Performance or Wellbeing… Do we have to choose?

You’d be hard-pressed to find many people who haven’t been inspired by the incredible performance of 18 year-old Emma Raducanu at the US Open. But, alongside her sensational talent and a bright future in the sport, her achievements have sparked some interesting conversations this week about high performance and wellbeing. 

Back in July, Emma withdrew from Wimbledon, citing the fact that the overwhelming magnitude of the championship has just ‘caught up’ with her. Some called her weak, some said she was making excuses, but she took the decision to prioritise her own wellbeing over the expectations of others. Two months later, she wins the US Open.

Ask any athlete in the world and they will tell you that performance and wellbeing are not mutually exclusive; they are, in fact, entirely symbiotic. It is not possible to perform to your best in a sustainable way if you are not prioritising your mental and physical health. Wellbeing is not fluffy; it is the foundation of high-performance.

Athletes are, in some ways, lucky. We have a team of people around us, who can hopefully spot the signs of burnout, fatigue or poor mental health. Emma spoke of her team recognising, in the moment, that she shouldn’t continue with the match. It was still a brave choice for her to accept that advice, but she had objective guidance from people who weren’t as attached to the occasion as she was.

Outside of sport, most of us have to be our own advisors. We have to recognise our own points of burnout, and build habits that prevent us crossing that line (or bring us back to safety when we have crossed it). 

This is not easy to do and most of us aren’t very good at it. When we’re stressed or anxious, our field of vision narrows (both literally and metaphorically), reducing our ability to think rationality and logically. When we’re in this state, it’s very difficult to make objective decisions. 

To add fuel to the fire, many high-performers have an array of self-limiting beliefs that make change even harder…

“More is better” 

“Being ambitious means pushing beyond what I’m capable of”

“Being busy proves I’m productive”

“Being knackered shows my dedication and commitment”

“Prioritising work over recovery demonstrates my value”

“Asking for help is weakness”

Proactive companies are doing a great job of changing the narrative around wellbeing and performance, but I’m not sure this problem can be solved with a policy alone. Encouraging employees to switch off in the evening or go for a run at lunchtime is important. Role modelling these behaviours from senior leadership is important. Celebrating behaviours is important. But many organisations are already doing this, and people still overwork, still burn out, still come to work with reduced energy.

I believe the key to sustainable change is giving people the skills to change their own narrative about performance and wellbeing. High-performers in particular need help unpicking the internal messages that, for so long, have reinforced that more is unequivocally better. We have built an identity, probably since childhood, that centres around going the extra mile, even if that is ultimately at great cost to us.

Self-awareness and self-regulation are absolutely critical to success in any area of life. Just as our ability to self-motivate has an impact on our performance, so does the ability to prioritise rest and recovery before we push again. 

Emma Raducanu is inspiring in many ways. Not only did she make a tough decision to prioritise her wellbeing, she didn’t let that decision (and the consequential negative noise) phase her. She reset, re-focused, ignored what she couldn’t control, and is now US Open Champion.

Which leads to my thought for the day: what big future wins are we missing out on because we’re not able to make the right choices today?

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