Miércoles 15 de Febrero de 2006, Ip nº 140

On your marks, get set, succeed
Por Amy Iggulden

For some of the elite athletes gathered for the Winter Olympics in Turin, the presence of a sports psychologist will be just as important as a trackside coach. Without the mind-toughening techniques these people offer, the mental battle to succeed in the face of immense pressure is so much greater. Back here - in Britain's offices and boardrooms - there are countless rather tubbier businessmen and women who might well be feeling the same way.

Their physiques may fall some way below the Olympic ideal, but these corporate types are part of a growing number of non-athletes who are using the principles of sports psychology to help them perform better at work.

One such performance-enhancement company, Lane4 - set up by the champion swimmer Adrian Moorhouse - has been teaching managers the four basic techniques underpinning sports psychology. These techniques are: talking to themselves positively; visualising success; setting realistic goals; and either humming or meditating their way into a state of relaxation - all in the name of a healthier bottom-line and greater efficiency.

But while studies have shown that mentally tough athletes - who can cope with uncertainty and achieve much under enormous pressure - have the edge over their competitors, can these techniques really do the same for business people, musicians and lawyers?

"The principles that we use, which help athletes to succeed, are essentially skills for life that help people perform better at work, become better leaders and work more efficiently with one another," says Graham Jones, professor of elite performance psychology at Bangor University and a business partner of Adrian Moorhouse. Lane4, set up 10 years ago and named after the swimming lane in which Moorhouse won Olympic gold in Seoul in 1988, now has a turnover of more than £5 million and three international offices.

Its essential claim - that sport and performance psychology can help to create elite workplace performers - is admittedly compelling and has many admirers.

NHS managers in Surrey and Sussex are using it to "improve delivery"; bosses at the Home Office's Immigration and Nationality Directorate are learning how to be better leaders with its help, and 60 of Coca-Cola's top brass in Britain have been given a personal sports psychologist to call whenever they wish. Even the Royal Marines have been involved - although Lane4 has been told to keep it quiet (clearly not very successfully).

This crossover of sports psychology into corporate and public sector bureaucracy is still at an embryonic stage, according to Dr Claire Palmer of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Science, but has been emerging for the past 10 years. "The crossover sector is growing, with some sports psychologists and university departments taking on freelance corporate work," she says. "But it is still very much early days."

Yet sports psychology itself - and indeed its critics - have been around for decades. Moorhouse became an advocate of its techniques in America in the early Eighties, as it was taking off. When he retired from swimming in 1992, he decided "to take the tools of sports psychology and offer them to business". It is now a "booming market".

"The application of sports psychology made the ultimate difference to me in my swimming career,'' he says. "The mental approaches that I learnt as an athlete have stayed with me in business and I believe this has enabled me to be more successful."

Many of his clients - which have included Sainsbury's, Deutsche Bank, Safeway and the UK Atomic Energy Authority - may well agree. Russell Cobb, human resources director for Coca-Cola, used Lane4 five years ago, after a survey revealed that fewer than a quarter of employees were "engaged" in the company. "We clearly needed to do something to improve leadership, loyalty and performance, and the sports analogy of teamwork achievement was quite an easy one for everyone to understand," he says.

Since getting the coaches and psychologists in, employee "engagement" has grown, to almost 50 per cent. But why would it work?

"Businesses are good at setting targets but less good at planning how they will achieve them - athletes do that meticulously," says Prof Jones. "We work with teams to make sure that, as in sport, each member is filling the right role and feeling happy about it. That makes for much greater efficiency."

However, Dave Collins, the performance director at UK Athletics and personal sports psychologist to one of Britain's best medal hopes at the Winter Olympics - bob-skeleton racer Kristan Bromley - does not believe that the principles of sports psychology are uniquely "sporty".

"The factors that we use are for performance generally - what changes is the way they are applied to each individual and each situation," he says.

  13/02/2006. The Daily Telegraph.