Performing Under Pressure

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Performing Under Pressure - Lessons from Elite Sport
Dr Veronica Burke

Elite sports teach executives to pay attention to essential physical components

Already stretched executives are grappling with the additional difficulties of performing optimally amidst tough economic conditions, rapid change and increasing uncertainty about the future. Many useful ideas in this realm come from other performance domains such as sport. Consider the case of the “corporate athlete”. In fact, many of the demands placed upon busy managers mirror those of the sporting athlete, the “athletic athlete”. Busy executives are often required to sustain prolonged periods of stress, high workloads and demanding organisational environments – similar performance conditions to elite athletes who are following prolonged training regimes interspersed with periods of competition where they are required to perform at their best.

Crucially however, there has been insufficient attention paid to the importance of the physical dimension as a vital component in optimising performance.

Physical capabilities for business executives to address

So what are the key physical capabilities that business executives should attend to in order to perform at their best?

Rest and Recovery

Business people would benefit from understanding what elite athletes already know – that sufficient recovery is as important as energy expenditure. Know which tasks you find hardest. Managers often report that they believe that they perform at 90-100% most of the time. In fact, when their levels of concentration, focus and energy are measured (via heart rate, hydration, stress and workload assessment), they are often performing at around 70% most of the time.

The message here is to build variability into daily routine. If you know you need to perform at say, 90% of maximum for an important or stressful event, then it’s a good idea to plan some less effortful periods in prior - e.g. tasks which require 40% effort or less, and make sure you provide for some rest afterwards. Building these natural peaks and troughs into work patterns introduces variability – a key component of effective performance. Planning for 90 minute periods of concentration with short breaks in between has been shown to optimise physical capacity. Of course, you can work continuously or longer periods than this, but the cost goes up – i.e. we have to work much harder to get the same result.


Maintaining hydration levels throughout the day is an important part in performance. On average, adults need to drink 2 litres of water per day – (12 glasses). A 1% loss in hydration level impacts mood, concentration, anger control and cognitive function. A 2% drop can lead to a 20% drop in performance and if you are thirsty, you are probably already dehydrated. Drink before you reach this stage!


Thirdly, pay attention to nutrition. Having breakfast every day, eating little and often to maintain energy levels and avoiding the “sugar rush” as a result of eating simple sugars like chocolate or biscuits are all good ways to maintain energy and control weight – as is staying well hydrated. Aim to balance complex carbohydrates such as bananas, pasta and potatoes with protein and avoid eating “on the run”.


The issue of stress is a common concern for busy executives. Extreme stress can result in breakdown. Athletic sports people experience this as overtraining syndrome, where they simply wear out their bodies from intense training with insufficient recovery. For the corporate athlete, this looks like chronic fatigue. Prolonged stress can affect the immune system, motor control, mood, sleep, libido and appetite. Pressure from stress is inevitable; and nor should executives seek to avoid it. Of course – some people thrive under stress more than others! When we experience events as stressful – whatever the source, our body releases a stress hormone called cortisol. High levels of cortisol can result in a number of nasty side effects, including diabetes and heart attack.

However, when we are stressed, we often worry about being stressed – and this in turn elevates cortisol even more. The effects of cortisol are cumulative; if you don’t clear it, the chances are you will start the next day with a higher level. One of the best ways to lower cortisol is to exercise. But what do busy executives often do at the end of a stressful day? They might drink alcohol, eat a meal, smoke a cigarette or sit in front of the television. However, none of these activities are particularly helpful in lowering cortisol. What is good for this is exercise.


Regular exercise has numerous health benefits. It’s a myth that exercise drains energy – if you don’t use it, you really do lose it! Regular exercise (or at least some exercise!) is better than none at all – if you have no other time, three 20 minute bouts of aerobic work – i.e. cycling, jogging, rowing will render significant benefits. Exercise also lowers blood pressure, helps concentration, contributes to a healthy circulation and releases energy – the effects are significant. The fitter you become, the more you will feel these benefits. Other components of fitness include strength and flexibility. Ideally all three components – i.e. aerobic exercise, strength training and flexibility – should form a part of a weekly routine.

Control the Controllables

And finally, control the controllables – deliberate planning for peak physical performance can render real benefits. Know what dimensions of your work you can control and be disciplined in planning for times when you need to perform at your best.

In summary:

  • Pay attention to how you are feeling physically
  • Know which tasks are hardest
  • Plan rest and recovery via a varied work style
  • Stay hydrated throughout the day
  • Eat for sustained energy
  • Control your stress levels – stress isn’t the problem, it’s the lack of recovery!
  • Exercise for energy

Dr Veronica Burke is Programme Director for the Accelerated Talent Development Programme and Cranfield General Management Programme

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