REACHING YOUR TOP PERFORMANCE LEVEL
"Failing is not a crime, but lack of effort is" from a road sign on the side of the road seen while running "The High" 222km over the highest passes in the world in the Indian Himalayas.
The High performance pyramid
This management theory by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz says that any successful approach to sustained high performance must bring together four elements: the body, the emotions, the mind, and the spirit – and consider the person as a whole. In this article, I use ideas based on their theory and show how it has worked in my life and how it's applicable to yours.
This is a framework that helps executives, business people, and athletes get the most out of their abilities and reach peak levels of 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 aspect of cognitive development. 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 it has physical well-being as its foundation. Above that rests emotional health, and above that mental acuity (which is the traditional focus of high-powered corporate types). At the very top of the pyramid is a sense of purpose, your higher values, morals or spirituality.
This Ideal performance state is achieved when all levels are working in harmony together and the needs of each level are being addressed, even under times stress or during a long haul.
Rituals are the basis of achieving the IPS. Small daily rituals allow an individual to address their needs and develop strategies that help promote high performance. Rituals help promote the oscillation rhythm (the rhythmic expenditure and recovery of energy) and help link the levels of the pyramid together. This is an approach that certainly resonates with my experience in business and in all my sporting endeavours that I’ve undertaken thus far.
I have inadvertently used many of the aspects presented in this theory over the years, and I have intuitively understood the dynamics between these four levels to reach my high performance state.
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. Obviously, this is a state of less-than-optimal performance, and it's the same principle for executives with difficult roles or parents trying to juggle kids and work. We all need the recovery phase.
THE RECOVERY PHASE
One can liken the recovery phase to refuelling the tank of your car.
You can’t go on and on driving for hours without topping up the 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 and physical well-being. This invariably leads to eroding willpower and compensating behaviours, which encourages us to do things that aren’t healthy for our minds and bodies.
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 amount of time, including the Death Valley Race
My goals included raising sponsorship for the trip ($55,000), organising a film crew and media channels to air the documentary, qualifying for the New Zealand team in 24 hour racing, and raising money to travel with the team to the Commonwealth Championships in England. I did all this while simultaneously organising the largest project of them all: running the length of New Zealand (2250km) in 33 days, developing a programme for schools throughout New Zealand called “The K a Day Challenge,” which was aimed at getting school kids involved with the fundraising campaign. I was raising money for CanTeen and Cure kids, both of which bring children's’ awareness to the importance of daily physical activity. On top of that, I had to raise another $70,000 in sponsorship for the actual running expedition costs, and another $150,000 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 do throughout the run itself. I was planning on running an average of 70km a day during the NZ run.
In short, the amount I achieved (both physically and financially, in business and with the book) within a short six month period was huge. The stresses I 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. The whole time I had the attitude of “I can do anything I set my mind to,” and “Strength comes from struggle and what doesn’t break you makes you stronger.” That is all well and good, but there is always a cost involved.
I had to take time out to start the recovery process by reining in the number and size of the projects I undertook. I found this to be very challenging, as my whole identity was tied up with my mental ability to push through limits. Facing these limitations in myself was not a pleasant process, and I struggled with feelings of guilt and a sense of uselessness. During this time, I was unable to appreciate all that 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 these rituals helped me find more balance in life by using the oscillation theory. I began alternating between periods of high-intensity training, followed by relaxing periods where I incorporated much more mobility and rehabilitation work. I also embraced more relaxing sports, where it is just about enjoyment in nature. I did the same in business, oscillating between high-intensity work intervals, followed time off the grid with friends and family. I broke it down even further, doing maximum a 90 minutes highly-focused cognitive work, then having a short physical workout break (walking, stretching, going for a jog, yoga, deep breathing, etc.)
I slowly learned to let go of the reins without feeling guilty and without losing sight of my ambitions. I tried not to be so hard on myself, and to limit my to-do list into day-size chunks that were achievable and worked towards my long term goals.
I started separating my home and work life. Whereas before I had worked often in the wee small hours of the night, 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 also changed my training regime to include sharper but shorter training sessions that were orientated on total fitness, rather than just endless hours of junk miles spent running (consequently I got a lot fitter and stronger overall, and some chronic injuries improved dramatically). This came partly at the expense of the top endurance fitness I had previously had, however, so I had to change some of my goals—but this whole process left me more refreshed and changing things up regularly kept me rejuvenated.
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 so-called pressure valve and enabling myself to become more productive during my work time.
The integrated theory of performance management places the physical aspect as the most important foundation of our lives. These are simple things we all know we should do, but generally don’t like:
• Eating regular small meals. This ensures that your metabolism doesn’t stagnate and go into conservation mode, making you gain weight and making you grab for quick treats to boost your blood sugar. Eating treats quickly drops you back down, causing a vicious cycle.
• Eating a healthy breakfast to kick start the metabolism.
