5 Management Lessons From High-Performance Sports

Laurent MartiniWhether you like it or not, we live in a highly competitive world, and we don't all begin from the same starting line. Our skills, personality, education, efforts, and experience partly determine our place in the peloton. Those of us who haven't had a head start have to learn how to challenge themselves and bring out their best every day, just to be able to go the distance. In this constant pursuit of performance, managers can learn a lot from sports coaches. That’s why I'm not going to base my thoughts on the best selling leadership and management books, but rather on my readings from the literature and interviews of some of the greatest athletes and coaches in sports. Whoever said that “L’Equipe” (a French sports newspaper) couldn't be a source of inspiration?

1. Adapt to Change

During my 23-year career in the software world, the notion of leadership had to be completely reinvented to better meet the expectations of new generations. Prior to that, a job was seen as an opportunity in itself and as a way to climb the social ladder. Back then we quite naturally adhered to the idea of ​​management and hierarchy.

However, today’s employees want their work to have meaning. I totally agree with that view. Splunk has been voted as one of the Best Workplaces for Millennials which shows that it’s an area that is important to us and we try our best to ensure Splunkers thrive in all aspects of their lives. 

Human beings are naturally inclined to settle in their zones of control. A manager that doesn’t cultivate a culture of effort not only runs the risk of being demoted to the role of Chief Happiness Officer but also witness the performance of his team lose ground on that of his competitors. As a first sports analogy, we look at the way tennis royalty Rafael Nadal practices. Training an athlete like Nadal involves resorting to tonic methods that force him to constantly step out of his comfort zone. Without it, he wouldn't progress. His uncle and coach Toni Nadal explains that his objective was not to solely improve Rafa’s performance on the tennis court "tennis-tically" speaking but rather to forge his character. In order to do so, he trained him using old balls and on tennis courts that were in poor condition which forced him to adapt.

If you want to know more about the training that allowed Nadal to become one of the best players in the history of tennis, watch Toni Nadal’s inspiring TEDx Talk on the value of effort, which details the search for adaptation to change.

2. Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

In order to progress (and advance) in the professional world, you have to know how to take risks. To help you better understand what I mean, I’ll share a personal example. When I was working at Pure Storage, I was well established within the organisation and had a team that I had almost completely recruited myself. I felt in control and as a result, became complacent. Then Splunk came along which struck me as a big risk, but it was a risk I knew was essential.

As great athletes say, you don't progress in your comfort zone. That is also the reason why athletes constantly change their workouts. To go further, they must fight daily against what their body is trying to tell them, which naturally seeks the path of least resistance. The same theory applies to the casual sportsperson. If you consistently do the same one-hour jog, you will suffer at first, but your body will quickly adapt and you will not progress any further.

A similar observation can be made in the field of management. If you let your employees get bogged down in their zone of comfort, they will quickly come to relax their efforts. That doesn't mean that you have to constantly push them. Rest breaks may also be necessary, but they shouldn’t be longer than a few months at a time. Anything beyond that and even the brightest and most motivated talents will start to get bored. Chances are that the quality of your team’s work suffers or that your employees will start looking for new challenges at another company.

As paradoxical as it seems, although we know it is beneficial to push ourselves to get out of our comfort zone, we are always pursuing that one thing: to get back in it! Going back to my example, when I came to Splunk as GVP EMEA South, I had to fill some gaps. Overnight, I had to speak English almost exclusively, understand new cultures and get used to working with new people. It was stimulating, but at that time, I was also overwhelmed and impatient to find my bearings! 

3. Find Your Balance

This is where we see all the importance of the unconscious. Even though we understand that this "suffering" is essential to progress, something constantly drags us back to our comfort zone. It’s also a considerable lever for the manager. The most competitive personalities have managed to push their limits on their own, but most people need some guidance to help them raise the bar little by little while providing levels that allow them to release the pressure.

It’s important to be mindful as keeping people under constant stress is not an option. The body cannot be pushed indefinitely, and it is one of the trainer’s or manager’s roles to find the right balance. It is no coincidence that teams often have two or three players for the same position, as it allows everyone to constantly reach full potential.

I frequently compared our commercial "districts" to sports matches, or even sporting events, focusing on managing the highs and lows. But what do I mean by that?

The so-called highs are the times when you are physically in top shape (and believe me it can be tough to be at your best 13 weeks in a row). And it's especially the times when you're in control and you're on top of your record that everything magically aligns. In these moments, relaxation can be your undoing. As everything is working effortlessly, you have the tendency to slack off and take shortcuts. This is where the trouble begins and the game changes…

While you were sipping your coffees and “sold the bear’s skin before actually catching the bear”, the competition stepped up its game, restarted from its basics and regained control over the deal.

