On Sunday, September 9, 2013, I had the unique opportunity to compete in Las Vegas at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship, a qualification-only event. More than 60,000 athletes around the world compete each year for a coveted slot at the World Championship. I was fortunate enough to qualify last June at the Ironman 70.3 in Mont-Tremblant, Canada, under the Ironman Executive challenge.
I really enjoyed the challenge of the Ironman race, the toughest endurance sport in the world. For the 100 executives from around the world who participate in the Executive challenge each year, Ironman presents a unique challenge for us. Balancing our demanding work life with our personal lives and families, as well as squeezing into our busy schedules 10 to 15 hours of training every week to be fit enough to race at a world-class level (while remaining healthy) is a huge endeavor. The pressure of managing all three can be overwhelming, which is why only about 100 C-level executives from around the world participate in the 10 races offered by the Ironman Executive challenge each year.
Beyond the personal rewards, Ironman races teach me so much on the professional level; they actually help me become a better CEO and leader. The biggest takeaway from the World Championship is the importance of enduring tremendous pressure.
Let’s define the term pressure: the ratio of force to the area over which that force is distributed. The science of physics defines for us what pressure is, but how does it relate to professional racing or running a leadership team and a company?
Here is a simple example of the physical impact of pressure: one can press a finger against a wall without making any lasting impression. However, the same finger pushing a thumbtack can easily damage the same wall. Although the force applied to the surface is the same, the thumbtack applies more pressure because the point concentrates that force into a smaller area.
In professional sports, we commonly hear about pressure, and professional Ironman triathletes are not exempt from it. Last Saturday, I attended a breakfast organized by Ironman XC with a few professional triathletes. I asked them how they deal with pressure during races such as the World Championship, and a few of them answered that they ignore what is at stake. One in particular said, “We’ll see if I do well or not. I do not care, and I won’t let the pressure get to me.” At first that seemed like a great answer. The basic message is that there is no mental pressure. Therefore, I can relax before and during any race. But, here is the catch, as per the following model. Pressure is a not a binary dimension: 0 or 1. It cannot be treated in absolute. I have pressure or no pressure like living on the moon (where there is no atmospheric pressure) versus living on Earth.
It is about the degree of pressure you apply to yourself. Without the optimal amount of pressure, you cannot derive a personal or a team performance. Too little pressure and you are underperforming; apply too much pressure and you or your team crumbles. It is all about finding the optimal pressure point where one (or a team) can deliver its best performance. In the event like the World Championship of Ironman, it is the difference between standing on or off the winners’ podium.
Let me share a personal experience of the drawback of too little pressure, which led to an underperformance. Last Sunday, I finished the Ironman World Championship in 6 hours and 11 minutes, a sub-average performance for me. I finished the race, but did not give it my best. I did not bring my “A game” to Vegas. So, why was that?
Here is what my post-mortem analysis identified. On Saturday morning during swim practice, a reporter asked me what my goal was for the race, and I did not have a good answer. It was not that I was trying to escape the question; I just did not have a time in mind. I was realistic enough to know I was not a contender to win in my age group and so my only real objective was to enjoy the race and finish it injury-free. That may seem like a reasonable goal, but here is the catch: it did not enable me to bring my A game that day.
During the swim, I encountered a few challenges that led me to a sub-optimal performance. I came out of the water frustrated because I kept telling myself: “’Why push?’ With such a poor swim time, I cannot break a personal record.” The reality is quite the opposite. An analysis would show that there is actually plenty of opportunity within a three-hour bike ride and a sub two-hour run to make up 15 minutes lost during the swim. Mentally, I took myself out of the game. I blocked my ability to reach deep and deliver a strong performance. It was not until mile 35 of the race’s bike portion that I finally calmed myself down and was able to properly race. Unfortunately for me, by that point it was a bit late. The lack of a goal, the lack of a stake (being on the podium at the World Championship) and, therefore, the lack of pressure prevented me from bringing out my best.
It is a powerful lesson. Being a professional athlete or the CEO of a company, you (and your team) need pressure to deliver your best performance to either win the world title or become an industry leader. Just showing up at the starting line and crossing the finish line is not good enough if that is how you intend to earn a paycheck and support your family.
This was scientifically document in the book “The Lore of Running” by Tim Noakes, MD (chapter 8: Training the Mind), which focuses on controlling stress and the anxiety that comes from pressure. He said that athletes begin to experience pre-competition arousal as the race approaches. Anxiety that leads to controlled arousal is necessary, but anxiety that leads to inappropriate thinking can be detrimental and lead the athlete to choke. See Figure 8.3.
So, my advice is to embrace pressure (and the pain associated with it) and learn to identify the optimal pressure point you need to bring out your A game (controlled arousal). My problem last Sunday was that I was on the left side of the curve.
Did you see the final of the US Open Tennis Championships this year? Djokovic versus Nadal. At stake: more than $2 million in prize money and the number-one ranking in the world. So, who best dealt with pressure? Which player leveraged pressure to his advantage and won the Open?
Let’s think about it in simple terms: It is like using a knife to cut a tomato. Apply too little pressure and it won’t slice through. Apply too much pressure and you will crush the tomato!
Pressure is useful and serves a meaningful purpose. In sports and in business, pressure enables us to bring our A game when we need it the most. Fortunately for me, I do not pay my bills by racing as an Ironman.
Another good example of an organization using pressure advantageously is my team at TheLadders, which brings our A game every day to become the leader in professional jobs. On two occasions in the past three months, we used pressure to deliver superior performance. This week, we launched a new site for our customers and, last June, we launched our first native iOS app, which was rated by Business Insider as one the “Best 100 Apps in the World.”
Last Sunday, my friends Trevor Katelnikoff and Barbara Ann Bernard won the “Athlete of the Year” award at this year’s Ironman 70.3 World Championship. They both found the ultimate pressure point to bring out their A game in Las Vegas.
Congratulations to both of you, and I hope you can do the same in Kona next month at the Ironman (full distance) World Championship.
Alex Douzet is CEO and Co-Founder of TheLadders. In this role, Alex is responsible for the company strategy, global business operations, and product development.