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The high performance pyramid management theory and how it can apply to athletes as well

Achieving high performance in business and sport. A look at the High performance pyramid by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz and a personal application.

The high performance pyramid.

This is a performance management theory hierarchy or framework that helps executives or business people get the most out of their abilities and performance.

Performing in business has often been seen as a matter of sheer brainpower but this model presents the hypothesis that the ideal performance state (IPS) is achieved by addressing all aspects of the person rather just the cognitive development only. It recognises four levels or parts of a person that needs to be addressed in order to achieve the ideal performance state.

These four levels are known as the high performance pyramid and has at its’ base, physical well being. Above that rests emotional health and above that mental acuity (what is traditionally focused on by corporates) and at the very top level is a sense of purpose.

This Ideal performance state under pressure and over the long haul is achieved when all levels are working in harmony together and the needs of each level are being addressed.

Rituals are the basis of achieving the IPS. Using small daily rituals to address ones needs and develop strategies that help promote high performance. Rituals help promote the oscillation (the rhythmic expenditure and recovery of energy) and help link the levels of the pyramid together.

This approach resonates with me personally based on my business experiences and my sporting endeavours and I am finding this model becomes even more relevant in regards to my fitness coaching business, Running Hot Coaching and benefits my athletes.

Many of the aspects presented in this theory I have inadvertently used and have intuitively understood the dynamics between these four levels.

Rituals that promote recovery are extremely important as an athlete. It is in the recovery phase after a hard training session when you actually get stronger and fitter. Without the recovery phase the training won’t be beneficial and continued training without recovery phases will lead to injury, immune system breakdown, mental and physical fatigue, in short a less than optimal performance.

One can liken it to refuelling the tank of your car. You can’t go on and on driving for hours without topping up the fuel tank and in much the same way you might be able to perform for a time, at a high level as an executive or business person without giving yourself rest phases and recovery time with your family and time for yourself, but it will be at the cost of your emotional well being and often your physical wellbeing which then invariably leads to compensating behaviours doing things that aren’t good for you as our willpower weakens.

An example from my own experience as an athlete and business person was in 2009 when I worked so hard to achieve some huge projects in a very short time span including the Death valley race (see the documentary) raising sponsorship for the trip ($55,000) , organising a film crew and channels to air the documentary, qualifying for the New Zealand team in 24 hour racing and then raising money to travel with the team to the commonwealth champs in England. while simultaneously organising the largest project of them all - Running the length of New Zealand 2250km in a planned 33 days, developing a programme for schools throughout New Zealand called “The K a day challenge” aimed at getting school kids involved with the fundraising campaign ( I was raising money for CanTeen and Cure kids) and to heighten the childrens’ awareness of the need to be physically active every day. On top of that I had to raise another $70,000 in sponsorship for the actual running expedition costs and another $150,000 in money raised for the charities.

This project alone meant the development of websites, sponsor proposals, speaking engagements and extensive media campaigns.

I was also still running my jewellery business and training for the biggest events I had ever undertaken. I also wrote a book “Running Hot” which was released as the NZ run kicked off and had book launches and school visits to achieve throughout the run itself. I was planning on running 70km a day on average during the NZ run.

In short the amount I achieved physically let alone financially, in business and with the book within a short six month period was huge. The stresses endured took a huge toll that left me emotionally and physically traumatised, broken and burnt out.

My motivation disappeared. My passion and enthusiasm for projects, running and life diminished and depression was a constant companion.

I hadn’t appreciated the toll that every project would take on me as I had the attitude “I can do anything I set my mind to and strength comes from struggle and what doesn’t break you makes you stronger” which is all very well but there is always a cost involved.

I had to take time out to start the recovery process by reigning in the number and size of the projects I undertook which I found very hard as my whole identity was tied up with my mental ability to push through limits so facing these limitations in myself was not a pleasant process and I fought with guilt and a sense of uselessness and was unable to appreciate that which I had achieved. Over time I had to learn to enjoy life, family and friends again and to take the foot off the accelerator where I could.

