07 Nov 2015

It Takes A Lot More Than Motivation To Build A High Performing Athlete (or Business Team)

Neither did they. The rolled eyes, furtive glances and looking at the floor said it all. What may have worked briefly for staff in the 80’s and 90’s certainly doesn’t cut it for a high performing team today. In fact, her well meaning and well-worn out mantra might have made her feel like she had made a positive impact, when in fact it made her look out of touch and distant from his team.

In discussions with National and Olympic swimming coaches, I have found there are 5 parallels in developing a high performing athlete compared to what I have learned it takes to build a high performing team. The areas of similarity are:

  • Purpose,
  • Determination / grit,
  • Applied strength,
  • Responsibility / accountability and
  • Discipline.

In addition, acting in unison rather than behaving as a group of individuals makes a large difference between an average and a high performing team.


High performing athletes have a clear purpose (which includes both vision / direction and drive) in everything they do. Each training session has a particular goal that is part of a greater plan, with a clear end point in mind. Whether it is a personal best, podium finish or Olympic gold – high performing athletes have a clear vision of what they are seeking to achieve, often years in advance. In addition, it takes someone particularly driven to follow the same process day after day, when the long term vision is beyond the horizon.

High-performing business teams also have a clear purpose – and it is rarely about simply making money. Members of high performing teams have a clear vision of how their endeavours in the team will not only benefit the team as a whole, but how the team effort can benefit them in achieving their personal vision and putting their personal values into action. The purpose of the team is bigger than the individual, and the individuals in the team know it. Internal drive is just as important in business as in sport – call it passion determination, will to win – the long hours, late nights and extra work feel less like a chore when the purpose is clear.

I work with a website designer and tech expert who has been working on a side project for more than 3 years. In addition to his regular day, he has been working into the night to develop a product he knows will have a major impact for businesses. Many have questioned the product, the time taken and a perceived lack of progress – and he has stayed to the course and pushed on when others have doubted – only purpose with both vision and drive fuels that behaviour.

Grit / Determination 

The best laid plan with clear purpose at some point is going to have something go wrong. How those adversities are met plays a major part in the success of a high-performing athlete as well as a team. In her wonderful book Grit, Angela Duckworth explains that resilience, turning up and getting back up after being knocked down are more important than talent.

In my time as Chief Instructor at the Air Force’s Officer Training School, I had the opportunity to work with, instruct and assess thousands of potential officers for Air Force roles. While I didn’t use the term at the time (I would have called it determination, resilience or heart), grit made the difference between those that succumbed to the emotional, physical and mental rigours of Officer training and those that didn’t.

The high-performing athletes are the ones that don’t get bogged down in the early morning sessions, the technical infractions resulting in disqualifications and false starts – they take them as learning opportunities and focus on the next challenge. High performing business teams do the same thing.

Applied Strength

High-performing athletes come in all shapes and sizes, they are not all 6 foot 2 and rippling in muscles. The high performing athlete is the one that has learnt what their particular strength is (race start, consistency, acceleration on the last lap, underwater and turns) and exploits it to the fullest. Similarly, a high-performing team does not need to look a particular way or be full of stars.

Think of a Moneyball team (if you don’t know the reference, check out the 2011 Brad Pitt movie about Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane) – highly skilled team members that know not only what their strengths are, but how and when to apply them. When business teams exploit their strengths rather than focussing on their weaknesses, and when they can let individuals apply their skills rather than hold them back, they become high performing.

Responsible and Accountable

You hear a lot of talk in the stand of a swimming meet and on the sideline of a sports field. As well as support, you can hear a lot of excuses and blame – ‘they had to train today before this meet’, ‘the coach has been away’, ‘it’s that time of year for colds / flu / hay fever’, ‘the officials were too harsh’. Truth be told, the final results that happen on a sporting field or in a swimming pool don’t happen by chance, they happen in the weeks and months on the training track and ‘following the black line’ before the event.

High performing athletes know that average efforts in training lead to average results in competition – and they are responsible for their performance at every training session. In addition, the relationship between an athlete and their coach is a two way process – needing both responsibility and accountability. The athlete hold their coaches and support staff to account for their specialist areas, and in turn the coach hold the athlete responsible to commit their best efforts to trainingHigh performing business teams also hold each other responsible and accountable for their actions.

In his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni describes trust, conflict and commitment as the first three things a team must account for to be successful. High performing teams hold each other to account without fear of conflict (in fact, they embrace it) to ensure that the best performance is achieved and maintained.


They say that practice makes perfect. High performing athletes are almost metronomic in their consistency when it comes to training. It takes discipline to repeat the same tasks again and again searching for little improvements in performance. A high-performing swimmer may be chasing the dream PB (a personal best time) – chasing for 18 months to achieve an elusive 0.1 second improvement. The business of a high performing team can be just as metronomic – the little things that keep a team humming along become routine to the point that the team barely notices that it is expected at all. For the uninitiated, this repetitive behaviour can be seen as boring; for high performing athletes and teams, these repeated behaviours brought about by discipline create tiny opportunities for improvement and getting closer to perfection.


There is something truly beautiful in watching a team of highly skilled individuals work together in unison to create and execute on their plans. It takes purpose, grit, applied strength, responsibility and discipline to have a high performing team able to work in unison. Unison takes willingness from all team members to put the team first, knowing full well that individual results may be higher to begin with, and remembering that in the long term, the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts. Contrary to some opinions, unison does not require everyone to do the same thing at the same time. Unison requires every team member to apply their strength at the right time and in the same direction as everyone else.

While motivation and ‘go, go, go!’ on the sidelines are almost always welcome, it takes a lot more to build a high performing team.

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