How sport psychology brought this director from the Olympics to the boardroom

Clark Perry applies his success with tier-one athletes to business leadership

High performance teams are made of the same elements, be they sport or corporate.  Clark Perry's first career as a sport psychologist for Olympic athletes gives him deep understanding what it takes to be a champion, on any turf.
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clark perry leads workshop
clark perry olympic torch 2000
clark perry everest 2014
Clark's current career as a leadership consultant and CEO coach is built on years of sport psychology and various personal athletic endeavors.  Clockwise from left, Clark speaking at a conference, passing the Olympic torch in the Sydney 2000 games, and at base camp of Mount Everest in 2014.
Perspectives on high performance
Q:
Okay, you were the team psychologist for athletes and now you advise CEOs and boards of directors. Help us connect the dots.
A:

The connection is evident any time you watch any team of athletes perform at their best—from a local school lacrosse team to a university basketball team to Olympic level swimming. Business people can easily spot how team dynamics make athletes more successful, and so we watch athletes and lament that our own teams don’t perform in those same effective ways. The good news is that sport or performance psychology and other sport practices are very relevant to business, and can be learned.

Q:
What a career journey you must have had! How did this all come about?
A:
I’d like to tell you it was all purposeful from the time I was young, but actually I had a bit of a roundabout route where I simply grasped opportunities as they arose. The short history is that after a few years of my own collegiate sporting career and then working with my family construction firm in New Jersey, the 1980’s recession drove me back to school, and I signed up for a degree in psychology.  
 
As you do in psych courses, I examined my own life, and I realized that in my own limited athletic career I had been prevented from being a much better performer mostly by my mental game.  So I got further into sports psychology and did my master's/Ph.D. at Temple University in Philadelphia.  My thesis on restrictive environmental therapy caught the attention of the Australian Institute of Sport. My newlywed wife and I went to Australia for a six-month research project in 1990 and ended up staying through my appointment as head psychologist to four Olympics—Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney, and Athens
 
The work was very high profile and challenging: Helping many of the Australian teams perform including the very successful Australian swim team, who became number one in the world.  Even as a small country of only 25 million people Australia has always performed well on the international stage. My role was to assist the athletes, coaches and teams to overcome mental and emotional barriers and perform at their best in the moments that count the most.  Those same behaviors, practices and mindsets can be learned.  So, there is a very strong applicability outside of sport.
 
I left the Institute in 2001 and built up a consulting business, including serving as the COO of a national law firm.  I sold my firm to Rogen Si, a global leadership and talent consultancy, where I became a partner.  We moved back to the U.S. so my sons could play baseball (we are American, after all!), and after a few years we sold again to T-Tech, a public company focused on the customer experience.  My earn out was complete in 2016 and I actually considered retirement.  But then AlixPartners called me and here I am, very happily helping to grow and mature our global transformative leadership practice.
Q:
What is sport or performance psychology and how does it relate to business?
A:
At its most basic, performance psychology is about training your mind and its interaction with your body to get rid of anything that hinders your optimal performance and focusing instead on what  drives a positive outcome.  While of course there is physical training, many people have said that mental training is 90% of the win.  There is very little that separates athletes physically at the elite level.
 
The work that I’ve done has always been about high performance and improving performance at the individual and team level.  High performance in sport or business begins with great leadership, a perfect strategic plan, and ultimately impeccable execution from highly capable talent. 
 
Businesses can learn a great deal from individuals and teams that have to perform at the exact moment "when it really matters," like in an Olympic final, when you don’t get a second chance to do your best.
 
In business, how often do we casually approach an important meeting or pitch or conversation?  We can often underestimate the importance of some of these moments, and fail to deliver an optimal performance when we need it most. We won’t perform at that level if we don’t train for it.
Q:
High performance sounds like one of those things that is easy in concept but hard to make happen.  What behaviors are you actually helping people recognize and perfect?  
A:
To deliver high performance in sport or business is as much a mental challenge as it is a skills or knowledge challenge.  High performance is mediated by your attitude, mental skills including perseverance and supported by the culture and the team around you.
 
People often talk about “giving 110 percent.”  Actually, there is nothing more than 100 percent when we talk about effort, so the quest is to apply the right effort for the given situation. It takes practice and commitment to perform perfectly in the moments that count the most.
 
Most of it is preparation.  When you get to an important event, like the Olympic Games, the challenge is not to be distracted by the enormity of the moment. "Outcome thinking," where your thoughts change to the consequences of your actions, can distract from the process that is necessary to perform at your best.  The more the required actions are habitual, the more likely they will be available when needed.
 
If you think about winning, you get into trouble.  Self-doubt is a killer. You lose focus. It’s the same with presentations, speeches, or that conversation with an important client or stakeholder.  Once you think about the outcomes, you can be easily distracted and not perform at your best.
Q:
How does this high-performance individual become part of a team?
A:
This is where leadership and culture come in.  Leadership starts at the top.  Most businesses today are human capital organizations and rely on everyone coming to work each day personally motivated to deliver on an aligned set of goals.  The leaders at the top set the vision and strategy, and then it has to cascade down to the people that will execute the strategy. Each of us workers have to believe and desire the result, in order to deliver on the vision.
 
One of the distinct advantages in sport and business is the creation of high performance teams to support the overall objective of an organization. There is a difference between a true team and a working group.  A working group has an operating model—shared methods and practices—and a clear idea objective, but are not working specifically as a team. A truly high performance team has specific elements that create and bind the team toward a specific outcome. They are led by exceptional leadership, have extraordinary talent and supported by a high performance dynamic. Members of the team have complementary knowledge and skills and are focused on continuous improvement as they work towards a common, aligned goal.
 
Unfortunately, “team” is an overused term and is often used to describe an organization that has a common set of values. To maximize the power of a team there needs to be a greater understanding of how teams operate. The output of a high performance team is greater than the sum of the individual members of the team, as is the level of enjoyment that comes with being part of an amazing team.
Q:
How do I know if my team is performing well?
A:
One last sport analogy, if I may. 
 
You have to have extreme dedication to be a champion swimmer.  These kids meet at 4 a.m. for two hours of training. They do weights in the middle of the day.  They come back to the pool at night.  The coach writes down the workout on the board for an hour's worth of work.  If the coach then steps away, and the kids are still swimming, then they get it.  A team follows a leader, doing what was agreed even when the leader is not looking. They are doing what needs to be done because they believe in it and know it is the right thing for them personally as well as the team. Transferring this level of commitment is the role of the leader.
 
As many of us work remotely in these days of the pandemic, there is a lot of trust building.  I think that is an opportunity to build higher performance.  We live in a disruptive world, and the disruptions—economic, environmental, technological, societal—are coming at an ever more rapid rate, and each seems to be seismic in impact.  It is easy to be crushed by it all.  Our ability to train our brains to be agile, flexible and adaptive is critical to high performance in business now, as it always has been in sport .
Learn more about
Clark Perry
Clark Perry
Transformative Leadership, New York
M +1 (646) 918-4357
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