And here you are at a low point suffering at your opponent’s pace. In times of weakness, it is key to focus on the fundamentals, get back to the basics and restart the machine with simple things while remaining focused on a military execution. You can begin to question the opponent and regain control. From a physical perspective, it's time to adopt healthy lifestyle habits: good sleep, exercise and a healthy diet.

4. Push Your Limits

We can't always trust our body as it sends us signals telling us to stop because it’s getting tired long before we've reached our limits. You can easily experience this when running, for example. If you're not used to it, your body will quickly push you to take the first break, but if you persevere, you find that you can go much further.

This is something you also see very clearly in the world of cycling. When cyclists begin to climb a pass, the level of suffering is already extremely high for everyone. The gap widens after this point. Whoever crosses the line first is the one who manages to resist the longest. Tyler Hamilton gives us a vivid example of this scenario in his book The Secret Race in which he shares how he rode the entire Tour de France with a broken shoulder.

Our mind has an extraordinary capacity to prolong the effort when it is motivated, and this is valid in all areas. If we agree to grit our teeth, we often get much further than we could imagine we would. I often say this to my teams: “Once you reach a certain level, all the players (collaborators in the professional world) are equally good and everyone is suffering in one way or another. The difference that sets us apart is in our ability to cope with the pain. It is our mind and our mindset that allows us to stand out.”

For a manager, one of the ways to achieve this result is to divert the attention of his employees. If they focus on their pain, chances are they'll give up, but if they centre their attention on their goals, they'll last a lot longer. Personally, I like to see it as a game. I remind myself that other people feel the same pain as me and that the end goal of this psychological fight is to be more resistant and resilient than my adversaries.

The cross interview between cyclists Bernard Hinault and Julian Alaphilippe perfectly depicts exactly that:*

Bernard, would you have liked to race against Julian?

B. H.: Yes, and I can tell you that there would have been some hair torn out... (Alaphilippe bursts out laughing). Some cyclists in my day looked like you. Joop (Zoetemelk), (Hennie) Kuiper, (Gerrie) Knetemann, they didn't ask themselves the question, eh! If they saw you in a bit of trouble, they would try to put your head underwater. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't, because I contradicted them. But that's part of the race! When I was in pain on the bike, I just told myself that the others were in even more pain. Anyway, when we are in front of evil, we forget it.

J. A.: There is a very big mental part, that's undeniable. You have to love suffering to win races and draw deep into the pain to score big hits. You have to be masochistic to ride a bike, it's such a difficult sport. The guy who tells you he doesn't like being in pain, won't have a good career. All this is worked on in training, but there is a huge psychological dimension that comes into play to go even further, beyond your own threshold. Everyone is training for today, all the teams are on point. It's the head that makes the difference.

5. Reconciling Between the Individual and the Collective

Finding the right balance between individual performance and team excellence is important in leadership management. This is a very difficult result to achieve, but again, there are many examples from the world of sports that we can apply to management.

The best players don’t always make up the best teams. The most striking example for this saying is probably the France national football team in 1998. It is no coincidence that France's first victory in the World Cup came when the country's two greatest players, Éric Cantona and Éric Ginola, were not on the pitch. This does not detract from their personal qualities, but their individual behaviours tend to have a negative impact on the performance of the team.

In the professional world, the problem is the same. You have to find people who are competitive enough to want to excel, but who are able to put the team first at the same time. This is a big challenge for managers, especially in an industry like software, which can be quite individualistic and very competitive.

However, we should not forget that very competitive personalities are also a major asset. People, such as Didier Deschamps, Yannick Noah or Bernard Tapie, didn't succeed by chance, they always played to win. Chris Paul, one of the best passers in the NBA, explained in an interview that he hates losing even more than he likes winning, and that's what drives him to go all out.

Whether in sports or work, the high levels begin when we step out of our comfort zone and push our limits through the pain. In this search for competitiveness, however, we must not lose sight of the bigger picture and the interests of the whole team and the organisation. The role of the manager is therefore twofold: 

  • pushing individual performance by identifying the triggers to motivate each employee, while 
  • preserving the team spirit and benevolence.

Are you interested in our mindset, and in joining a pioneering workplace recognized by Fortune magazine as one of the top 10 tech employers? Then take a look at our current career opportunities at Splunk.

*L’Équipe 21/12/28
**This article has been translated and edited from French. You can find the original blog post here.

Laurent Martini
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Laurent Martini

GVP, Sales, Southern Europe and Emerging Markets