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Business leaders should train like high-performance athletes

Greg Wells is an assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Toronto, specializing in elite sport performance, and associate scientist of physiology and experimental medicine at the Hospital for Sick Children. Dr. Greg Wells, scientist and human physiologist who will be speaking at The Globe and Mail's Executive Performance Summit in Toronto, poses for a photo on Thursday, November 3, 2016. (Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail)

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Greg Wells was a 15-year-old competitive swimmer when his neck was broken by strong ocean waves. After neurosurgery, he was told by doctors that he would never compete again.

That set him on a lifetime journey to learn how the human body responds to extreme conditions.

Dr. Wells is now an assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Toronto, specializing in elite sport performance, and associate scientist of physiology and experimental medicine at the Hospital for Sick Children, where he leads research on how to use exercise to prevent, diagnose and treat chronic illnesses in children.

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The author of Superbodies: Peak Performance Secrets from the World's Best Athletes is a frequent media contributor, and he has served as an expert source for outlets such as ABC News, the Discovery Channel, and TSN. He was a sports medicine analyst for the Canadian Olympic Broadcast Consortium during the 2010 and 2012 Olympic Games.

Dr. Wells recovered completely from his swimming accident, defying his doctors' expectations to compete at an international level in swimming.

Let's talk about high-level executives and elite athletes. How are they similar?

The main similarity is that people in business, especially business leaders, are generally required to push the limits of what they're capable of. They put in long hours and go on frequent business trips. Their physical and mental state in many cases determines their ability to do their jobs and be strong leaders.

What can executives learn from high-performance athletes?

There's definitely something to be learned by looking at different fields.

For example, most professional sports teams are now employing sleep coaches because teams are travelling across time zones and if they're jet lagged they can't compete. Executives can learn a lot of things from high-performance athletes, such as how to travel effectively, how to control your mindset in front of crowds and other moments when everything comes together to determine success or failure.

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Great athletes know how to activate in the right moment.

Is this why you refer to executives as corporate athletes?

The idea of being a corporate athlete is so powerful. Every single mental skill you need to do your job is enhanced by movement. Lots of professionals are now starting to understand the critical necessity of being physically active, and that enables them to do their jobs better. There is a definite link between movement and the brain.

If we move our bodies, we learn faster and we're more creative. If we exercise, we can problem-solve better and improve our concentration and memory.

What is the science behind high-performance athletes?

One of the big things in high-performance sport that's happened over the past 20 years has been a shift from high-volume training. So instead of "how much can you do and for how long" it's moved to a very, very different approach that involves shorter but higher levels of intense, extremely focused work with much more recovery and regeneration. This is a pattern that I believe is also starting to happen in business. Why? Because if we're working all the time we never get a chance to dissipate the stress hormone cortisol, which damages things like arteries or disrupts sugar levels in your body.

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If you take two people with similar physical attributes and potential capabilities, what is it that will allow one to perform at extreme levels and conditions? What stops the other from performing as well?

If you take two people and give them the same exact training program, you get two different responses. Some respond very well and others not. This applies not just to physical training but also to how we react to food and stress and a whole bunch of other things.

The key thing is figuring out what works for each one of us. Although we are constrained by genetics, we are not limited by genetics because inevitably we all respond to our environment. If you have someone working out for 20 minutes each day or meditating for five minutes daily, they will both get better. That's what makes transformation so achievable – you don't have to make massive changes but consistent effort will get you where you want to go.

You come at this from personal experience. How did you manage to not only recover from your swimming accident but go on to achieve things you were told would be impossible?

When I look back at it now I'm amazed at that 15-year-old boy's determination. When the neurosurgeon told me I'm not going to swim again, that triggered an instantaneous reaction: I'm going to swim again.

I spent the entire summer doing physiotherapy to get movement back and was able to slowly, consistently get better. I tried out for the Olympic team 14 months after breaking my neck, and that set me on a path to thinking anything is possible.

This is the second of three profiles of speakers appearing at The Globe and Mail's inaugural Executive Performance Summit, which takes place in Toronto on Nov. 16. Visit globesummits.ca for details.

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