Wednesday 9 October 2019 5:53 am

How to tackle stress like an Olympic athlete

David Carry is chief executive of Track Record and a former Olympic swimmer.

C-suite stress is the hidden ticking time bomb of business. With markets set to become even more volatile, the psychological impact on the leaders of Britain’s biggest firms cannot be underestimated. 

Just as we expect athletes to perform under stress, chief executives will be required to make critical decisions in the face of extreme pressure. 

While training for the Olympics with Team GB, we were taught that harnessing confidence and stress resilience – two of the few factors within our control – was a crucial way to guarantee performance under trying conditions. So here are four ways you can apply this Olympic mindset and begin to harness a strategy for professional stress management. 

Anticipate hurdles

Avoid confusing confidence with blind optimism. Negativity in business, when done correctly, is not only useful but essential. 

Team GB excelled at the “pre-mortem” approach, undertaking meticulous forward planning to consider every potential obstacle, from injury to last-minute team changes. 

Confidence requires acknowledging all potential negative outcomes and preparing for them in order to deliver results – this way, planning takes place in a calm and considered setting. 

When setbacks inevitably occur, you can be confident in taking the best possible action to increase your chances of success.

Separate the individual from performance

Athletes routinely review videos of themselves, analysing and critiquing alongside their teammates and coaches. The goal here is not just to discuss or justify current performance, but to identify areas for improvement. 

In business, we tend to struggle to separate the individual from their performance – reviews are too often an exercise in relaying achievements, with far too little focus on the negatives. 

With volatile times ahead, we should shine a spotlight on areas of performance most in need of improvement – the back-patting should come later. 

Collective confidence 

Departments in large firms can become cliques: sales will have different goals to marketing or accounting, and this can lead to these teams behaving as their own miniature businesses.

Even board members may not see each other as colleagues – their “real” team is their department. 

Team GB taught us that three main areas were critical in developing confidence: purpose, identity, and performance planning. Unpicking your organisation’s wider values and defining what constitutes a “win” is crucial in developing a shared goal. 

Understand resilience 

Increasing stress resilience and reducing recovery time is a priority for any athlete. Business leaders generally consider themselves masters of stress management, but they are often unaware of how psychological pressures impact the body.

Research shows that pressure has a dramatic effect on your ability to be objective, creative, and make rational decisions. Athletes appreciate that intense training or competition can trigger a physiological reaction, and so are on the alert for warning signs. 

In business, we need to recognise the impact of stress, and build habits to improve our recovery time. For example, set your own “cheat days” where you focus on the enjoyable aspects of your role. Wean yourself away from ploughing time into reactive troubleshooting for every problem that comes along. 

Also, build habits that mitigate stress, such as setting evening email curfews, sticking to your remit on a project, or simply ensuring good sleep.

Adopt this mindset, and you’ll be on the path to a business gold medal.

Main image: Getty

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