I eventually developed a set of rituals for better time management and and to help me find more balance in life by using the oscillation theory. Changing between periods of high intensity training for example followed by relaxing periods incorporating much more mobility and and rehabilitation work and relaxing sports where it was just about enjoyment in nature. I did the same in business oscillating between high intensity work intervals in business followed where possible by time out, off the grid, with friends and family.

I learnt slowly to let go of the reigns without feeling guilty and to not be so hard on myself and to limit my to do list to day size achievable chunks with long term plans in place.

I started separating my home and work life - whereas before I had worked often in the wee small hours of the most nights followed by business as usual during the day coupled with hours of physical training, I now turned the computer off after 8pm and spent time with my family. This was a huge change for me and once again I had to work through the guilt of not continually pushing ahead.

I now changed my training regime up too to include more sharper but shorter training sessions that were complete fitness orientated rather than just endless hours of junk miles out running (consequently I got a lot fitter and stronger overall and some chronic injuries improved dramatically. It was partly at the expense however of the top endurance fitness I had had so I had to change some of my goals but this left me more refreshed.

I dealt with the guilt of training less and working less by reminding myself I was more efficient when I was working and that by providing myself with regular breaks every 90 to 120 minutes I was relieving the pressure valve so to speak and making my work turn out more productive.

The integrated theory of performance management has at its’ base and its’ most important foundation the physical aspect of our lives. These are simple things we all know we should do but generally don’t.

Eating regular small meals so that your metabolism doesn’t stagnate and go into conservation mode making you gain weight and making you grab for quick treats to get your blood sugars up which quickly drops you back down causing a vicious cycle.

Eating a healthy breakfast to kick start the metabolism is crucial.

Good hydration - most of us are chronically dehydrated all the time so more water, less coffee but also supplementing electrolytes in order to keep the water balance in our bodies. Just drinking water doesn’t mean it will get to the tissues that need it the electrolytes must be in balance so the body can absorb and hold it and use it for the millions of processes that need water.

Good sleeping patterns, regular time of going to bed and getting up early - not sleeping too late.

Avoiding simple sugars that spike our energy (blood sugar levels) but then drop you lower and lead to obesity and a raft of other concerns.

Regular cardiovascular workouts and resistance training workouts to keep the body fit and strong and to balance the hormones. Just doing steady state cardio won’t be as effective at lowering the stress hormone levels in our body and helping you find balance.

High intensity but short bursts of exercise that train both cardio and resistance energy systems are the most effective training to get fitter faster followed by short recovery sessions.

Avoiding alcohol, drugs, prescription drugs even sedatives which disturb natural sleep cycles.

This physical foundation of the pyramid is something I have integrated solidly into my life, the hardest thing for me was not exercising to the extreme all the time without adequate recovery (due the extreme nature of the sport and size of the challenges I undertook this was necessary). But this extreme regime was a form of therapy aimed at dealing with the mental and emotional stresses I was under. But now I understand the balance required for longevity in the sport, health and mental wellbeing.

This is a philosophy and belief system I have now integrated wholeheartedly into my coaching business and indeed in my motivational talks and business consultancy work. Without physical fitness, strength and health the other tiers of the pyramid cant be fully functional.

The second level of the pyramid is the emotional capacity and is considered the second most important area for those wanting to achieve their ideal performance state consistently.

Companies that ignore a persons emotional health and physical health and focus solely on their cognitive development will inevitably have a workforce that is not operating optimally and at a definitive cost to themselves, often their families and their personal relationships as well as affecting their physical wellbeing and this leads to a less than ideal performance at work.

Positive emotions drive energy and energy and motivation lead to high performance.

Negative emotions such as fear, anger, resentment, sadness, depression over a long period of time can lead to burnout, stress related health disorders like high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, heart conditions, weight problems and more and on a business performance basis lead to choking up, freezing up under pressure, under performing compared to ones abilities, reduced decision making capabilities and a reduced ability to hold an overview of a situation. (See my article on choking up under pressure)

Rituals can help us deal with negative emotions safely and constructively and being aware of triggers we can avoid them to some degree.

