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  • James Judge

From the playing field to the boardroom - insights from sports psychology (with Dr Kirsten Peterson)


In this month's episode I'm excited to be talking to Dr Kirsten Peterson about what she has learnt about high performance from coaching elite athletes. More specifically, we explore how this learning can be applied more broadly, including in the workplace.

Dr Peterson is a performance psychologist with a deep background working with sports people at the elite level, having worked for many years with both the US Olympic Committee and the Australian Institute of Sport.

We cover a range of topics, including her experience coaching a wide rang of acrobatic and combat sports, at both the individual and group level, for US Olympic teams.

We discuss what can be learnt from mistakes made in sports coaching that should not be translated to the workplace, including why we still have allegations of bullying, discrimination and racial abuse to this very day (e.g. Hawthorn Football Club). Her view is that there a couple of contributing factors at play.

"There are some well meaning but outmoded ideas about how human beings can and should be motivated or encouraged .. we are rapidly accumulating great evidence about how the human brain works that we didn't have 20 years ago so people were taking their best guess and its also a bit of, I was raised with this tough love attitude so if it's good enough for me... "

To some extent its coaches not knowing any better, and they may get results, but not sustainable ones.

On the darker side she explains that there are too many times when too much authority is given to someone but with no accountability for their behaviour, so they can get away with things. Athletes feel like they have no choice because if they don't agree or do what is demanded of them, they will get dropped from the team. There is also often a power imbalance at play.

Setting up a balance between safety and accountability is also a key component of great performance. The literature strongly shows that making an environment psychologically safe enough so that anyone can talk openly about what they don't know, or when they have made a mistake to be able to admit it without feeling like their head is going to be chopped, off is critical.

On the other hand coaches can fear this idea of psychological safety because it sounds too comfortable. It's really about absolute impeccable accountability, done in a safe way.

"It's not brutalising accountability, and it's not safety at all costs without any accountability."

So often these environments can be uncomfortable, because everyone is striving to be better, but it's done in a way that feels OK. Ground rules are important here as well as integrity, doing what you say you are going to do, and having one set of rules that apply to everyone.

I also ask here what differences there might be in what you would say to encourage better performance in individuals as opposed to working or communicating with a team. Kirsten explains that in both kinds of sports, either communicating with the individual or a group, its universally true that you want to be able to build trust so you can ask the deeper questions. This requires two things, a relationship, and an ability to ask those questions that go below the surface.

The conversation also covers.

  • The greatest mistakes she believes leaders make when trying to get the best performance from their team.

  • Developments over the last few decades in areas such as mindfulness, flow, resilience and grit.

  • What mental toughness actually means (is it really a thing and how can it be weaponised to label people soft or weak).

  • The insights she lays out in her new book "When grit is not enough" and her concept of non-contingent reinforcement and goal setting.

Kirsten's website can be found here

I hope you find the conversation as informative as I did. Please reach out and let me know of any other topics you'd like me to explore?


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