The base camp of high-performance
“If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.”
Daniel Goleman
If I look back over my career, there is one key concept that I wish I had had in place much earlier. I came across this concept, received some training and acquired some understanding – about a decade into my career in high performance and know full well if I had got to grips with it earlier I would have been far better off. In fact, I’ll go as far to say that I would rate it as highly as ‘the most important, foundational capacity professional’ one can possess (bold statement hey?). I would rate it above technical skill, communication, interpersonal skill, team-working, leadership, innovation, and the rest – the reason being is that all of these other skills can be built upon this one perspective. What is it? Self-awareness!
The base camp of high-performance
In terms of self- awareness, I had always been aware that I existed (except perhaps the first few years), which is always handy! I’d even go as far as saying I had an existential awareness of my place in the wider universe (“We’re all just dust in the wind, man”). While I had awareness (levels 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5) what I lacked was a deep understanding of how I perform. In the early stages of my career, when I received feedback, I would normally take offence or struggle to contextualise it. A performance director once said to me, “You’re a bit of an Exocet. We can knock you off path, but your heat-seeking abilities kick in and you find another path”. At first this feedback was taken as criticism, but self-awareness training helped me recognise the strengths and weaknesses that I possess.
There are many formalised models and tools for developing self-awareness. There is the classic Myers Briggs (quite catchy, not very valid); Hogans (not catchy, very valid), NEO-PR (not at all catchy, off the scale valid). One tool that was used in the UK high-performance system was Insights Discovery. At Supporting Champions, we choose Spotlight developed by Mindflick, because it takes the stickiness of Insights but adds more by exploring how one performs under pressure.
 
The base camp of high-performance
When I first encountered such tools I was quite sceptical. I had read about the Barnum effect (based on the famous circus man’s catchphrase, “There’s something for everyone”). Experiments showed that when individuals underwent a ‘diagnostic test’ and then a week later were provided with a report based on their responses they rated the reports highly for accuracy (4.26 out of 5). The twist was that all participants were given the same report, i.e. we like strong positive statements about ourselves. Astrology, fortune telling, aura readings all utilise/cash in on the same concept. However, the one key difference, is that the most effective personality tests replay what you have chosen, not just tell you what you want to hear. The best self-awareness tools extend what you have chosen and provide you with guidance as to how this can spill over to the detriment of your effectiveness.
For example, one dimension will ask you a series of questions about your decision making. Are you more inclined to think about getting the task done, to a high level of quality, on time OR will you be thinking about the people involved in the task, how to get them engaged, empowered, valued, excited? By making such a choice we are aligning ourselves with a certain type of approach, in this instance TASK or PEOPLE. Once all other dimensions are explored this then gets replayed back to you. A further step that disperses and disarms the nay-sayers, asks team members to provide you with clean feedback about how you come across – this normally reinforces the personality preference report. So, when others are giving you the same feedback, you have to listen!
There were several positive effects of utilising such a tool in the UK high performance system;
– The individual was bolstered. There is an immediate reaction to reading, hearing a report that holds the mirror up, “That’s a bit freaky, have you been talking to my parents?” This is normally followed by, “I have always known it, but not acknowledged it”. This is then followed by, “Yes this is me, and that’s ok!”
– Team tensions were diffused. This was an incredible observation to make as such a tool was implemented. People just simply understood, recognised and respected each other’s differences. Rather than hearing, “It really frustrates me that X spends forever pouring over the information”, you could hear, “X’s super-strength is the analysis, what would we do without them?” Take a look at some other research showing this effect in other industries.
– People and teams began to flex their styles to get the best out of each other. Rather than thinking, “This is me, deal with it”, self-awareness training teaches you to adapt your style to better work with people and situations. It teaches you that you can do and be all features of effective performance, but it might require more energy to be effective in the areas that don’t come as naturally.
 
Self-awareness is a bit like base camp at Everest…getting there is a success in itself. Spending time at the self-awareness base camp is necessary to get familiar with it. When you stretch your legs into the higher climbs of high performance, each time you go up and feel the stresses of new heights, you benefit by returning to the base camp of self-awareness to gather yourself, reflect, de-brief, understand yourself to a greater depth before you kick on to the higher heights.
If you don’t fancy delving into deep self-awareness, but you could do with a dose of thinking, then I’d suggest you ask yourself three questions;
-What are you like on a good day?
-What are you like on a bad day?
-When have you stretched yourself to perform effectively in a way that isn’t your natural style, and how can you tap into this to ensure more consistent high performance?
If you want to dig a bit deeper then ask others around you;
-When have I been at my best, what was it about how I performed that you noticed?
-When have I struggled to be effective, what was it about how I performed that you noticed?
-Specifically, how can I improve my performance further?
So, I would say the base camp of high performance, the veritable square one of high performing self, is understanding self. You can go on up the mountain without it, make good progress and still achieve. But I suspect without it you will always be slightly less able, slightly less aware, slightly less effective if you don’t have it in your toolbox, and if you’re stretching your own possibilities, you’ll return to it eventually.
Follow me on twitter @ingham_steve

About steveingham

Dr Steve Ingham is one of the UK’s leading figures in sport and one of the world’s leading performance scientists. He is steeped in high performance and has been integral to the development of Britain into an Olympic superpower. He has provided support to over 1000 athletes, of which over 200 have achieved World or Olympic medal success, including some of the world’s greatest athletes such as Jessica Ennis-Hill, Sir Steve Redgrave and Sir Matthew Pinsent. Steve has coached Kelly Sotherton's running for heptathlon and to 4x400m Olympic medal winning success. Steve has worked at the English Sports Council British Olympic Association, English Institute of Sport, where Steve was the Director of Science and Technical Development, leading a team of 200 scientists in support of Team GB and Paralympics GB. Ingham holds a BSc, PhD and is a Fellow of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences. Steve is author of the best selling ‘How to Support a Champion: The art of applying science to the elite athlete’, discussing and inspiring the importance of learning and adapting to reach our maximum potential. Steve established Supporting Champions with the ambition of helping ambitious people to find a better way of creating high-performance. Steve hosts the Supporting Champions Podcast on sharing his pursuit of understanding and exploration in performance.

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