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September 28, 2021
Being Exceptional Every Day
Imagine you have a major presentation to give. Your career, and the future of your team, depends on it. You can feel the adrenaline building in your body. Your stomach’s churning. You may not realise it, but this stressful situation is provoking a physiological response in you that could cause you to fail.
When we get psyched up before a major event, a big presentation, or an important meeting we’re activating the sympathetic side of our autonomic nervous system (ANS). We release either adrenaline or noradrenaline, which then floods our body. The nor-adrenaline can make us more combative during the Q&A and the adrenaline can flip us into aBvoiding the difficult questions as these chemicals trigger a desire to fight or flee. Alternatively, we may decide we want to project a certain calmness under pressure, so we activate the parasympathetic side of our ANS. The chemical we release here is acetyl choline which makes us want to faint or play dead. This may lead us to stonewall questions or look indifferent to our audience. None of these responses is exactly helpful when you need to perform at your very best.
What determines our performance?
When people suggest you need to be pumped up or relaxed under pressure neither is true. What really determines the quality of our performance is our neuroendocrine system (NE) not our autonomic nervous system (ANS). The NE or hormonal system determines the quality of our emotional experience whereas the ANS determines the degree of our arousal.
When we’re on the right-hand side (negative area) of the performance grid we’re said to be in a catabolic or ‘breakdown’ state (see Figure 1). This side of the grid is underpinned by the catabolic hormones, particularly cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone.
If you inject someone with cortisol, they often feel negative. The negativity then increases their cortisol level which makes them feel more negative, creating a vicious cycle. People with brain tumours that produce too much cortisol often get depressed. And people suffering from depression commonly have high levels of cortisol in their brain fluid.
When we feel negative, high performance is extremely difficult, and when we get ‘stressed’ about the fact that we’re feeling negative, cortisol levels can perpetuate our failure.
Conversely, when we’re on the left-hand side (positive) of grid we’re said to be in an anabolic state or ‘build up’ state. This is underpinned by a range of ‘anabolic hormones’, particularly Dihydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and oxytocin. DHEA is the ‘performance’ or ‘vitality hormone’, the body’s natural antidote to cortisol. It’s the molecule that makes testosterone in men and progesterone in women. If you take DHEA tablets it makes you feel better which then increases your DHEA levels further creating a virtuous cycle.
High performance is obviously much easier when we feel positive. These virtuous and vicious cycles are why teams have winning and losing streaks – they are biologically underpinned.
A high level of cortisol impairs many aspects of performance. You may underperform at work simply because your cortisol level is too high. Conversely, high DHEA levels underpin great performance. In fact, DHEA is banned from sport by the World Doping Agency because of its performance-enhancing capabilities.
If you want to deliver exceptional performance every day, it’s necessary to understand the biological basis of being exceptional. Exceptional performance requires you to be in the top left of the performance grid and when you go home exceptional recovery requires you to be in the bottom left of the grid. The complete picture is a little more nuanced than simply getting psyched up.
Mastering exceptional performance
The good news for all of us who face pressurised situations is that we don’t have to be at the mercy of our hormones. We can develop the ability to control our emotions and therefore our biology which enhances our anabolic hormones. We can track where exactly we are on the performance grid by studying people’s Heart Rate Variability (HRV). A high heart rate mioves us vbertically up the grid and lopw heart rate moves us down. But the quality of the HRV signal moves us left and right.
If our HRV signal is chaotic we move more to the negative right-hand side and if our signal is more coherent, we move more to the positive left-hand side of the grid. If we develop the ability to control our HRV through breathing techniques and then our feelings through emotional management, we can reduce our levels of cortisol and improve our performance in high pressure situations.
The Complete starting point for many of our coaching and leadership development interventions is to measure individuals 24-hour HRV and hormone analysis (Complete Energy Audit). It provides the objective data of an individual’s performance and stress. We then teach breathing techniques and emotional management to avoid the risk of ‘brain shutdown’ triggered by an adrenaline-fuelled chaotic response to stress. The results are impressive, as this coaching white paper reveals.
Get in touch to find out how Complete coaching could help you achieve exceptional performance.
A physician and neuroscientist, Dr. Alan Watkins is recognised as an international expert on leadership and human performance.
Over the years he has coached thousands of individuals to greater levels of performance, transformed organisational cultures and helped leaders discover new ways to succeed. Alan has become a confidant to many of the world’s top leaders over the past 22 years.Read bio