General Manager Rory Harvey-Kelly explains the sports psychology behind it
When Rory Harvey-Kelly left university in 1985 with a degree in Sports Psychology and German, he had no idea just how useful many aspects of his studies would prove to be in his subsequent business life eg. stress management, relaxation techniques, motivation, goal setting, anxiety reduction. Now a general manager with a strong international background in industrial equipment and material handling, here he comments on AHEAD’s survey results and reflects on his wealth of relevant experiences:

hw_s12_2When I began my career, my mother told me not to employ anyone with bitten fingernails since they were prone to stress. My father told me not to employ a salesman with a suntanned hand and a non-suntanned hand (a golfer only wears one glove) since they were spending working time in the week on the golf course. So I went into business armed with my studies and parents’ advice. 

It’s no surprise to me that most respondents in AHEAD’s survey How does exercise improve your performance at work? not only thought sport has a positive effect, but actually participated in some form of sport. Respondents widely acknowledged the noticeable benefits of sport to physical health and physiological well-being. Some also recognised the non-physiological benefits such as mood and confidence. However I believe it is the psychological aspects from sport that are most beneficial to employee and employer. In my opinion, survey participants probably undervalued some of these aspects.

Tenacity and stress resistance 
These benefits were widely acknowledged by AHEAD respondents. In business, we want to win. High achievers must strive to be the best not diluting their efforts with stress overload. Overcoming obstacles requires the individual to step back, analyze the situation, then move forward. Stress can be good for performance, however if an individual gives in to all stress factors, performance will suffer accordingly. 

Helicopter view and organizational skills
These sporting benefits were not rated so highly in the survey. This reflects the many individual sports undertaken by the survey participants. Imagine captaining, managing or participating in a sports team. How is the performance of the whole unit? Who is underperforming in a certain position? How do you evaluate and empathize with your teammates? How can the team be improved? What is the opposition doing? Business professionals do not always have the luxury of time to participate in team sports, and at a certain time must stop due to physical factors. I played my last game of rugby at 40! However, many business people still manage, coach and organize team sports.

Goal setting
This is key both in sport and business, but in my opinion, this benefit was undervalued by survey respondents. What do I want to achieve? A goal that is unachievable will not improve the individual’s commitment to reach the goal. How do I measure progress against the goal? Can I objectively comment on the current situation (keeping things in perspective against the plan)?

Cognitive skills
These are certainly enhanced by sport in my view. Think of a rock climber who scans the rock face looking for the best line. A gymnast must shut out the outside world to focus on the routine to be performed. A runner or swimmer is constantly thinking about how far they are into their race, and, considering the competition, how they should manage themselves for the remainder of the event.

Strategy and tactics 
I recently organized and led a 22km walk for 41 participants of the Belgian Irish Walking Group. Everybody was complementary not only about the beautiful and varied environment in the Eifel of Germany, but also the time management to finish on time at the Vogelsang visitors centre (before closure at 1700) as well as avoiding a world championship mountain bike race in the area. It was not by chance. I had pre-planned, pre-walked and researched the region's activities.
This is a classic example of strategy and tactics. The same is for business. Right strategy but wrong tactics can result in poor business results. Wrong strategy complicates any situation, but applying corrective tactics can save the situation. Wrong strategy and wrong tactics is the worst combination.

At university, my major sports were rugby and gymnastics whilst my final year dissertation was on cognitive processes in rock climbers. If I take some parallels from these sports and my studies, it is easy to see how they can apply to business:

A rugby team must work together as a unit to achieve best results.

For example, in France, after a business merger of two companies, I asked for volunteers to participate in a team building exercise which included group orienteering, running, mountain biking and problem solving exercises. I had all types of personnel in the team which created more understanding between managers and workers. Subsequently we entered two teams for a competition in England. We did not win, but in our minds as the only foreign teams, we were already winners.  Almost all of the points in the survey were seen as very positive for the participants who encouraged their workmates to follow a similar positive attitude. Personnel from the two companies started to put things in perspective and worked to overcome unnecessary obstacles.

On another occasion, in Italy, I managed a distribution network across Europe. In Poland, the Polish distributors disagreed with each other, blamed each other as the worst enemy, almost forgetting the competition. At an annual European distributor conference, I arranged one day of team events. This included archery, paintball, running and quad biking. The Polish team won. The Managing Director of one Polish company said We Poles came as enemies, we left as friends. Motivation achieved, we set some reasonable goals in Poland. And our business results improved. 

A gymnast must be calm and focused to achieve best results. 
I have applied stress management for many years. This allowed me to remain calm in many stressful situations. Indeed it is a simple fact that it makes no sense to become stressed about something over which you have no control. In addition, relaxation techniques would help me to sleep at night and recover energy, particularly when travelling on business in different time zones. Like a gymnast, I am task oriented, focused on what I have to achieve, whilst knowing my limitations.

A rock climber must be analytical before commencing the task, then monitor and adapt the plan if required. 
At work, I would have a review with a member of staff discussing what individual tasks and goals should be achieved in the next 12 months. Like a rock climber, progress is reviewed regularly, and corrective action taken if necessary.

On my course at the prestigious Deutsche Sporthochschule Koeln (German University for Sports Science), there were German international sportsmen and sportswomen. I thought I would be bottom of the class for the practical sports since I only did sport for fun. Yet in the end, I did better than I expected. Why? Largely because there were a variety of sports – football, gymnastics, swimming, volleyball etc. I was good, but not very good, at all of them. Meanwhile the footballers could not do gymnastics, the gymnasts could not swim, and so on. I feel it is like management in business. A manager has to utilize not only his or her organizational skills but realize the skills in others to obtain maximum performance.

The above sporting lessons have stood me in good stead throughout my professional career. And, in case you wondered, I do not bite my fingernails, and both my hands are the same colour…

RHK 11th June 2012.