• Maintaining good hydration. Most of us are chronically dehydrated all the time, so we need more water and less coffee, but we also should be supplementing with 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. Our electrolytes must be in balance so the body can absorb and use the water for the millions of bodily processes that need it.
• Having good sleeping patterns. We need a regular time of going to bed and getting up early, i.e. 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 health issues.
• Doing regular cardiovascular workouts and resistance training 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.
• Doing high intensity exercises in short, strong bursts followed by short recovery sessions. This helps train both cardio and resistance energy systems, and is the most effective way to get fitter faster.
• Avoiding alcohol, drugs, and prescription medications (including sedatives) that 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 (this was necessary due the extreme nature of the sport and size of the challenges I undertook). But this extreme regimen was a form of therapy aimed at dealing with the mental and emotional stresses I was experiencing. But now that I understand the balance required for longevity in the sport, I am focused much more on maintaining the full picture of health and mental well-being.
This is a philosophy and belief system I also use in my coaching business, and also in my motivational talks and business consultancy work. Without strength and health in the physical body, the other tiers of the pyramid can't be fully functional. And that goes for the executive, the business person, the parent or the student as much as it does for the athlete.
The second level of the pyramid is emotional capacity, which is considered to be the second most important area for those wanting to consistently achieve their ideal state of performance.
Companies that ignore a person's emotional and physical health and focus solely on their cognitive development will inevitably have a workforce that is not operating optimally and at a definite 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, and depression can lead to burnout when they are experienced over long periods of time. They can also lead to stress-related health disorders like high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, heart conditions, weight problems and much more.
In business, high levels of stress can lead to choking up, freezing under pressure, underperforming compared to ones abilities, reduced decision-making capabilities, and a reduced ability to hold an overview of a situation.
Rituals can help us safely and constructively deal with these negative emotions by helping us become of aware of what triggers us. By understanding how the primitive part of our brain reacts first, we give the rational part of our brain the time it needs to weigh in on the situation and stop the overreaction.
Since childhood, I have known that I have a fiery temper (the results of an overly active amygdala), and I have struggled to control it at times. But by using these sorts of tricks, I can help control my impulses before they cause me to do something I will later regret. I remember a time during the Badwater Ultra marathon campaign. This event had a crew whose job it was to follow me and do everything the could to assist me, so that I focus solely on running in the 50C degree heat.
They needed to be super-organised to provide me with food and water, and to monitor my vital signs and keep track of all the data concerning my body from temperatures to blood sugar levels, etc.
At the time, I was under a massive amount of pressure. The stress and the fear had built up over the 10 days leading to the start of the race—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. Needless to say, my temper was very short, and at one point I lost control when my crew were not doing the jobs that I thought needed to be done. And so I vented at them. This, in turn, affected how they felt about me, and ultimately affected the race. I had to apologise afterward, and started working on ways to control my emotions when under pressure.
You may have experienced similar situations where your emotions got the better of you, where you reacted before the rational part of your brain kicked in and held you back from doing something regretful. Thankfully there are many techniques that can help you stay in better control. Here are some of my favorite rituals that I use when I feel myself going off the rails:
• Trying to be more articulate and control my emotions when expressing my feelings, instead of letting out a chain of commands followed by expletives. I’ve learned that isn’t an effective management or leadership style when you need your team to be on your side.
• Deep breathing and removing myself from 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.
• Doing an aggressive, physical, and intense workout if my emotions are threatening to derail me.
• Eating healthier and supplementing my diet and prioritising recovery time in order to have a happier hormone household.
These are just a few examples of rituals I have used to effectively deal with derailed emotions. Emotional maturity is essential for achieving your ideal performance state and your goals in business.
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 Run coach, this has meant helping my clients to focus on what it is they want, and finding the motivation behind it. I always ask, “Why they are doing it, what result do they want?” I assist them to develop time management strategies that will help them cope with their workloads in a practical and effective way.
It's 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 predominantly on this level of the pyramid, 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 a balance between energy expenditure and recovery.
Using rituals like meditation, deep breathing, mindless activities like exercise, sports, game playing or being creative—all these things help you develop the ability to focus more intently when you are actually working. This serves to make staff members 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 also adding physical stress to my body . 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. This doesn't have to mean a religious spirituality, but can be your values and higher purpose. As the authors describe it, this level provides a powerful source of motivation, determination and endurance. The energy that is unleashed by tapping into one’s deepest values allows one to define a strong sense of purpose.
In my experience, I have never been motivated solely by monetary reward. Deep self-fulfillment comes when you are doing something you love and are helping others along the way. An example was running the length of NZ, where I was at the absolute end of my physical strength and ability to endure pain and suffering, but the higher purpose was to help sick children. 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 worthwhile made me able to reach beyond my normal abilities. You can't reach that state of performance when you are motivated solely by financial rewards.
In regards to the young people with cancer, the desire to help reduce their suffering and improve in a small way their plight was a powerful motivating force.
In summary, the four levels of capacity are:
• physical capacity
• emotional capacity
• mental capacity
• spiritual capacity
Each level 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.
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