The Perils of High Performance

Last summer I was invited to work with the GB World Orienteering Championships team as a ‘guest’ coach. Excited by memories of my youthful sporting days and the thrill of international competition I packed my bags full of anticipation and set off for the forests of Sweden.

Arriving at camp GB, I felt like I’d been teleported back to my life 15 years ago. I was surrounded by athletes and coaches with an unwavering commitment to what they were doing; passionately pursuing ultimate performance in an environment of professionalism, support, and camaraderie. I was back ‘home.’

Or was I? I didn’t sleep well at the camp. In quieter moments of reflection I noticed a niggling feeling that I didn’t recognise from my former athlete days. I felt unsettled. Something was making me uneasy. Only now, several months on and through the lens of my work with executive clients, I think I have understood.

 

The lure of trophies

Back in my 20’s I was a ‘highly successful’ product of my upbringing in a society that placed enormous value on external measures of success. Good grades at school, a top degree from a top university and a childhood ‘star’ in my sport. I had learnt that I could win prizes and most importantly, others’ good opinion if I worked hard and excelled. I set myself high standards and was continuously striving to be even better. This work ethic brought me medals and trophies, the opportunity to travel, new friends and financial security. It was brilliant!

Success fuelled by fear

What surprised me during my time with team GB last summer, however, was how being back in a high performance environment after so many years, was bringing out behaviours in me that I didn’t much like. My ever-present internal critic suddenly turned the volume up to max. Critical thoughts began to surface and judgement was creeping into my language. It is clear to me that it wasn’t anything to do with the atmosphere or behaviours of the athletes and coaches at the camp. It was a conditioned response to my fear-filled memories of high performance. Deeply engrained neural pathways were reactivated and my defence mechanisms were triggered.

I don’t believe that competition is bad in itself. I do, however, believe that competitive environments can easily tip us into ‘fight or flight’ mode. I see this repeatedly in clients working in high pressure, outcome-driven, hierarchical organisations. Win a bid, win a contract, win a case, win an argument, win someone over. And in most cases it’s our self-worth that’s at stake. If we lose, we are not good enough. As a result, continual nagging self-doubt fuels the desire to constantly beat the opposition and we become addicted to the ‘quick-fix’ of standing on the top of the podium. For as long as our last performance is fresh in others’ minds we are a person that matters.

 

Optimal Experience

There is, however, another side to all this that I rediscover every time I go back to the sporting arena. It’s the exhilaration of total absorption in a task. Applying yourself to a challenge. Stretching yourself to your limit. Cziksentmiyhali (1990)* calls it ‘optimal experience’ or ‘flow;’ A state of joy, creativity and total involvement. Competitive situations are the perfect setting for flow experiences, but beware! ‘When beating the opponent takes precedence in the mind over performing as well as possible, enjoyment tends to disappear. Competition is enjoyable only when it is a means to perfect one’s skills.’

 

The pursuit of mastery

According to Cziksentmiyhali, then, the source of joy in competition is connected to the pursuit of perfecting one’s skills. I like to think of it as the pursuit of ‘mastery.’ Striving for excellence through practice, experimentation, creativity and challenge; and in so doing growing, learning, and pushing the boundaries of human potential. Now there are some riches worth pursuing!

So, what can we learn from this? Can we pay attention to what’s really driving us? Are we striving for development, learning, new skills and for creativity? Or are we striving to prove ourselves in relation to others?

As long as our goal is to beat an opponent, win a contract or impress an audience, competition is likely to be a distraction. When our focus is on exploring what we can do with our knowledge and skills, competition becomes a catalyst for optimal performance.

Which will you choose?

 

* Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row. ISBN 0-06-092043-2