More than 25 years ago, management experts and psychologists began to study the similarities and differences between senior executives and elite athletes. Studying the performance of individuals in pressure-filled situations revealed both the forces at play in the corporate and athletic arenas and best practices for high performance. Thanks to 25 years of rapid developments in science and technology, particularly neuroscience, coaching both executives and athletes continues to evolve.
Earlier this summer, Darden’s Executive MBA students talked with Jenni Schierman, a performance coach to some of the world’s premiere athletes, athletic organizations, and corporate organizations. A wellbeing specialist, Jenni is a renowned expert in positive and sports psychology who leverages her training with Hintsa Performance, the primary coaching partner to Formula 1, on behalf of both executives and athletes.
Learn to Switch Off: Jenni shared her insights and best practices for corporate executives, based on her experience working in Formula 1. Initially observing that “people who are high performers in any industry don’t always know when to switch off,” Jenni encouraged the students to set reminders at the end of the day that it’s “time to wind down.” Taking this step consistently can help prevent burnout. Winding down can include closing a laptop, shutting the door to a home office or listening to ten minutes of music.
Travel Healthfully: How do we create consistency across time zones when on travel? Athletes use tools such as the app Timeshifter, which helps travelers manage their health before and during travel. Those going to a different time zone for only a couple of days might refrain from attempting to adjust their bodies. But during extended travel, it’s important to adjust our circadian rhythms and therefore when to expose ourselves to light, sleep, drink caffeine, take melatonin and switch mealtimes.
Maintain Excellent Nutritional Habits Through Habit: Nutrition helps our bodies maintain homeostasis, creating the stability needed for high performance. Professionals use a significant amount of executive function each day, so Jenni counsels clients to make excellent nutrition a habit. When professionals leave eating and drinking to chance (“I’ll figure out what to have for dinner at the end of the day”), they are forced to rely on discipline, rather than habit, to eat and drink healthily. But for high performers who are generally exhausted at the end of the day, relying on discipline to maintain healthy eating habits can be almost impossible.
Stop Ruminating: Just as athletes tend to replay games, matches and races, it can be really difficult to prevent replaying work-related interactions over and over even when the moment has passed. This is usually counterproductive, and the first step towards preventing it is to figure out why we begin overanalyzing in the first place. We should strive for awareness: what patterns or stimuli prompt us to begin ruminating?D o we always ruminate after meeting with a certain colleague? Or do we ruminate when are feeling insecure — or overly confident?
Manage Competition: When asked about strategies to manage competition with colleagues, Jenni observed that such struggles are not dissimilar from the competition pressures that athletes face. In the workplace, just as in the arena, we’re not truly competing against others. Instead, she offered, we are competing against ourselves, and we can only control what we do: our attitude, our preparation and our reactions.
Know That We Are More Than Just Our Jobs: Finally, when asked about grappling with significant transitions, Jenni focused on the importance of managing our identities, suggesting that we strive to see ourselves as whole individuals, more than what just we do for work. As humans, there are many facets to us: colleague, spouse, friend, volunteer, neighbor, sibling. We are more than just our work, and by remembering that at work, we can have more perspective — and be more effective.