The Key to Peak Performance? Love.


A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to moderate a panel at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Lessons from The Edge: Understanding Peak Performance. The panel featured Olav Aleksander Bu, the Norwegian triathlon coach to Olympic gold medalist and Ironman champion; Roberta Groner, an elite marathoner who was 6th at the world championships as a 41-year-old; and Chris Cassidy, a former Navy Seal and NASA astronaut. In other words, three people who had personal experience with feats few of us could even imagine.

Given it was a “data and analytics” conference, I assumed the conversation would head toward optimization. And with Olav on the panel, who is known for poking, prodding, and measuring just about everything possible with his athletes, I suspected we’d get into the weeds, like an Andrew Huberman episode on steroids.

But that’s not where we ended up.

“It’s about love.” Replied the physiology guru, Olav, when asked about what it took to perform at the highest level. Here was the coach who went so far as to collect and measure feces of his athletes to compare energy intake with utilization telling us that “the human element is the key.”

Groner concurred. In explaining her unique journey—from an average college runner who then took a decade away from the sport to becoming world-class at the age of 40— she said the key was “joy.” She had found an intrinsic love of the sport in her latter years that wasn’t fully there as a college runner. It’s what allowed her to flourish and fulfill her potential.

Chris Cassidy is a perennial pusher: a Navy Seal who went on to do numerous spacewalks on the International Space Station. He told story after story about the value of teamwork, of understanding that you have to trust and lean on others, that it was the bond that often came through vulnerability and struggle that allows you to “do your job” and perform at the highest level.

An hour discussion landed upon the human component—intrinsic motivation, love, teamwork and support—as the driving force that allows people to achieve at the highest levels.

Of course, you also need hard work, deliberate practice, and even some data, science, and gadgets to understand how to perform better. But too often, we reach for the special routine, the supplement, the optimization of our work schedule, and neglect the human component. We don’t cultivate joy and love—of the process and of those on our team.

Perhaps this could be summed up best by Olav’s comment after the panel on how he discerned whether and when to adjust his athletes’ training. “Feeling is number one. HRV and other measurements maybe 3rd or 4th or 5th down the list.”

The soft side gets neglected. It’s not easy to quantify.

But here were three people who had pushed the bounds of performance, all conveying the same message: the human element is the foundation. Don’t neglect it.

— Steve

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