by Chris Mooney, Head Swimming Coach, Bond University
There’s a lot that goes into the journey from pool to podium, and it has more in common with the path from cubicle to corner office than you might think.
I’ve spent decades helping elite athletes reach the top of their game, and I can see that many of the techniques we use can just as successfully be applied to any performance-oriented organisation.
Coaching elite sports and leading teams have a lot of similarities. Surrounding yourself with the right people, selecting team members based on shared values and the ability to understand their strengths as individuals are actions of great managers and coaches.
Below I’ve summed up in a few key words some of what I’ve learned and been teaching my squads for many years, and how you can apply the same to leading high-performing teams.
It’s about your values – surrounding yourself with the right people. I always say that if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.
Often success comes down to the people who surround elite athletes. Who’s the cool head, who is the one keeping that white noise away? The same is true in business, in any leadership role that requires calm and focus – and don’t they all?
When we select our squad we look for people who have talent and are prepared to work hard, who come with a capacity to grow and, importantly, are willing to make sacrifices.
When you are clear about the values you hold and expect from your team, and select team members based on those, the path to success is a lot smoother.
Finding ways to help your people stay engaged, interested and motivated is really important. With training we like to change it up. Once a month or so we do something a little bit different, like a Latin dance class or a pottery class.
It’s also about understanding the different ways your team might work at their best. Take distance swimmers versus sprinters. Distance swimmers have to swim every day. Sprinters are different and they might need to train differently. You’re not going to turn Joey Johns away from your footy team because he doesn’t train like Wayne Pearce, you’ve just got to find ways to manage it.
I expect my athletes to be very accountable. It’s one of the key values we look for when selecting the squad. I think we overprescribe in life as it is.
That value of accountability plays such a strong role in the squad that they pull each other up. It means I’m not having to have those conversations, they happen within the team. When something goes down, one of those values has been disrespected.
It applies equally to leadership. If I’ve stuffed up it’s because I haven’t been accountable to my non-contact time, or I got lazy and I didn’t pick up the phone or attend that Zoom meeting. Nine times out of 10 if something’s going wrong for me it’s because I’ve neglected one of those values.
And when it’s happened, I know, I recognise it, I own it. Leaders need to demonstrate their own accountability and fess up when they haven’t, just as they expect of their people.
What’s the difference between best and second best? Sacrifice. The sacrifice element is often where people get stuck – I work with athletes, but you can apply this to anything in life.
Grant Hackett used to say there are two different types of hunger – one to get there, and a completely different one to stay there. The one to stay there is much harder because you’ve got to continually keep making the sacrifices and more, because you’re being chased.
And when you get to that point where you’ve been doing it for 12 years, it’s hard. It’s hard to do anything for 12 years. It’s sacrifice that can have the biggest impact on an athlete’s longevity.
Take Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Both unbelievable tennis players – you don’t have to be a fan to recognise just how good these guys are. The only thing certain when they meet is that there will be a winner.
That winner, to me, is the person is the person who was willing to make more sacrifices in the lead up to that tournament – not the season, but the tournament. How well they dealt with logistics, flights, did they commit to hitting the practice court even after a delayed flight? What sacrifices did they make to play at their best?
In a business environment it’s important to remember it’s about the sacrifices before the tournament, not the whole season. It’s a balance, to ensure that they can maintain that hunger, that willingness to sacrifice when it’s needed to achieve great results.
Part of maintaining that longevity is balance. Our squad has four days off every three weeks. It’s an opportunity to recharge and rest, a chance to spend time with family and friends – to be a whole person. That long break once a month allows them to go and really relax and do something else.
And heads up for people managers – it’s good for us as well. Our job is to be the best we can for the athletes. Look at the best companies in the world - they care about their people, they don’t work their staff into the ground. I think that reflects in a performance and that’s critical when you’re in a performance orientated business. That’s why I see there’s an organic crossover between what we do here in sport and in the business world.