6 min read

Planning the push: What can leaders learn from the concept of 'peaking' in sports?

Planning the push: What can leaders learn from the concept of 'peaking' in sports?
Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse.

At a recent meeting with a former high-performance sport coach, I shared with him some research I’m conducting relating to the question of how leaders can challenge, push, or pull team members to the limit of performance, without ‘breaking them’ (i.e., damaging the relationship bond with them, or exhausting them).

As we talked, I referenced an upcoming project we’re working on, which will include current members of the high-performance sport community (e.g., coaches, athletes, and sport organization leaders). I told my coach-friend I was interested to hear the high-performance sport folks address this question of how leaders can challenge, push, or pull others to the limit, without crossing the tipping point.

He replied that those involved at the upper echelons of sport would likely focus their answer on the idea of planning out the challenge or demands.

He went on to explain using an example. He said “take Andre De Grasse as a case study” (the Canadian Olympic champion sprinter). He said:

“Andre De Grasse runs his fastest only twice a year – say two track meets. All his training and competition is planned in such a way that the intensity of demands – the challenge that both the coach and the training program places on him – builds in a progressive way towards just those two events. He might spend two, maybe three minutes per year operating at his absolute limit of performance. This is what people in sport call ‘peaking.’ For the remaining 99.9% of his annual cycle, he’s performing at a suboptimal level, but slowly, progressively, and intentionally increasing the amount of demands he’s taking on.”

This made me realize that among the corporate leaders I work with, I rarely hear them talk about planning the way they challenge, push, or pull their team members towards higher performance.

I do hear leaders refer to the importance of being ‘selective’ in the way they apply challenge, or discomfort, or tension to others. They want to urge their teams to do more than they might assume possible, yet they recognize they can’t apply pressure in a relentless way, every day, all the time. This will exhaust or demotivate others. It may even destroy the relationship between the leader and team members.

However, it seems to me that planning out the push differs from applying selective pressure in a key way - it involves signaling to the team in advance that the leader will increase their demands before a performance peak.

I can think of two ways leaders might do this, one general, one specific. In the first example, leaders could ‘generally’ signal to their teams that they plan to challenge them more than usual, around the time they’re approaching a performance peak. “In these two or three parts of the year,” or “on these two or three critical projects, you should expect that I’m going to challenge you more than I normally do.”

In the second more specific way, leaders could signal to team members that they plan to challenge them in progressive and increasing ways leading up to a performance peak. “If we agree that these are the two or three moments in the year when we have to perform at our best, I want you to know that I’m going to gradually increase the level of challenge I apply to you as a team, as we move closer and closer to those peaks.”

I know every organization must react to external pressures – market forces, competitive threats, customer demands/opportunities, regulatory changes. But leaders don’t just wait around to respond to external shocks. They have their own plans, priorities, strategies, and initiatives that they pursue in a pre-meditated way. Those plans have predictable schedules, cadences, and arcs to their evolution, which might be compatible with the approach I’m describing here.

If leaders wish to challenge their teams to reach the performance limit, it may be worthwhile for them to sit with their teams to align on what ‘peaks’  they’ll build towards in a given year, and then signal in advance that they will need to challenge more than normal before those peaks, perhaps in a progressive way.

What are the benefits of this approach?

First, a focus on planning the way the leader will challenge others forces a conversation within the team about aligning on the most important collective objectives for the year, including the 'peaks.' This should increase alignment about what matters, and goal clarity related to those high-priority areas.

Second (and this is very important), if leaders signal when they plan to increase challenge/demands, it prepares team members to interpret that challenge – and the discomfort that it introduces – as non-threatening, non-personal, and aligned with the team’s best interests. In other words, planning out the push should buffer any threatening aspects of the challenge, and make it seem more constructive, normal, and expected in the eyes of the team member.

Third, a discussion of peaking and planning out the leader’s challenges focuses attention on the need to rest and recover. You can’t have a peak without a period of recovery afterwards. You can’t build towards a peak without emerging from a lower intensity phase. Leaders semi-frequently tell me their organization just wants more, more, more from them, and that there’s no room for celebrating wins, or moving into a lower gear, or experiencing a fallow period of regeneration. This kind of relentless goal pressure, or classification of all goals as high importance, isn’t sustainable or compatible with seeking maximum performance. When you plan to build towards a peak, it means that by necessity a recovery period occurs after the peak. It should be understood and agreed on during this post peak period, that the leader will not challenge, and therefore the team can recover and begin consolidating energy to build towards a future peak.

(You might ask, ‘what happens when the leader wants to give their team a recovery period, but other powerful stakeholders inject demands into that rest phase, against the will of the leader?’ In that situation, I think it’s the leader’s role to shield their team, to buy them time to catch their breath, and to make the case that a lack of recovery will erode the team's ability to create value for the company.)

What are the takeaways for leaders?

  1. If you’re a leader who strives for a high-performance standard in your team, this journey will at some point require challenging, pushing or pulling others - whatever word you want to use - to do more than they think is possible, and asking them to experience significant discomfort.
  2. If you’re asking your team to reach for their performance limit, consider planning out in advance the moments in your annual cycle when you want them to perform at their best (i.e., the ‘peaks’). Align on what you want to accomplish in those moments, and create goal clarity on what the peaks ‘mean’ and ‘represent’ and how success will be measured. Explain and justify why these ‘peaks’ exist, and why they’re important.
  3. Signal to the team that you plan to challenge them more than usual during the periods preceding those peaks. Let them know that the challenge, push, or pull is coming, that it’s not personal, and that it’s aligned with the team’s best interests and its goals.
  4. Signal to the team that you as a leader may be challenging them in a progressive, ever-increasing way, as you approach those peaks.
  5. Finally signal that as a leader you plan to challenge less than normal, or not at all, in the aftermath of those peaks. You will consider this ‘post peak’ phase a time for energy consolidation, active recovery, and preparation to build towards a future peak.

When leaders plan out the challenge they apply to their teams, they can increase goal clarity and alignment, facilitate team members perceiving the leader’s challenge as constructive, and encourage a valuable focus on recovery. Above all, these strategies may help leaders and their teams glimpse and experience, even if briefly, their performance limits, and feel the exhilaration of reaching a rare standard of excellence.

Tim Jackson Ph.D. is the President of Jackson Leadership, Inc. and a leadership assessment and coaching expert with 17 years of experience. He has assessed and coached leaders across a variety of sectors including agriculture, chemicals, consumer products, finance, logistics, manufacturing, media, not-for-profit, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, and utilities and power generation, including multiple private-equity-owned businesses. He's also worked with leaders across numerous functional areas, including sales, marketing, supply chain, finance, information technology, operations, sustainability, charitable, general management, health and safety, quality control, and across hierarchical levels from individual contributors to CEOs. In addition Tim has worked with leaders across several geographical regions, including Canada, the US, Western Europe, and China. He has published his ideas on leadership in both popular media, and peer-reviewed journals. Tim has a Ph.D. in organizational psychology, and is based in Toronto.

Email: tjackson@jacksonleadership.com

Web: www.jacksonleadership.com

Newsletter: www.timjacksonphd.com