The Corporate Athlete – What can modern athletes teach corporate leaders about sustained high performance?

The Corporate Athlete – What can modern athletes teach corporate leaders about sustained high performance?

by Tom Pappas and Dr. Sam Pappas

The concept of the ‘’Corporate Athlete’’ entered the modern leadership lexicon at the beginning of the 21st century. Created by Dr. Jack Groppel, an exercise physiologist, and Dr. Jim Loehr, a sports psychologist, the two partnered to use sports science to help their business clients. They called their clients, business executives, and professional managers, Corporate Athletes. The two sports scientists created the Human Performance Institute (HPI) in 1992 which was later sold to Johnson & Johnson in 2008. In three books and a Harvard Business Review article, Dr. Groppel and Dr. Loehr, later joined by journalist Tony Schwartz, introduced the concept to the public. 1

Their premise is that business leaders can achieve sustained high performance, in an environment of rapid change and increasing pressure, by applying lessons from professional athletes. Here is how Dr. Jack Groppel, author of the first book to introduce the idea, The Corporate Athlete, explains the concept: 

“The program of this book is based on scientific research and proven results from the field of sport science. It specifically targets the busy businessperson – the Corporate Athlete – at every level of the organization.

Corporate Athlete is a term I use because to perform at high levels, a corporate executive needs as much stamina as a professional athlete needs in competitive sports. Consider the demands that today’s business climate makes on Corporate Athletes: they must perform at highly competitive levels under intense pressure for ten or more hours a day, often six days a week. They are expected to continue this extraordinary output over a career span of four decades.” 2

In our multi-part series, we will look at some of the wonderful ideas that have contributed to our understanding of achieving high performance, some of the shortcomings that point to a different approach to our holistic growth, and share an integrated program that offers the best of ancient wisdom and modern practice, to help you on your journey to excellence. 

How do you meet the ever-increasing demands of your life?  

This is the question that the Corporate Athlete trainers posed to their busy executive clients. They believe that current approaches to sustained high performance offer only partial answers: “Management theorists have long sought to identify precisely what makes some people flourish under pressure and others fold. We maintain that they have come up with only partial answers: rich material rewards, the right culture, management by objectives.” 3

Dr. Groppel believes that the current business world approach to their employees is analogous to the philosophy of the sports world in the 1950s and 1960s. Here is a summary of that comparison.

We concur that this “Low Performance” approach did not work then for athletes nor does it work in its modern application. Furthermore, this flawed approach results in many challenges:

  • Symptoms of Stress: Anxiety, depression, injury, disengagement from work, negative and unhealthy behaviors
  • Results of Stress: Shortened careers, lifelong health issues, burnout, lack of productivity and innovation
  • Coping Strategies: Push harder, train longer, don’t allow for recovery

The Corporate Athlete creators believe that most approaches to high performance over-emphasize the importance of cognitive capacity and under-appreciate the impact of physical capacities. 

“The problem with most approaches, we believe, is that they deal with people only from the neck up, connecting high performance primarily with cognitive capacity. In recent years there has been a growing focus on the relationship between emotional intelligence and high performance. A few theorists have addressed the spiritual dimension—how deeper values and a sense of purpose influence performance. Almost no one has paid any attention to the role played by physical capacities.” 4

In fact, the ‘’non-athlete’’ business leader and busy professional, have a more demanding job than an elite-level athlete. One of the more revealing insights from the Corporate Athlete programs is the comparison of the physical lives of athletes vs business professionals. Dr. Loehr and Dr. Groppel provocatively state that there are more demands for energy on corporate athletes than professional athletes.

“The demands on executives to sustain high performance day in and day out, year in and year out, dwarf the challenges faced by any athlete we have ever trained. The average professional athlete, for example, spends most of his time practicing and only a small percentage—several hours a day, at most—actually competing. The typical executive, by contrast, devotes almost no time to training and must perform on demand ten, 12, 14 hours a day or more. Athletes enjoy several months of off-season, while most executives are fortunate to get three or four weeks of vacation a year. The career of the average professional athlete spans seven years; the average executive can expect to work 40 to 50 years.” 5

Here is a table summarizing the differences between how elite athletes train vs business executives. If you compare both types of athletes side by side, you can see how truly more demanding the life of a business professional can be.  

This demanding environment has caused constant pressure and tremendous stress. The greatest stressors include:

  1. The relentless expectations to do more with fewer resources
  2. The lack of depth in life: at work and at home.
  3. Fatigue that compromises their ability to be fully present with family and loved ones as well as fully present at work.
  4. Crisis of purpose – lack of meaning and significance in their lives.
  5. Compromised health and personal happiness. The demands and pressure are so excessive that business leaders fear they may lose their personal health and sense of well-being. 6

The approach of the Corporate Athlete pioneers Dr. Groppel and Dr. Loehr was to use the programs they created for elite athletes to help business executives achieve sustained performance. They realized that today’s business leaders were experiencing unprecedented demands in the modern workplace. “If they were to perform at high levels over the long haul, we posited, they would have to train in the same systematic, multilevel way that world-class athletes do.” They had to become “Corporate Athletes.” 7 

The training program for Corporate Athletes mimicked the one for professional athletes. Their goal was to help athletes achieve the Ideal Performance State (IPS): a condition of increasing capacity at all levels allowing “athletes and executives to bring their talents and skills to full ignition and to sustain high performance over time.” They did this by training secondary or supportive competencies. When training athletes they never focused on their primary skills – “how to hit a serve, swing a golf club, or shoot a basketball. Likewise, in business we don’t address primary competencies such as public speaking, negotiating, or analyzing a balance sheet.” They helped executives with secondary competencies like “endurance, strength, flexibility, self-control, and focus.”

