting annual or quarterly results, you’re getting weekly results, and your investment in people runs into billions.” Clearly there are significant parallels between sport and business; and being a top performer on the field requires more than just being able to kick a ball…

The starting point



Makhaya Ntini, South Africa’s cricketing hero, claims that passion is the starting point: “without passion, there is no success.” He describes the sense that somewhere within him, his body and mind just rejected any possibility of failing, especially when the odds were stacked against him in the beginning. In the same vein, SA Hockey player Kate Woods says that success in the sporting world requires “an absolute desire to achieve”. You must be hungry; for success, for results, and to become the best athlete you can be.

Dr JoAnn Dahlkoetter, a psychologist at Stanford University Medical Centre, and a world-class athlete in her own right (Rated US’s No. 1 triathlete) has written the book Your Performing Edge. In it she says that it all starts with a dream and that you must be inspired or you will never be able to reach your goal. Do you have a burning desire to prove to yourself that you can make your business work? “Without this, you will never be able to push yourself to do what has to be done. Desire is sometimes more important than talent and skill,” she continues.

If you love what you’re doing, and love visualising how it will materialize in the end, this will give you courage to succeed. Courage to test your limits, to stick to your game plan and relentlessly pursue your goal even when the chips are down.

The key characteristics of highly motivated athletes include internal motivation and self-direction, says Dahlkoetter. “The good news, however, is that building and maintaining a high level of self-motivation is a skill that anyone can learn. From internal motivation you gain the willingness to persevere with your training, to endure discomfort and stress, and to make sacrifices with your time and energy as you move closer toward realising your goal.”

The bottom line is that at some point you need to make a commitment to excellence and to making the achievement of your goal, whether it be in sport or in business, a priority in your life. You need to look yourself in the mirror and say, “I want to be really good at this; I want this to work.”

In training


And that’s when the real fun starts. Tim Goodenough is a certified Meta-Coach and is currently the Mental Toughness Coach for the Investec international rugby academy. In his book, In the Zone, he says a “strong work ethic” is the cornerstone of every other skill. What exactly is a strong work ethic? “It means showing a great amount of responsibility and dedication, being disciplined in a number of different ways and showing precision in performance on and off the field,” says Woods. Radebe puts it this way, “Discipline is an important ingredient to any successful businessman or sportsman. The minute you relax you will lose your advantage.”

Discipline, consistency, organisation. “There was no miracle moment,” says Jim Collins in his book Good to Great which profiles the 11 companies (out of a total of 1435 that he and his team researched over a period of five years) that made the leap from good to great. “Instead, a down-to-earth, pragmatic, committed-to-excellence process.”

In business as in sport, progress is about hard work and fitness the result of long days spent on the track. There are no shortcuts.

How to keep going


During the start-up phase of your business, you just need to put your head down and get your hands dirty. Dahlkoetter suggests the following to many of her professional athlete clients, to help them through this “endurance” time:

  • Generate a positive outlook

The mentally trained athlete focuses only on those things over which he or she has control. You have control over your thoughts, your emotions, your training form and how you perceive each situation. Positive energy makes peak performance possible. To do this, try to practice being focused yet relaxed – focus acutely on the task at hand and make a conscious effort to let go of distractions.

  • Build a balanced lifestyle

Strive for a broad-based lifestyle with a variety of interests and a balance between work and fun, social time, personal quiet time and time to be creative. Eat regularly, get enough sleep each night and develop a social support network. Radebe says, “Recovery is important to maintaining both physical and mental sharpness. Once you are fatigued, you can no longer perform at your peak. Whether it’s time with the family, a game of golf or a great holiday, we all need to find a way to reduce stress so that we can come back and be on top of our game.”

  • Vary your workouts

Train at a new, scenic place at least once a week. Change your normal training schedule, even if only for two days. Put new spark in your training schedule by doing interval work, varying your speed and doing endurance work, rather than slogging along at the same old pace. In the business context, this could translate to taking your laptop to work in a coffee shop every now and then, spending an afternoon reading an inspirational book or just dedicating a day to much-needed filing.

  • Enjoy and take the pressure off

Make a deliberate effort each day to create enjoyment in your sport, renewing your enthusiasm and excitement for training. Don’t force your physical improvement – let your next breakthrough occur naturally, at its own pace, when the internal conditions are right. In the same way, celebrate your business’s small successes – buy a round of coffees, go out for lunch when you’ve reached a milestone and take a moment to reflect on how far you’ve come.

Working well in a team is a huge encouragement and can keep you going when you feel you don’t have any reserves left. “You learn a selfless lesson in team sport, and that’s invaluable in any of life’s situations,” says Woods. In your business, if you can learn to work well with all sorts of people, and accept their high’s and low’s in the workplace, it’ll make your day-to-day activities that much easier and more enjoyable.

