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How to give a medal-winning performance as an executive

Canada's business leaders could stand to learn a few lessons about preparation, performance, resilience and recovery from Canada's Olympic and Paralympic athletes, according to two professors who will be presenting a workshop next month that draws parallels between successful athletes and high-performance executives.

Greg Wells, an assistant professor in kinesiology at the University of Toronto and an associate scientist in physiology and experimental medicine at the Hospital for Sick Children, said successful athletes use simple and consistent techniques to improve performance in the hours and minutes before they compete.

"Right before their competition started, athletes would use breathing techniques to psych themselves up or calm themselves down. The techniques were simple, powerful and can be used by anyone to improve their performance. Interestingly, the people who could benefit the most from learning and applying these tools would probably be business people," said Dr. Wells, who provided sport science analysis for CTV during the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.

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His co-presenter, Julie McCarthy, acting vice-president of research at the University of Toronto Scarborough and an associate professor at the Rotman School of Management, said there are "striking parallels between what makes a great athlete and what makes a great leader. Central to these strategies is the ability to develop high levels of personal resilience, which will enable you to overcome any challenge that may arise.

"Not only does resilience lead to extraordinary levels of productivity in the sports arena and the boardroom, it also has profound effects on health and happiness. The great news is that it is also something that each of us can learn to develop," said Dr. McCarthy, whose research is focused on strategies that individuals can use to build resilience at work and at home.

"In fact, what we know from years of research is that the recovery and regeneration of energy are at the core to developing this type of inner strength. Resilient athletes and leaders continuously work to replenish energy in their body, mind and spirit. To do this, they ensure that their bodies are energized and healthy, that their minds are clear and focused, and that their spirits are positive and optimistic," Dr. McCarthy said.

The pair offered five simple strategies executives can use to help them become a corporate Olympian.

1. Work smarter, not harder

World-class experts in all fields train to reach elite performance by constantly improving small, specific aspects of their skill set. Everyone can revolutionize their health and performance by working to improve targeted aspects of their mind and body, even though these individual improvements are usually very small. We call this the aggregate of 1-per-cent gains.

2. Eat well

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Consuming snacks and meals that are higher in protein than carbohydrates during the workday will help you to concentrate better and avoid the afternoon fatigue crash. Skip the muffins and bagels and choose some lean protein and vegetables.

3. Make time for recovery

The principles of recovery and regeneration apply to many disciplines beyond sport. For example, we all need time to integrate learning before growth in skills can take place. You also need time to recover after intense days in the boardroom, or following trips around the world to meet with colleagues.

As in sport, if physical or mental stress is maintained at too high a level for too long, your health and performance will suffer. Give yourself one hour a day to recover and regenerate. Hit the gym, meditate, read or spend some quality time with your family.

4. Put away your phone, tablet and computer

Avoid electronics right before bed and in the bedroom when you are trying to sleep. Screens on things like cellphones and televisions produce a constant high-speed flashing of light and make it difficult to fall sleep. This artificial light reduces the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep.

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5. Maintain a positive outlook

Focus on noticing and appreciating the good things in your life. A great way to do this is by taking the time to write down three things you are grateful for every day. These things can be both concrete and abstract, such as coffee with a great friend, a wonderful meal, an exciting vacation or the sound of someone's laughter. It is also important to remind yourself that when bad things happen, they are often temporary and affect specific areas of our lives. Ask yourself if the event will be a prominent concern for you a year from now. If the answer is no, let it go immediately.

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