Dr. Groppel and Dr. Loehr taught the importance of skillfully managing energy: “the fundamental currency of life, both personal and professional.’’ 9 One of the most important ideas the Corporate Athlete approach brought to our understanding of performance is that the human body is ‘’performance-relevant.’’ And to improve your performance you have to understand how your body produces, manages, and renews energy. This requires training like an elite athlete. 

According to the Corporate Athlete approach, the best model to understand high performance is seeing a human as an integrated and multi-dimensional energy system. The foundation of energy management is physical energy. There’s a rhythmic flow (“oscillation”) of energy expenditure: stressing our body means energy out and recovery results in energy in. Without regular renewal, our ability to effectively increase energy is at risk.  

The Corporate Athlete trainers built upon extensive sport science research which confirmed that the foundation of an Ideal Performance State (IPS) is the capacity to mobilize energy. The Sports/Corporate Athlete trainers identified two key components to effective energy management and thus high performance: 

  1. The ‘’oscillation’’ – rhythmic movement – between stress (energy expenditure) and recovery (energy renewal).
  1. Rituals that promote oscillation. “Repeated regularly, these highly precise, consciously developed routines become automatic over time.”

In the living laboratory of sports, we learned that the real enemy of high performance is not stress, which, paradoxical as it may seem, is actually the stimulus for growth. Rather, the problem is the absence of disciplined, intermittent recovery. Chronic stress without recovery depletes energy reserves, leads to burnout and breakdown, and ultimately undermines performance. 10

The Corporate Athlete model was unique in looking at energy management in an integrated manner: understanding how the impact of low physical energy affected our emotional, mental and spiritual abilities.  

  • Emotional energy: “low physical energy compromises our ability to give our best effort emotionally” (feelings like joy, anger, fear).   
  • Mental energy: “low physical energy reduces our daily ability to give our best effort mentally” (cognitive skills like analyzing, thinking and making decisions). 
  • Spiritual energy: ‘low physical energy can erode our passion and commitment – even our very sense of purpose – toward what we are doing.”  

This holistic approach to energy management is depicted as an energy pyramid with the physical dimension as the foundation and emotional, mental and spiritual levels ascending in significance.  11 

A successful approach to sustained high performance, we have found, must pull together all of these elements and consider the person as a whole. Thus, our integrated theory of performance management addresses the body, the emotions, the mind, and the spirit. We call this hierarchy the performance pyramid. Each of its levels profoundly influences the others, and failure to address any one of them compromises performance. 12 

When all the levels, as illustrated in the pyramid above, are working together, the Corporate Athlete achieves the Ideal Performance State: peak performance under pressure. 

Closely linked to the Corporate Athlete idea of energy management is engagement. Criticizing modern productivity ideas of time management and multitasking, the creators of the Corporate Athlete exhort the benefits of Full Engagement. This is an act in the present moment that “requires the conscious recruitment of all dimensions of energy – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.” 13 

Attaining full engagement, however, requires overcoming obstacles in all dimensions of energy. For physical engagement, the biggest obstacle is fatigue; for emotional engagement, it’s the active presence of survival emotions like anger and fear; for mental engagement, multitasking provides a barrier; and finally, unclear purpose provides a barrier in attaining spiritual engagement. 14 

The concept of a Corporate Athlete is a wonderful foundation and organizing concept to help us better cope with the increasing modern demands on our work-life balance. In fact, you don’t have to be working for a corporation to benefit, those self-employed experience the same challenges. The reality is, whether you work for a large organization, are a solopreneur, “retired” and giving your all to your community or, perhaps the most demanding of all, a full-time stay-at-home mom, aka “Household Operations CEO,” you’ll need to effectively manage energy and engagement. The author’s premise that business leaders and high performers can maximize their executive performance by applying lessons from professional athletes is a philosophy we all should embrace. “Applying sport science research to the world of business serves another purpose. Corporate employees will see that the principles that govern an athlete’s success are rather analogous to those that govern their success.” 15 The simple yet advanced concepts that Dr. Groppel and Dr. Loehr espouse to help modern Corporate Athletes is a great step in the right direction of achieving better balance, productivity, and improved health. 


Endnotes (references)

  1. Corporate Athlete literature
    1. The Corporate Athlete, J. Groppel – 2000
    2. The Making of a Corporate Athlete, Harvard Business Review article, J. Loehr and Tony Schwartz – 2001
    3. The Power of Full Engagement, J. Loehr and Tony Schwartz – 2003
    4. The Corporate Athlete Advantage, J Loehr and J Groppel – 2008
  1. The Corporate Athlete, p.2
  2. The Making of a Corporate Athlete, Harvard Business Review
  3. The Making of a Corporate Athlete, Harvard Business Review 
  4. The Making of a Corporate Athlete, Harvard Business Review
  5. The Corporate Athlete Advantage, p.6
  6. The Making of a Corporate Athlete, Harvard Business Review
  7. The Making of a Corporate Athlete, Harvard Business Review
  8. The Corporate Athlete Advantage, p.3
  9. The Making of a Corporate Athlete, Harvard Business Review
  10. The Corporate Athlete Advantage, p. 27-28
  11. The Making of a Corporate Athlete, Harvard Business Review
  12. The Corporate Athlete Advantage, p. 31
  13. The Corporate Athlete Advantage, p.32
  14. The Corporate Athlete Advantage