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14 May 2013

Applying sports psychology to business

At the beginning of this year, highly-respected business performance expert and Olympic gold medallist Adrian Moorhouse, was appointed as an independent member of B P Collins’ supervisory board.

As co-founder and managing director of performance management firm Lane4, he specialises in helping individuals and teams perform at their best and deliver sustainable success. With May marking UK Entrepreneur Week, Adrian shares some of the lessons the business world can learn from competitive sport.

Sport is, and always will be, a powerful metaphor for business. Fierce competition, winning by the smallest margins, achieving goals, determination and team work are all key components of both worlds. But beyond metaphors, principles from the world of sport psychology can be applied to organisations to enable them to perform better. Here we will look at two concepts that are effective within the world of business.

Mental toughness

This concept of mental toughness comes straight from sport psychology research and focuses on the personal resilience needed by an individual to perform at their peak. Research with some of the world’s best athletes shows that mental toughness is the capacity to respond positively to multiple, and sometimes conflicting, pressures in order to deliver consistently high levels of performance.

It is underpinned by four core skills: 

  • Handling pressure
  • Self-belief
  • Motivation
  • Focus

Take ‘handling pressure’, for example. Sports psychologists have found that athletes who have developed mental toughness are able to find ways of keeping symptoms of stress under control.

Stress can result in both behavioural and physical symptoms that are often difficult to manage. Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, visualising a calm pre-performance routine and challenging negative and unhelpful thinking patterns are extremely helpful in controlling these symptoms, and are used frequently by athletes. Employees can start to tackle their reaction to pressure by first identifying factors that exacerbate stressful situations – such as not getting enough sleep, or not eating properly – and tackling those head on.

Mentally tough athletes are also able to identify what is within their control and what is not, so that they can exert as much control as possible. They accept that there are factors in their performance environment that they cannot influence, identify what they are and then focus on things they can control.

For example a golfer can’t control the course conditions, or the scores of his competitors, but can focus on his foot positioning and swing, which will have a beneficial impact on his own performance. Employees in an organisation can’t control the actions of a competitor, or the market conditions, so shouldn’t stress about them. Instead, concentrate on the options for action that they have in the situation, and making wise choices.

Talent identification

In sport they have very sophisticated methods and programmes to identify and develop talent, with some athletes having been involved in programmes since childhood. They test for the obvious things required in sport – physical attributes (such as height for a rower) and skillsets (such as hand-eye co-ordination for hockey) but they also attempt to test their potential talent by looking for a learning mindset.

A learning mindset includes a belief that abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work – a belief that creates a drive for learning and a resilience that is essential for any great accomplishment. Good learners are also able to critically reflect on their own performance, take others’ perspectives, embrace feedback, accurately understand their own strengths and weaknesses and embrace opportunities for stretch, amongst other things.

Never before has a learning mindset been more important in business - since the future is unknown, the ability to learn and adapt is likely to be an important predictor of future high performance. The ability to learn from experience (both positive and negative experiences) will be a key differentiator of talent for the future.

Learning and adaptation is important to enable individuals and organisations to thrive – now and in the future. Specifically, the high performers of the future are considered to be those most willing to embrace new experiences, stretch themselves and adapt.  

Visit for more information or follow them on Twitter @Lane4group

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