An example of this in my business - I remember a time during the Badwater Ultramarathon campaign (217km non stop running race through the hottest desert on earth) when I had a crew with me whose job it was to do everything to aid my race so I could concentrate solely on running in the 50 degrees celsius plus temperatures. They needed to be super organised to provide me with food, water, to monitor my vital signs and keep track of all the data concerning my body from temperatures to blood sugar levels etc. Because of the massive amount of pressure I was under, the stress, the fear and the build up over the 10 days leading to the race start let alone the months of preparation that had gone into it and the build up of negative emotions and the physical distress of being in temperatures that were unbearable my temper was very short and at one point I lost control when my crew were not doing the jobs that needed to be done and I vented at them. This in turn affected how they felt about me and the race and I had to apologise afterward and started working on ways to control my emotions when under pressure. Practically for me that mean

-Trying to be more articulate and softly spoken when expression my feelings instead of letting out a chain of commands followed by expletives. That isn’t effective management.

- Deep breathing and removing myself rom the situation until I was able to calmly discuss with the individual how I was feeling.

-Putting myself in their shoes and becoming a more compassionate, empathetic person.

-Going and doing a physical aggressive and intense workout if my emotions are threatening to derail me

- Eating healthier and supplementing my diet in order to have a happier hormone household.

These are examples only, of rituals used to effectively deal with derailed emotions. Not that anyone is ever completely under control but working towards that goal is nevertheless an aim worth working for. These examples show how emotional maturity and a solid emotional state is essential for the ideal performance state and achieving your goals in business consistently.

The next level of the pyramid is your mental capacity which as Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz put it “Focuses physical and emotional energy at the task at hand.”

As a management consultant and coach this has meant for me, helping my clients to focus on what it is they want and the motivation behind it. Asking “Why they are doing it, what result do they want?” Helping them to develop time management strategies that will help them cope with their workloads in a practical and effective way.

It is all about helping clients see the situation they are facing in a positive light, taking a realistic but positively slanted view and then making it even better through their actions.

Traditionally companies have worked on this level of the pyramid the most, developing staff competencies in their areas of expertise but it is also very important that companies help their staff become better self managers and help them find balance between energy expenditure and recovery.

Using once again rituals like mediation, deep breathing, mindless activities like exercise, sports, game playing or being creative. These things help you develop the ability to focus more intently when you are actually working. Making the staff member more efficient, effective and feeling more balanced and satisfied.

In my life I used my creativity in making jewellery as my therapy time. Being able to focus on a creative project helps me disconnect from the digital world and from social interactions, without stressing my body physically either. The creative process is challenging but completely different to the other aspects of my business life and this oscillation between the left and right brain activity helps me recover my energy as well as my passion and motivation for other projects.

The top level of the high performance pyramid is the spiritual capacity as the authors describe it, this provides a powerful source of motivation, determination and endurance. The word spiritual could also be replaced with values and purpose. The energy that is unleashed by tapping into ones’ deepest values and defining a strong sense of purpose.

In my experience I have never been motivated solely by monetary reward. Deep self-fulfilment comes when you re doing something you love and are helping others along the way. An example was running the length of NZ where I was at an absolute end of my physical strength and ability to endure pain and suffering but the higher purpose was to help sick children and the most powerful motivator for me that helped me overcome my own limitations was having teenagers with me who were fighting cancer and seeing them get on with the task at hand and not giving in. The perspective this gave me was incredible and the emotional motivation and deeper sense of doing something worth while made me able to reach beyond my normal abilities.

The desire to help reduce their suffering and improve in a small way their plight was a powerful motivating force.

In summary all of the four levels of capacity the

physical capacity

emotional capacity

mental capacity

spirtual capacity

must be addressed in order for the individual to reach their ideal performance state and to sustain it over the long run. Rituals can help provide the framework or structure necessary to both expend and recover energy as required to keep a balanced mind and body and to operate at full capacity.