Athletes and managers – are they really that different?

jan-muhlfeitTennis and life are alike, both must be played to the last ball. In order to go all the way, though, we must learn to manage our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual energy.

Technological development and changes are gathering speed and experiencing an exponential growth all over the world. At the same time, our lives are being changed at an equal speed – everything around us in a constant state of flux and the sheer volume of information that surrounds us keeps multiplying all the time. The world is now digitally interconnected and has brought about the phenomenon of global competition. Everybody now competes with everybody else because nearly 99% of all information is widely available to all Internet users on the planet. What makes the difference between a winner and a loser in this new reality is the speed of reaction.

But this pressure to make fast decisions comes hand in hand with two potentially negative consequences: stress and compression of time. In my opinion, we are all suffering exponentially growing levels of stress and the pressure put on managers also keeps increasing. Time compression was defined in 1995 by my strategy teacher and one of the best strategists in the world Mike Kami. Echoing Moore’s law of technological progress, time compression basically means that the time available for decision-making is cut by 50% every two years. In other words, decision that we had ten minutes to think about two years ago must be solved in half the time today. This pushes business to make their decisions really fast.

Let me give you just one example. Thanks to technologies, analytical tools and a relatively small staff, Ryanair has been able to make crucial decisions very fast. Traditional airlines, on the other hand, remain under the influence of their labour unions and their capacity to make quick decisions is radically impaired, consequently damaging their success in the market as well as their bottom line.

In other words: Moore’s law and time compression offer an advantage to smaller and more flexible organisations. Larger entities cannot make decisions at the same speed even if they take on board the principles of lean and agile management. My experience in Microsoft confirms this observation. When I joined the company, it had a total of 6,000 employees around the world. When I left, there were 125,000 of us. Surely, the decision-making process must be affected.

In addition to stress and time compression, we also suffer from an ever decreasing capacity to concentrate. Mobile devices, social networks, emails and phone calls constantly bombard us with new information. Studies show that people are now able to concentrate for just 12 minutes at a time. Furthermore, there is research indicating that is you are thinking about a topic while answering emails, for example, your IQ drops by 10 points. Such a dip in IQ is equivalent to going without sleep for 36 hours. By the way, smoking a joint takes away just four IQ points. The information overload phenomenon is not unknown in the Czech Republic either. According to a study commissioned by the MF Dnes newspaper as many as 34% of Czechs felt threatened by the burnout syndrome in June 2015. In August, Intel published the results of a research that shows that two thirds of Czechs take their computers and mobile devices on vacation and actually use them to work.

As the pressures of stress, time compression and falling attention spans increases, the importance of resilience increases. Resilience is the ability to keep one’s thoughts and emotions under control in order to deliver the best possible performance in a highly demanding environment. I believe that no matter what one does, the result is 90% the product of the mind and 10% the product of the actual activity one is engaged in. The only thing that we can claim to have totally in our power is our thoughts – the processes running in our brain. I like to remind people that each of us is a Chief Mind Officer in his own right.

Our mental activity is 10% conscious and 90% subconscious. Everything that we are aware of falls in the conscious category – including our results and behaviour. The subconscious encompasses our past thoughts, emotions, mental images – our personal identity. The good news is, we can tap into our subconscious, too. For example, all visualisation techniques are based on the idea that a vision is the image of a world that does not exist but in which we believe.

How do these social changes affect athletes and top managers? Do they affect them in different ways?

The first difference is training. A top athlete spends 90% of her active time training. As for top managers, the question is whether they get any training at all. At best, his company may send them to a course once a year but they will still be expected to deal with work-related tasks, emails and calls.

The second difference lies in performance. An athlete’s top performance occupies 10% of her active time while a top manager easily devotes 12-15 hours a day to performance and often works on weekends, too.

The third difference comes in the form of recovery. Athletes dedicate relatively lot of time to it. They train 3-4 hours a day and then focus on recovery and mental preparation, including a healthy diet, ion drinks and massages. A manager, on the other hand, has little or no time for recovery. Although they often get 4-5 weeks of paid leave each year, they tend to spend most of their vacation sitting in front of a computer screen with a mobile phone glued to their ears.

For an athlete to deliver a world-class performance, he needs high-quality nutrition, a balanced diet, adequate sleep and the ability to concentrate his energy and strength at the time of the actual performance. In the case of pole jumping, for example, it takes only a few seconds to decide who will get the Olympic gold. In order to prepare for this fleeting moment, athletes surround themselves with entire teams that provide the necessary support.

When it comes to managers, sadly, once again, things are much different. Due to time compression, managers often do not eat at all, drink only coffee and if they do eat it is fast food brought in by their secretaries.

And what about career spans? Things differ sport to sport, of course, but the career of a top athlete lasts between 5 and 15 years. It is between 30 and 40 for managers, though. Many people were astonished when I left Microsoft after 22 years in its top management. However, nobody would be surprised at an NHL player leaving after 22 years.

I doubt that top managers will ever work until the age 65. I believe that more and more people will decide to do exactly what I did. They will leave around the age of 50 because they will feel the urge to become mentors and coaches and help others get to the top. When outstanding athletes get to the end of their active careers they transition into training others but unfortunately managers work until they are really forced to leave. What they fail to realise is that when they finally take the leap they might not have any energy left to step into the next phase of their lives.

