Peak Performance

Tuesday, April 1, 2008 - 10:13

Business's top performers are turning to productivity coaches in order to stay at the top of their game, and they're finding out that healthy minds and healthy bodies can mean peak performance. By Darren Baguley

When Vodafone marketing team members Rob Treharne and Marc Fine got hairy for Movember 2006, it ignited a passion to do something really special for Movember 2007.

The charity event is aimed at highlighting male health issues, and at the start of November men register with a clean-shaven face. Dubbed "Mo Bros", participants then use the month to grow and groom their moustache while raising as much money and awareness about male health issues as possible. Movember culminates with a series of end of the month Gala Partés where Mo Bros compete furiously to take home the prestigious Man of Movember title.

It all sounds like a lot of fun, but Treharne and Fine's goal for 2007 was for Vodafone to raise more money than any other company in Australia, and it was going to involve a lot of work.

Both men believe they would not have been able to handle the workload if they hadn't benefited from a recent trend in Australian corporate culture: health, wellbeing and productivity coaching.

While no two coaches have the same approach, trainers such as Dr Adam Fraser and Andrew May base their work on the ancient Greek principle that a healthy body leads to a healthy mind, and that both are necessary for peak performance.

The flow concept

When Vodafone sent Treharne and Fine to do Fraser's course, Resilience and High Performance, Treharne was sceptical about what a four-day course would be able to achieve, especially when overhead messages – "physiology leads to emotion leads to thought to behaviour to performance" – kept flashing up.

"Initially I was thinking, 'whatever'," says Treharne. "High performance is all about whether you've got the internal drive; performance isn't based on all these weird, wonderful factors, it was your dedication."

One of the weird and wonderful factors was Fraser's idea of flow, a concept that he came up with after 13 years of researching performance and people, including elite athletes at the New South Wales Institute of Sport, Illawarra Academy of Sport, businesspeople and soldiers of the Special Air Service.

"I noticed that the top performers seem to do it easy and the poor performers seem to do it tough," says Fraser. One of the best examples of this was Ian Thorpe, who Fraser worked with when the superfish was about 13 years old.

"I was only an undergraduate at the time but I noticed he had a different mindset, he looked at things differently. While the other kids were goofing off he was standing next to us picking our brains.

"If you look at the world's top 100 tennis players, the difference in talent, ability and potential is small. What differentiates them is their ability to control their mindset in the game, to hold it together. The first set is usually close, but then the game is decided through focus, will and the ability to control the voices in the head." So what is flow then?

Fraser says, "It's where you're at your best, you just nail things. So even though you've got a big challenge in front of you, you have this sense of ease."

Learning flow

Many people would say that achieving this flow state is easier said than done, but Fraser believes there are six things people can learn in order to get into flow.
The first is deep focus. "Our ability to focus is getting poorer and poorer, there are too many distractions," explains Fraser. "When you're in flow you're truly present, absorbed in what you're doing and not aware of anything else."

Second, control the noise between your ears. "We're constantly talking to ourselves, and research indicates that only 1 per cent of the thoughts we have during the day are positive, beneficial ones; the rest are negative. High performers are ruthless about the conversation they have in their head, they don't let negative stuff in.

"The third is the ability to change your mindset to suit your environment. The true high performer switches off at night, but most people come home with the same mindset they have in the day and run their home like work; like the ex-naval captain in the movie The Sound of Music treating his children like the crew of a warship. The best way to do this is to have a third place where you switch off. For some people it's meditation, for me it's the gym."

The fourth technique is reducing distractions, being organised rather than disorganised, and taking breaks. "One of the biggest things is people falling into the trap of trying to work their entire day. Physiologically this is impossible, so we should structure our day like a road trip, go hard for a couple of hours, stop, have a break, then re-engage."

The fifth concept is around how your body works, your health and energy levels.

"If you're exhausted and worn out you're just not going to get into flow. This means working with, rather than against, your circadian rhythms by keeping your sleep patterns regular. Also, if you're a morning person, do any of your strategy and important tasks in the morning. Don't clean out your inbox, do that at 4pm instead, and vice versa for afternoon people."

Lastly, Fraser says that high performers look at things in an incredibly simple way. "High performers look at their habits and ask, does it help or hinder me? If it helps they keep it, if it doesn't they get rid of it. They're really open to change."

Coupled to this is the performance mindset that is based on the concept of emotional regulation, self awareness and being able to identify positive and negative emotions and how those emotions drive your thoughts and behaviour.

Executive burnout

Like Fraser, Andrew May, the author of Flip the Switch (Messenger Publishing) and former Physical Performance Manager for the Australian cricket team, has researched the nexus between top-performing athletes and business people. However, his approach is as much about preventing burnout as about achieving peak performance.

According to May, executive burnout is on the increase. "It's affecting something like 20 per cent of the population, and the core of the problem is that corporate Australia works hard but doesn't allow sufficient recovery time.

"An AFL team plays on the weekend and then recovers all week, but the latest statistics show 64 per cent of Australian workers didn't take all of their annual leave in the past 12 months. Executives 'play' every week, month, quarter, year and wonder why after two years without holidays and without recharging, they feel flat."

Instead, May teaches pupils to work hard or play hard, and recover even harder. "There are going to be times when things are out of control and you need to work flat out around the clock, but you need to build in periods of recovery, periods of renewal and periods where you do recharge."

May calls it the "recovery rocket" with 1, 3, 30, 300 and 365 as a framework. "One is one 'off' season; make sure you've had one good break of two to three weeks every year, without email or dialling in to work to see what's happening.

"Three represents three mini-breaks throughout the year. Thirty means that for 30 weeks of the year people should get 100 recovery points. It's all about going slow and recharging body and mind. So a massage or slow yoga class might be 30 points.

"The 300 is that for six out of every seven days you should wake up feeling refreshed after a proper night's sleep. Last, 365 days, every day you should spend 10 minutes going slow – it could be prayer, lying in the sun or listening to some soft music – just consciously slowing the body down."

Emotional regulation

Just as each trainer takes a different approach, every person who does the training takes away something different. This was the case with Rob Treharne and Marc Fine. Treharne found the concept of physical vitality, regular sleep and breaks useful, but his main lesson was the idea of emotional regulation.

"Trying to organise Movember 2007 was a stressful time because of work pressure and the added pressure of trying to make this project a success," says Treharne. "I tend to have a short fuse and get irritated, upset and blame people. But when we had a bit of trouble getting sponsorship, and someone said, 'This ain't going to happen,' I put aside that negative, absolutely useless kind of thinking and thought 'This is a challenge. We're going to do it somehow; let's just figure out how'."

For work colleague Fine, it was the concept of flow. "Being conscious of flow, being in a highly challenging situation but still knowing you can gain the skills along the way, being conscious of it while it's happening.

"We had an event internally, before the state party, where we crowned Vodafone's king of Movember. An hour before it all kicked off there were four of us running around organising everything at the last moment, but we all knew we were going to do it."

For the record, the Vodafone team certainly did do it in 2007: 178 people raised $114,000, on no budget with no resources, to be both the equal highest corporate fundraising team in the world, and the highest in Australia.