by Paul Sheals.
I had been considering writing an article looking at the parallels I have found with regards to handling pressure both as a top level athlete and as a small business owner. As with sport and athletes small business owners go through different stages of development and are armed with different levels of skill to cope with each stage. I was particularly interested in the decision making process and how this is effected by pressure and stress.
Driving back from a particularly good meeting yesterday I had the radio going in the car but felt relaxed and had a steady flow of ideas, strategies and plans that were coming into my thoughts regarding the meeting I had just had. The chat show on the radio changed and became a discussion about pressure in the sporting arena and was looking at everything from Cricket to the recent Rugby World Cup but with a view to reaching conclusions around how the british Team can best prepare for the upcoming Olympic Games in 2012. I immediately tuned into the discussion which was fascinating and had guests like Andrew Strauss (Current England Cricket Captain), Michael Vaughan (previous England Cricket Captain) a couple of sports psychologists (one who had been involved with the rugby World Cup and one who had been involved with professional Football and was currently involved with Olympic Athletes).
I myself competed at Judo for the British Judo Team for over 16 years and managed to win Gold medal at the Commonwealt Games along with medals in the World and European Championships plus numerous other International & National Tournaments. I retired some 20 plus years ago and what struck me was the stark difference between the preparation of athletes then and now, and how ill prepared I was psychologically to deal with the pressure and stress involved with competing at the highest level. But it also highlighted to me how ill prepared I was and indeed many small business owners are to deal with the pressure and stress involved with creating, building and keeping afloat a small business particularly in these turbulent economic times.
If I relate to my time as an athlete my preparation to compete on a physical level was tremendous – I think nowadays there is a lot more science involved in terms of peeking for the right tournaments at the right time and ensuring athletes do not over train but on the whole my training was real quality. I was incredibly fit, as strong as I needed to be and my skill levels with regards to the technicality of our sport was as good as anyone in the World. This skill level came from a core amount of natural ability but mainly from hours upon hours of drills and skill sessions along with thousands of hours fighting different opponents at different levels, weights, strengths, speed, nationality so that when it came to competing if my body tired as it always did with our sport instinct kicked in to get you through the fight. They say to become very good at something you need to invest 5000 hours to become exceptional this needs to be something like 10,000 and I had paid my due’s plus some!!
In all this time however I never once trained for the pressure and stress involved with competition and the impact that would have on performance. If I could have simply translated what I did in training into the competition arena I would have been World and Olympic Champion many times over – however this is the same for every athlete at that level and I believe the athlete who is more successful at this is the one who wins all the major tournaments and the athlete that isn’t wins sporadically and never truly fulfills their potential.
Some examples of how pressure can effect performance in my sport would have been:
- Adrenaline – when you are training you feel relaxed and can try different things and so adrenaline never really kicks in – during a tournament this can speed up what you do which in turn effects timing and in a technical sport this can be crucial – also you feel tired (even if you are not) more quickly which can cause you to reserve energy and therefore not exert pressure in the way you would during training
- Decision Making – in a contest there are many times when you feel pressure, exhausted, you might be losing etc. and all these factors can make you try things you wouldn’t when you are thinking clearly without stress
- Missing a warm up or an enforced change to a routine can add pressure and change your decision making
The programme explored all of these factors and I believe given my own experience and what the guest speakers were saying two big things that came out of it:
- Routine – the more you can create routines for different situations the better so for example Golfers practice routines before every shot. It is particularly important to sports like Golf because they have a lot of time to think between shots and so one bad shot can easily spoil a whole tournament so this is why you here cliches like “play one shot at a time” or in Football “one game at a time” however these cliches are absolutely true. In Golf they practice the same routines before every shot in training so that in a competition when the pressure is on the routine itself (if practiced enough) becomes the trigger to calm down, to behave as you would in training etc. If you watch the great kickers in Rugby – during training they envisage the posts to be huge and the difference between the posts to be huge but they aim for a tiny spec or dot in the middle of the posts. However it is the routine leading up to it, how they hold their arms, how they breathe, the amount of steps backwards and to the side that they take that becomes the trigger and calming effect to simulate training.
- Stepping Back – often in a pressure situation you feel consumed with the situation and the problem and you make poor decisions or worse decisions you wouldn’t ever normally make if you were in a relaxed mode. Athletes often talk about this pressure being like a big blanket coming over them and consuming them and restricting their movement and thinking. The key here is to have the ability to step out of the situation – when you feel you are being consumed in this way take a second to stop, step away from the issue or problem and look at it from the outside in and deal with it as you would in training
So how does this relate to business? It would be difficult in one article to discuss all the ways in which parallels can be drawn between running a small business and sport but having outlined the issues and some potential solutions I would hope many of you that are reading this could draw your own comparisons and play around with your own methods of dealing with it.
I would like to discuss one common situation I see though as an example. I deal with a lot of small business owners and in particular deal with their Online Marketing. We all know that building a small business is tough and it is even tougher in todays difficult economic climate. What I often see is that small business owners make a perfectly good decision regarding the future of their Online Marketing Activity and agree a plan, agree which partners they want to work with and specify outcomes and goals. I then see due to the pressure of the economy, need for cash, desire for quick wins that they begin to second guess themselves. Because of the nature of Online Marketing there is always something new being promoted – every day there is a new product, service, company, method of delivery and so when a small business owner feels the pressure they try something new, when that doesn’t deliver, they try something new and so and so on. When all they really needed to do is back themselves and their original decision – if it wasn’t quite working quickly enough stick with it, make tweaks but “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water”.
I often liken this to school football teams – if you have ever watched kids playing football the whole team follows the ball all around the pitch. As a coach you train them every week to stay in position, find space, look for their team mates, pass the ball and NEVER follow the ball as a team. The moment the pressure of a game comes on they all run after the ball and no amount of screaming from the sidelines from parents and coaches will change their thinking when they are under pressure in this way.
I feel all to often Small Business Owners chase after the ball when what they should be doing is finding space, taking their time and backing their original decision – it was usually the right one!!
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