When the whistle blows


Sportsmen know how important mental preparation is before a big event. They learn how to tune in to what’s critical to their performance and tune out what’s not. They know how to “reach the zone” – with all their practice coming to the fore combined with the adrenalin of the pressurised situation. “You have to block all negativity out of your mind and remember why you play the game you love so much,” says Ntini. In business, there’s going to come a time when you need to reach your peak performance – perhaps it’s putting forward a proposal to a large client, or taking a risk that could swing the direction of the enterprise.

“Every top sportsperson has learnt how best they deal with pressure and each has their own coping mechanisms,” says Woods. “In our team, players handle a pressured situation in a lot of different ways, but they’ve figured out what works best for them.”

They also know that adversity builds character and have learnt how to deal with difficult situations, embracing the outer limits of their potential. Rather than avoiding pressure they feel challenged by it, and are calm and relaxed under fire instead of surrendering to panic.

Pic: Jeff Ayliffe

Tackling panic

“When panic creeps in and desperation meets deadlines, the outcome is often catastrophic,” comments South African sevens rugby coach Paul Treu on his blog “Fear of failure overrides the need to stay calm and focus on the basics. A classic example was a recent South Africa-New Zealand match. With less than a minute on the clock and one of their players off the field, we kicked the ball away because we thought they wouldn’t be able to recover the ball with only six players on the field. We thought wrong – they made a remarkable recovery, snatched the ball away and kicked it into touch; game over. It’s a case of becoming desperate and doing silly things.”

In tough economic times like these, it is very tempting to do everything just to make a sale. Standard business practices are abandoned and the underlying principles that you decided to build your business on in the first place are forgotten – sure, you may be able to pay a bill, but will it lead to long-term sustainable growth?

Coping with failure

Losing a match or having a big deal fall through can teach some invaluable lessons. It forces you to take a step back and ask: what made us successful in the first place? What made my product sell or my team win?  “It’ll give you a chance to ‘cut the fat’ and get rid of everything that is not aligned to your goals and doesn’t have a positive impact on your business,” says Treu.

So, what do we do when business is down or a team keeps losing? Treu says, “Winners know that success will come today…if not today, it will come the next day, or the next day. I stood on the sidelines many times, often disappointed and devastated after yet another loss. Goals come from the head, and vision comes from the heart. Keep believing, and get back to the basics.”

Leading your team


We’ve discussed the skills necessary to be a team player, but what about the captain’s skills? Anyone who plays an individual sport or is a decision-maker in a team (i.e. small business owner) will need these in order to be truly effective. In fact, if you fall into this category and don’t have them, you’ll not be able to perform optimally.


Gary Bailey bases his principles for leadership largely on the skills seen in Sir Alex Ferguson, “the most successful sports manager of all time.” He defines them as level 5 leadership, emotional intelligence, appreciative inquiry and destiny.

v      Level 5 leadership

Level five leadership consists of two main abilities: professional will and personal humility. “This is not easy to achieve,” comments Bailey, “as those with a strong will tend to want everyone to know and appreciate their skills and often lack humility. Sir Alex Ferguson has both these qualities in abundance; he can take tough decisions but understands how to do this in a humble way.” When asked what has made the South African public warm so easily to him, Ntini immediately says that being able to stay humble and remember where he came from, as well as all the people that supported him throughout his career, is what is key.


v      Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence (EI) is best described as empathy, a word that encapsulates observation, evaluating, feeling, and responding. “If leaders are able to improve their EI, then they should grow rapidly and be able to understand their staff and also get the best from those around them,” says Bailey.

He continues: “One can see in English football that managers have changed their style from authoritarian to more understanding with a greater use of EI – managers like Arsene Wenger, Martin O’ Neill and Steve Bruce are all softly spoken and not ‘in your face’!”

v      Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative inquiry (AI) is one of the most talked-about leadership tools in business today. It suggests that what you focus on is what you produce – in other words, if you are always looking at the 1% that goes wrong, and not the 99% that is good, then you will create a negative mindset in the workforce. Instead, focus on the good (but still deal with the bad) and in that way create a positive and creative mind frame within the business.


v      Destiny

Most leaders have their hands full trying to focus on the present, so they rarely get a chance to concentrate on future planning. This future will arrive sooner than you think, so you need to increase your energy in order to “make time” and ensure that plotting your path ahead is a priority.

Finally, and perhaps more importantly than is often realised in business, good sports leaders know that it’s all about the people. Why else would players reach such high price tags? Collins uses the analogy of a bus driver commencing a journey. “Most people assume that great bus drivers (read: business leaders) immediately start a journey by announcing to the people on the bus where they’re going. In fact, great leaders start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. The right people are self-motivated; nothing beats being part of a team that is expected to produce great results.”

We wish you all the best on your business journey: go for gold!




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