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Leo Messi and Larry Ellison have more in common than you think

November 9, 2016 • LEADERSHIP, Leadership Development, MacGregor on Executive Health

By Steven P. MacGregor

I was watching through a crack in my fingers. And there it was, inevitable really. Number seven. My football team, Glasgow Celtic was getting a thrashing in the opening Champions League match of the 2016-17 season at the Camp Nou in Barcelona.

In the days after that mauling some football commentators (and certainly Celtic supporters like myself) placed at least some of the blame of such a poor performance on the weekend rout of old foes Rangers. They hadn’t recovered, many said, from the physical and mental rigours of such an intense match three days before.

Recovery is of course a key consideration for footballers and athletes in general, and it’s something that FC Barcelona places great emphasis on for their global superstars. They also had a match on the weekend prior to that Champions League game, losing in La Liga but recovering in time to produce a magnificent performance.

Ever since training with Olympic track athletes during a visiting researcher stay at Stanford in 2001, I’ve been fascinated by what elite athletes and elite executives have in common. And I’ve been lucky enough to get close to both types over the years.

Part of the sporting story is actually with FC Barcelona, signing for the club as an amateur athlete three years ago in the same season as one of Celtic’s tormenters in chief for that Champions League match, Neymar. Having 30,000 people in attendance for Neymar’s signing-on versus not initially being allowed to park my car inside the stadium, is indicative of the vast distance between football, the raison d’etre for the club after all, and amateur sports sections’ like mine. But it nonetheless gives me a close-up view of the clubs operations, including medical care and analysis.

One of the acquaintances I’ve made in that time is Dr. Gil Rodas, previously the medical doctor for the football team and now for basketball, the second biggest sport at the club which has produced NBA stars like Pau Gasol. Rodas has developed tools to gauge the recovery of the star athletes under his care, including advanced analysis of heart rate variability (HRV).

Contrary to what one may believe high HRV is a good thing and a positive measure of health and recovery – it is a much more natural, human thing for our heart to vary constantly as opposed to the mechanical, constant beating associated with low variability.

Many of us may be familiar with our resting pulse and the insight that can give us into our present state of health and fitness (on a very general level a lower resting pulse signifies greater heart health and fitness) but it’s a very basic measure. HRV (in medical parlance the R-R interval or simply the time between beats of our heart) tells us much more. The time between beats tends to vary as our heart constantly adjusts to the environment at that moment. Contrary to what one may believe high HRV is a good thing and a positive measure of health and recovery – it is a much more natural, human thing for our heart to vary constantly as opposed to the mechanical, constant beating associated with low variability.

Low HRV is a sign of poor health, recovery and excessive stress. It is associated with the sympathetic, better known as the fight-or-flight, part of our nervous system. High HRV on the other hand is a sign of good health, recovery and acceptable stress. It is associated with the parasympathetic part of our nervous system, or rest-and-digest.

Rodas and his team use HRV analysis to gauge recovery from hard games and training sessions, tailoring programs for each athlete so they can maintain peak performance. And we are starting to work with them on applying the same approach in the world of business.

My experience with executives at Oracle, the multinational computer technology firm founded by Larry Ellison, first got me thinking on the ebbs and flows to a working year, just like the seasonal or cyclic approach that athletes need to think about. The business quarter is a view many of us may understand in that respect and we’ve worked with executives in Oracle to develop their resilience rituals around a gruelling Q4. Because it’s a sales-driven organisation, the fourth business quarter in Oracle, from March to May, is a challenging period that requires the right approach and corresponding action – before, during, and after – in order to maintain peak business performance.

Stress need not be a solely negative concept. The quantity of stress that we experience is of course important but it is important to remember that some stressor allows us to remember, learn and develop. In physical training we force our bodies to become more resilient to stress, paradoxically through stress itself. And I believe the same is true on the mental level.

The key factor in our executive health work is that stress is followed by recovery. Rhythms or waves allow us to maintain balance, and athletes are fantastic at balancing this ON and OFF, which they will view in terms of their specific training cycle, season or even 4 yearly (Olympic) term. So what is your own principal cycle time? This is a necessary reflection in order to design the requisite recovery mechanisms. Perhaps it is the business quarter as noted above, yet appropriate recovery needs to be built in also on a more regular basis for today’s busy executive.

Undoubtedly global sports stars have stress on a mental level to contend with, yet their day-to-day performance is dictated more by the physical than the cerebral. However, we are beginning to understand so much more on the close link between the two which justifies our application in the world of business.

The quantity of stress that we experience is of course important but it is important to remember that some stressor allows us to remember, learn and develop.

HRV analysis is one of those areas where both the physical and mental can be used to adjust stress levels, in order to move the busy executive out of that fight-or flight mode which may characterise their long, always-on, working days. We have specifically experimented with different coping mechanisms which may allow an executive to move out of sympathetic and into parasympathetic mode, showing that has indeed occurred by post-analysis of their heart rate variability. And these coping mechanisms can be very simple indeed, including the use of controlled diaphragmatic breathing. Try this tonight at the end of a busy, stressful day:

Lie flat on your back in a quiet room, bend your knees and keep your feet flat on the floor.Place both hands on your belly and breathe in through your nose to the count of six (use a timer like the MyCalmBeat app). Aim to raise your hands as high as possible through focusing that inhalation on your belly. Exhale to the count of six through your mouth, lowering your hands and belly once again. Repeat for three minutes.

When you get better at it, you can adapt versions to do during the day, say in a long meeting or during a conference call.

Let’s be real, all the belly breathing in the world wouldn’t have spared Celtic’s blushes, but by experimenting with coping mechanisms like these within a more general view of recovery in business, todays executive will ensure peak performance. And if you’re not interested in the performance level of Leo Messi you certainly should be in Larry Ellison’s.

About the Author

bio-foto1Founder of The Leadership Academy of Barcelona [LAB] and author of Sustaining Executive Performance (Pearson 2015) Dr. MacGregor has delivered over 1000 sessions the past 5 years in executive health and behavior change for clients including Telefónica, Danone, IESE, IMD, and the BBC. He holds a PhD in Engineering Design Management and has been a visiting researcher at Stanford and Carnegie-Mellon. His executive education teaching is informed by academic interest in sustainability and design and he is an article reviewer for, among others, Industry and Innovation, Journal of Engineering Design, and the International Journal of Design Creativity and Innovation.

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