RESILIENCE FOR PEAK PERFORMANCE

Juan Coto, leadership business coach and mental trainer for elite athletes, shares with us how resilience is the key to peak performance and a training framework to become more resilient

Peak performance is a term traditionally used in the elite sporting arena which is used more and more in the business world. Peak performance is the “ability to perform at the top range of your abilities independently of the circumstances”. We all have experienced those moments of being “in the zone” which I describe as feeling: energised, committed, confident and carefree. Those moments tend to occur when the circumstances are favourable and we are in a familiar environment. However, there is no doubt that the pace of change in the business environment keeps increasing at an accelerating rate and the business environment is being described as VUCA (volatile, uncertain, changing and ambiguous). In this rapidly changing environment, organisations, and as a result their employees, need to adapt to change. As Jack Welch, GE’s Chairman and CEO from 1981 to 2011, said: “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.”

The challenge is that as humans we find change hard and thus not conducive to achieving peak performance. Although the brain accounts for less than 2% of a person’s weight, it consumes 20% of the body’s energy. Brain energy requirements become more acute when there is unfamiliarity and the brain needs to figure out new ways of thinking and acting. Thus, through evolution our brains have learned to become efficient by automating as many behaviours as possible since familiarity and habits are very energy efficient. When faced with uncertainty and change most of us develop our own “defence mechanisms” to continue behaving in familiar ways. Some of us when faced with the need to change behave by blaming the circumstances and everyone else; some of us keep working with our familiar patterns but harder and harder; some of us just adopt the “wait and hope” strategy and some of us just give up. There are however a small minority amongst us that not only recognise the need for change but implement a relentless solution focused approach and as a consequence are able to adapt to change more readily.

What is the difference between the most common response of creating defences to change and those that succeed in adapting to new circumstances? The answer is our level of resilience. Resilience is “the ability to manage our thoughts and emotions in a demanding environment”. A demanding environment is one where you experience one or a combination of the following characteristics: constant change, high levels of pressure and an expectation of having to deal with setbacks often.

Is resilience a trait that you are born with, or is it a skill that can be trained and improved? Although there are genetic differences in the levels of resilience, it can without a doubt be improved with the right training programme. We need to train holistically all aspects that affect performance so we are able to evoke on demand our level of peak performance even when faced with adversity. My resilience training programme is summarised in Figure 1 and has four interrelated components that work optimally when they are trained and treated as a system. They are energy, purpose, mindset and emotional agility. Each of them contributes to the peak performance state of being energised, committed, confident and carefree.

Energy refers to the amount of fuel that we have and it is the base for the other components. If we do not have enough energy, that is if we are fatigued, we cannot perform at our best. We need purposefully to monitor and focus on the right levels of nutrition and hydration, our movement and our recovery which includes sleep.

The power of purpose is understood at an organisational level and as such every corporate or non-profit has its mission and value statements. However, at the individual level not many of us have a clear purpose for ourselves: why we do what we do; a purpose which is bigger than our individual achievements. When everything is done and dusted how do we want to be remembered? In order to create the life that will deliver our purpose we need to first define that purpose. Our values, the guidelines that we are going to use to make decisions and the necessary trade-offs, are another critical part of our purpose. This self-reflection, although extremely valuable, is not common practice and some of us are a bit hesitant to do it in case we find out that the life that we have chosen is not aligned with what we consider to be really important. If we want to achieve peak performance on a consistent basis we need to find meaning in the work that we do and align what we do with our values. Only then we will be able to show the commitment needed to stay focused on what is important and not distracted by the “noise” around us.

If we think of our mind as a computer, our mindset is our “operating system”. It represents the beliefs and assumptions which influence our thinking. Our mindset translates our experiences into our own internal representation and language. I am referring to our internal dialogue, our private voice that goes with us everywhere we go: the story that we tell ourselves. That story will determine whether we achieve success or not since it becomes our reality. We need to train to create effective stories that serve us well.

Emotions relate to the energy that we have to be in “motion”, to take action. This is achieved by the production of hormones and neurotransmitters which form a “chemical soup” in our brain that is extremely powerful and acts very fast- in milliseconds even before we are consciously aware- to respond to our assessment of threat and security. This chemical mix determines the mental state we experience: either positive (dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, endorphins) or negative (cortisol). Our ability first to be aware and secondly to regulate an appropriate and helpful emotional response is our emotional agility. The ratio of positive to negative emotions that we experience during a day will determine our performance. Positive emotions such as hope, joy, gratitude, serenity not only expand our thinking allowing us to be more innovative, collaborative and open to change but also build our reservoir of resilience to be able to draw on effectively when dealing with perceived threatening situations.

Figure 1.

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All of us can become more resilient to help us achieve on demand a state of peak performance in a demanding environment. We need regularly and purposefully to train across four areas: our energy, our purpose, our mindset and our emotional agility. There are proven tools in each of these four areas which can be designed to create an individual resilience programme leading to sustainable change in improved resilience and performance.

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