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The Capricious Nature of Performance

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve watched two titans in their respective sport lose their game comprehensively – overwhelmingly out-performed by their opponent.

Andy Murray was defeated in straight sets by Grigor Dimitrov, and Brazil were famously annihilated by Germany in the World Cup semi-finals.

The fact is that great players can have, and do have, bad days. Days when they show up on the pitch but nothing happens.

The magic disappears, the game is somehow beyond their reach. What happens? And more importantly, what can we learn from it?    Performance

The first thing to realise is that even the gods of sport are human, and humans have bad days. Performing at the top of our game, day in, day out is a big ask.

One which we can, and often do, strive for, but which inevitably might be just out of reach on some days.

But how can we sense or anticipate when we are not on top of our game, especially when the stakes are high? And how can we pin point the reason, and take steps to get back to our best?

Psychology, emotion and physical aspects are hugely important – even if we’re not elite champions.

The factors below are a combination of all three:

1. Stress

Stress can be both a friend and a foe. A short-term surge of adrenalin can be helpful, leading to focus, heightened alertness and sharpened senses.

However long-term stress leads to the opposite, with longer response times, cloudy judgement, irritability and a reduced capacity to look at a situation objectively – it’s like the world closes in on us.

In the case of long-term stress, relaxation techniques are absolutely key.

Mindfulness in work is the latest buzz, and is proven to reduce stress over time. Check out these fives exercises from the teacher Thich Nhat Hanh – even a two minute breathing practice at a red traffic light can be enough to ‘reset’ the body’s stress responses.

2. Fatigue

The busy-ness of our lives leads to long-term fatigue. The pressure of work and family can take so much out of us, we often don’t even realise how tired we are.

We have commitments to work and to children and/or ageing parents, to voluntary causes and to friends. But as with long-term stress, fatigue reduces our performance.

Not surprisingly, it’s linked directly to energy levels and our ability to do our best work.

Diet is so important here. The natural comfort-response to fatigue and low energy is to reach for caffeine or energy drinks loaded with sugar.

My favourite alternative is a smoothie, which tastes surprisingly great and gives me energy for hours! Take cucumber, lemon, a handful of spinach, a spoonful of spirulina (great for protein) and chia seeds (great for sustainable energy) and whizz them up in a blender with coconut juice or water. Try it!

3. Lack of Focus

Both of the above can lead to lack of mental clarity and focus. With so much going on in our lives, we lose the ability to focus on what’s most important right now, today.

This can be especially true when we’re working towards a big goal or milestone – what’s your version of the Wimbledon or World Cup final that you’re working towards? Do you know why it’s important?

Connecting to the purpose of what you’re doing is so important. Understanding what motivates you (external driver), and what inspires you (internal driver) is key.

Every morning, connect in some way to your purpose. It doesn’t have to be a grand life purpose (although that helps), setting your mind to what you want to achieve before you start any activity helps to focus your mind on the activity itself.

Visualisation techniques help, and mind mapping tools are useful too.

4. Fear

Given that when we were children, the importance of good exam grades meant the difference between praise or punishment, it’s not surprising that we have an innate sense of failure as adults.

If it’s a big day, a big performance, something that is really, really important and you sense the fear creeping in, remember the following:

F.E.A.R. = ‘false evidence appearing real’. What is the reality of the situation?

What is there really to be fearful of? What’s the worst that could happen if you didn’t perform at your best, or it all suddenly fell apart?

Vulnerability is the wonderful quality of recognising that ultimately, we are not in control.

No matter how well we have trained, prepared or worked for a big event, and no matter how unshakeable our belief is in our ability, something unexpected could go wrong. It’s OK. There’ll be a next time.

If you are serious about consistently performing at your best – mindfulness, diet, focus and vulnerability are key aspects of making sure that you are prepared for both the good and bad days that are inevitable in life.

Most important is the deep intent and commitment to keep showing up, no matter what. That, after all, is what defines the champions.

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