What happens during the off season? Again, it depends on the sport but most athletes have a period of relative rest lasting between two and four months. They spend this time doing fairly light physical training in order to stay in shape. For a manager, however, taking more than a few days of vacation at a time is unthinkable.

We are not talking only about time compression in general but also about the growing pressure from investors who want to see growing financial results on a quarterly basis. Top managers’ season and performance expectations remain at a constant level throughout the year.

Psychology also offers an interesting insight into the differences between sports and business. I think sports psychology is much more advanced than business psychology. Sports experts and coaches have long known that sport is not only about what athletes do and how they play, but also about how they think about themselves and how mentally strong they are.

In his book The Inner Game of Tennis, American coach W. Timothy Gallwey says that every tennis player has two selves: the self that plays and the self that thinks. To win, the tennis player must be able to connect the two. A former Slovak sledger once told me something similar: “A better sledge might give you a 0.2 second advantage. A stronger mind and better concentration can give you three seconds, though.”

The goal of sport psychology is to find out how to get the best out of an individual. Business psychology, on the contrary, takes an entirely wrong path and focuses almost exclusively on time management – helping people to save time and prioritise their tasks. It fails to take into account the management of human energy. The ice-hockey coach and my friend Marián Jelínek says: “We now have excellent athletes who themselves think they are rather dumb and excellent managers who completely disregard their physical condition.”

The Ancient Greeks were able to bring together all four main types of energy: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. They added beauty and the good to the pile and came up with the concept of kalokagathia, an ideal of a complete, flourishing human being, which we have, sadly lost today. In order to achieve a long-time balance, a manager must take good care of her physical fitness and an athlete must strive to develop his intellect.

The resilience that we need to build up today is precisely about our ability to control and correctly channel energy while maintaining positive thinking. Sport teaches people not to give up. I myself have learnt that tennis and life have something in common: “On the tennis court and in life, we are ultimately left alone to make all the important decision. People may give you advice but it is up to you to decide. Furthermore, both tennis and life must be played until the last ball.”

I have recently talked to several athletes who ended their active careers. These people often think that they have little chance of finding success in “civilian” life but I could not disagree with them more. Sport has equipped them with resilience and these people know how to use their energy and keep their emotions in check. I think former athletes are in a great position to succeed in other walks of life. As I already said: “Everything you do is 10% about the activity itself and 90% about your thinking.”

Is there anything that could help us – whether we are top managers or regular employees?

Studies show that people tend to sleep less than six hours a day in the modern world. I think this is too little. Everybody should take at least seven hours sleeping each night and they should go to bed and wake up more or less at the same time each day. Having a proper breakfast and then five to six smaller meals a day also helps improve performance. However, we should pay equal attention to the quality and composition of our meals. Fruit, vegetables, fish, avocado, blueberries, green tea, salmon, tuna, spinach and fish oils should dominate our diet because all these foods are good for the brain and improve its function.

People also all too often underestimate liquid intake. This is especially true for people two spend a lot of their time speaking, including most managers who should drink at least two litres a day. The best beverage is, of course, good old water, with no sugar added. We must be very careful about sugar because of its glucose response curve with its fast onset and high peek, which very quickly falls deep under the average, making you feel very tired.

Taking regular breaks is also important. Our forefathers knew the drill: they worked for a while, took a rest and started working again. Today, however, we keep busy all the time, then go to bed, wake up and the rat race starts again. It is wise to develop a regular rhythm of work and breaks. The best strategy seems to be to work for 90 minutes and have a 15 minute break afterwards. It keeps people more productive and alert. You should also add regular physical activity to your routine. Try, for example, going to the gym or for a run in the park two or three times a week.

Managers should also take up meditation. Meditation improves concentration and mindfulness, our ability to be present in the moment. It has a positive effect on our brains and makes us feel more emotionally stable. There have been famous experiments with monks who devote ten thousand hours or more to meditation and although they experienced pretty difficult things in their lives, they remained emotionally strong and maintained an inner peace.

Let’s talk a little about mindset, too. In order to face up to all the challenges and live our lives to the fullest, we need to constantly develop our mind without fixating on a single thing or goal. Our thinking must evolve as we try to improve ourselves.

We should concentrate on the journey rather than on the destination. If we take the right steps and live according to the principles I just described there is nothing that could stop us from achieving our goals. Furthermore, as we make progress on our journey, we must not ignore our inner voice our intuition. Many people are reluctant to trust their intuition because it seems to have no rational basis and cannot be explained by figures and analyses. On the other hand, let’s remember that intuition is the result of more than 10,000 years of evolution and there is simply no reason for us to disregard its messages.

90% of things that we people do are repetitive. We are the embodiment of our habits and behaviour patterns acquired throughout our lives. We do not like changing ourselves and we are quite happy with the novelty brought by the 10% of new things that we allow into our lives. This is precisely why it is so important to develop positive habits and rituals such as morning meditation, jogging and a healthy breakfast. It often takes these three simple rituals to set us on a positive path each day.

I think that positive habits are one of the key factors that can help us build resilience and success in the highly demanding business world of our times. Each and every one of us should learn to use our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual energy wisely in order to reach a better understanding of our life mission and devote our efforts to those activities that can actually take us to the ultimate goal of our life’s journey.


By Jan Mühlfeit, Global Strategist, Coach and Mentor, former Microsoft Chairman for Europe