How Businesses Can Avoid Performance Errors By Learning From Elite Sports

Business Insights

It can be tricky for businesses to define performance in a meaningful way. As organisational psychologists we are interested in behaviours that can be successfully adapted and adopted for the world of work. In researching elite sports for our new book, ‘Rest, Practise, Perform.’ we observed approaches that can help business leaders avoid some of the errors that can damage performance. By studying what elite sports people and teams do well, we identified fundamental performance errors that businesses dismiss or overlook.

Lack of clarity

Just like in sports, business need clear goals and strategies to succeed. These goals must be specific and achievable, and they have to be measurable. In elite sports there is a ‘gameplan’. Teams know what they are called upon to do and who does what. You won’t see a better example of a highly performing team than in the blur of activity of a Formula 1 pit stop.

Within organisations, a lot of time and energy can be wasted because staff are unclear. If people are unclear, it can be very stressful, having a negative effect on their health. It can be demoralising to see a lot of work go nowhere, and if this happens a number of times, peoples’ health can deteriorate fast. As a leader, the more you can do to make sure that your team’s work will contribute to performance, the more likely you are to avoid this pitfall. You want to ensure that everyone is clear about what good looks like in terms of their role, that they are clear about how their work contributes to the overall goals of the business, and that they are clear about where they have freedom and autonomy and where they do not. Think of the difference between the creative play of professional football players in the flow of much of a match and the specific tasks the players are assigned during corners, free kicks and penalties.


Lack of data-driven decision making

Elite sports teams leverage data and analytics to gain insights into performance and make informed decisions. Businesses can adopt a similar approach by collecting and analysing data to understand such things as operational efficiency, leading to more informed decision-making.

Elite sportspeople always follow-up after a match or race. They analyse who did what, what went well and what could be improved. For any organisation, having some way of tracking and following up can make a huge difference. Use tools and technology to keep track of key things you need to follow up and have a separate ‘follow-up list’ from your to do list. Set clear expectations, give a ‘why’ for short deadlines, and avoid arbitrary or false deadlines. Do have conversations with others about why things haven’t been done, but avoid going into blame mode.

Low levels of trust

Trust is essential in elite sports. The most effective and high performing teams instinctively know where their teammates will be on the track or pitch. The same goes for management. Coaches build trust with their players which helps them understand why decisions that they may not like have been made.

Aside from the obvious benefits of creating trust in a workplace, if people do not trust each other, they will spend more time checking, questioning, trying to understand and challenging. This can be a huge waste of time and energy. Creating trust is not about being nice, or telling people what they want to hear. It’s about being honest and consistent. Trust is frequently eroded by well-meaning leaders who say all the right things but then never deliver them. Some key elements of building trust can be easily achieved by doing what you say you are going to do. Don’t make too many promises, but make sure you deliver on the ones you commit to. And keep people updated, even if there is bad news.

You should prioritise team building as part of your team’s rhythm, the more people know each other the more easily they will create a shorthand, saving time later. They will also resolve more of their own tensions. Make sure relevant people are trained in negotiation skills and managing conflict. These are under taught but critical skills.

These errors are not easy to solve, but even marginal improvements in each of these areas will have a knock-on effect to your ability to improve and sustain performance.


Karen Meager is co-author of ‘Rest. Practise. Perform. What elite sport can teach leaders about sustainable wellbeing and performance’. Karen takes the latest scientific and academic thinking and makes it useful and easy to apply. Her approach is grounded in research and professional practice that spans 20-plus years. Karen holds Masters degrees in psychology and health research, and her specialist research area is mental health and burnout in organisations. Karen’s goal with ‘Rest. Practise. Perform.’ is to help leaders and organisations find a working rhythm that delivers top performance whilst also prioritising people and their health.