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Performance Improvement – Ten Lessons for great sporting and organisational performance

I’d originally intended this blog piece to be about some very recent conversations I’d had with Chief Executives and Chairs of charities about their organisations and how they approach thinking about and implementing strategic planning and performance improvement. It hasn’t quite turned out that way. I think you’ll see why shortly, ‘though I will return to those conversations in another blog soon.

A particular prompt to these conversations about performance improvement has been not only the organisational perspectives I’m perennially interested in, but a far more personal and individual one. In fact, it’s about my thoughts around my continuing and encouraging improvement as a racing cyclist. My performances have provided real cause and pause for thought to understand and interpret my improvement in performance.

I set out 4 years ago to begin again to train regularly and race, motivated by a desire to lose weight and stop the seemingly inevitable decline in fitness and health that advancing age seems to bring. As a cyclist only, I hadn’t raced for nearly 35 years. I’d last trained and raced seriously as a triathlete over 20 years ago, competing in two triathlon world championships for Great Britain and enjoying over seven years of competitive endeavour before illness struck. So, whilst I had a memory of what good performance looks and feels like, actually doing it after such an extended break is no easy matter.

Such is the sport of cycling though that you can pretty much race at every age from 15 through to 85 and compare your performance against both elite and peer age competitors alike via time trials. I’m firmly in the ‘veteran’ category now and that category has some outstanding performers who bely their years. I’m therefore able to assess how well I do against those of comparable age and the top-end performers – invariably we mix together in ‘Open’ time trials and veteran’s road races.

My training has been planned and progressive across those four years. Despite a knee operation and the diagnosis of a serious but treatable immune system illness, I have improved my personal best times at several distances in each of those four years, to the point where I’m now performing at a level I never achieved as a promising junior racer back in the 1970’s.

This improvement isn’t only through technological improvements and scientific training advancements, although they play their part. In fact, some of the current training theories are those I recognise from my younger days, e.g. progressive overload, using hard repetitions/rest intervals, getting good rest and recovery, undertaking reflective review, and so on.

My improvements so far have been on a direct north-south trajectory, e.g. my best time for a club 10 mile time trial has improved from 29.12 in 2009 to 24.39 on our club’s own course and from 25.22 in 2011 to 22.22 in ‘Open’ events on other courses around the country.

The feedback I’m getting from my self-coaching, as I review my statistics, reflect on performances and plan ahead for new challenges, quite clearly shows a significant and sustainable improvement. If I can keep healthy, remain largely injury free and devote the necessary time to training, rest and recovery, I believe I will be able to maintain this degree of annual improvement for several years to come. The improvements might become ever more marginal as time marches on but, technological advances in equipment and clothing will also help to provide those “marginal gains” that Sir David Brailsford speaks off in regard to his Sky Pro Cycling team and the GB track team. I could never be in their class, but I can learn from their approaches.

Another feature of my improvement has been the setting of clear goals each year, providing me with focus, direction and motivation, particularly as each goal is achieved and ticked on the list. This is a simple and straightforward task, and gives me a way of assessing progress both within the current year and across several years. The motivation I get from seeing this progress is beyond the merely satisfying – it generates new energy, deepens self-esteem and encourages an even greater commitment to training. And, all this without a coach to encourage and cajole me, i.e. it’s self-managed and mutually reinforcing. I am though seriously considering accessing professional coaching expertise, because I know from my own experience as an executive coach and leadership mentor (and sometime cycling and triathlon coach to others) that having an external support to action, thinking and reflection can seriously improve one’s performance.

Other learning I can point to is the way I manage myself within a race, i.e. the ‘internal dialogue’ that kicks-in as the race start approaches and then as I set off to race 10 or 25 miles in an individual time trial or up to 60 miles in a mass start road race. No matter what the challenge, e.g. a tough hill in a time trial or an attack from another rider in a road race, I am learning how to respond physically and mentally. I’m not always able to respond as I would hope physically, e.g. some riders are just too damn good or fast, but I do persist and continue to give my best. In road races that sometimes means being ‘off the back’ and ploughing a lonely furrow home to the finish. Yet professionals in the Tour de France have to do this so why shouldn’t I? You’ll never find me turning off the courseto go back to the race HQ for an early cup of tea and piece of cake! I’m their to race, even if it’s against myself or the odds, as the bunch disappears up the road.

So persistence is also another ingredient in the complex mix of additives that can lead to performance delivery and/or improvement.

What else works for me? Well, try listening. I listen to all sorts of advice, tips and insights. Many I evaluate and some I discard. Some I don’t discard and I go on to reap the benefits, e.g. for 25 year and more I’ve only eaten wholemeal or wholegrain bread and never processed white bread. I love bread but recently my weight loss programme had hit a plateau and my climbing was being affected by my body weight (there’s an almost direct correlation between one’s weight and ability to climb hills well and fast in cycling). A chance conversation during one ride with a teammate suggested if I took all bread out of my diet I might see some weight loss. This I did some 6 weeks ago and with no other change to my diet I have lost over 6 lbs in weight! Outstanding and whilst climbing some mountains in the southern Alps recently I was always at the front of our group, no matter how hard and steep the terrain. Given that whilst I still weigh over 12st I’ve seen solid progress, I’m pleased to have followed that advice and intend to see how much further it might take my weight loss and performance ‘bump’.

Keeping an open mind and trying things that seem either counter-intuitive or not to my liking initially are also ways to prompt improvement, i.e. how can wholemeal/wholegrain bread be NOT good for you? The web offers so many opportunities to search-out advice and guidance; just ensure you are able to evaluate it and create what works best for you.

Perhaps of deeper consequence to my performance improvements, aside from going out now and seeking some coaching, is the desire to work to my strengths. In my cycling at the moment, these are about being able to sustain a certain heart rate and therefore level of performance, e.g. I can time trial at an average of 88% of my maximum heart rate. That’s a strength, i.e. I can maintain concentration and power output at a level that is close to my ‘red line’ i.e. 92%. Above that level I go into debt and can’t reverse out of it. This consistency though can also be a potential weakness in road racing, where in some races you have to go into debt to stay with the bunch or breakaway and then recover rapidly. This I can’t do yet. There might not be a solution, but I might also find a way around it or use another strength, e.g. strategic thinking or learning to develop more guile or race-craft, to render my weakness irrelevant. Peter Drucker told leaders that it was their ‘task to align the strengths of their organisation thus rendering its weaknesses irrelevant.’ I need to explore this further in the context of my cycling performance, because I also know from my executive coaching practice that knowledge of and use of strengths are the source of authenticity, great performance and self-motivation.

So, there they are, ten lessons about my cycling performance improvement that owe a debt to executive, coaching, leadership practice and organisational life. I’ll have to come back to those charity chief executives and chairs when I next have a moment.

The top ten learnings from my story so far are:

1. Have a clear intention and self-motivation to achieve change and improvement

2. Engage with planned and progressive training and personal development

3. Use technology and scientific theory to enhance your learning

4. Elicit and use feedback and reflection on your performance

5. Learn from the practice of others

6. Set clear goals and navigate towards them

7. Institute and practice effective self-management

8. Persist however difficult the challenge

9. Listen to others, keep an open mind and evaluate what you hear

10. Know your Strengths and work to them

This entry was posted in Action Learning, authenticity, change, commitments, courage, learning, Strengths, Tour De France, Transformation. Bookmark the permalink.

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Steve Lorraine