Mastering Oscillation: How Peak Performance in Sports and Business Are Related

By: David Astorino

Witnessing some of the greatest athletes of all time perform at their very best late into their careers should give all of us pause. How do Roger Federer, Serena Williams, and LeBron James—each one achieving Greatest Of All Time (G.O.A.T.) status—maintain the stamina, mental focus, physical prowess, and passion for their sport well into their late 30s, when most others have retired their number and hung up their sneakers?

One important shift in how athletes train is the growing appreciation for the concept of oscillation: mastering how the mind and body oscillate between periods of stress and recovery to ensure peak performance. Simply note the popularity of the Apple Watch or biometric monitoring devices like WHOOP or Oura that track your heart rate at all times and produce a “readiness” score on a daily basis. The research on injury reduction and sustained performance is certainly compelling, and in the professional sports world, translates into real dollars as more games are won because the best athletes are showing up in top form day in and day out. And could it be that sleeping 11–12 hours a night really makes a difference? LeBron and Federer both do that.

While professional athletes need to swing a racket or shoot a ball, executive leaders need to understand that every interaction with others and every decision made is their forehand and three-point shot. Their peak performance is when they can focus on each moment, are mentally present, and are emotionally centered.

Through RHR’s partnership with the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute® (HPI), we help executives gain the knowledge they need to live into their purpose and develop the physical, emotional, and mental capabilities to lead at their best. And core to success is mastering oscillation. Our work with executive leaders and HPI’s research shows that excessive stress without adequate recovery eventually compromises our performance and our health. Neurologically, stress produces excessive cortisol, the hormone that can 1) make us less aware of our impact on others, 2) corrupt our planning and thinking abilities by too quickly narrowing the playing field, and 3) decrease our ability to manage our emotions, making others wary to challenge us because our fuse is so short. When leaders at the top of the power structure exhibit these behaviors, the consequences are substantive. 

Creatively addressing the stress and recovery balancing act is an ongoing journey for all of us. To help on the road to mastering oscillation, here are practical suggestions to provoke further thinking and action.

1. Give yourself permission to rest and recover. This is the most frequent barrier we encounter with high-achieving executives. Their keys to success have been predicated on a 24/7 work ethic—an “always on” mentality. It usually serves them well until it doesn’t. Reflect on your conscious and unconscious beliefs about work and rest and challenge faulty assumptions that associate rest with weakness. 

2. Recovery is not for the weekends only. Oscillation should occur during the day, every day. Senior executives are typically in performance mode 85% of the time, whereas professional athletes are about 20%. Given that grueling statistic, executives need to find moments of recovery during the work day. Review your week and experiment with scheduling 45-minute meetings instead of the default of one hour. Use that time to de-stress. Some of the most effective de-stressing techniques during the day are:

3. Customize your recovery moments to fit you. Everyone has unique preferences for recovery. Learning to reset yourself in small moments—whatever that means to you—is what is most important. One executive we worked with was a big fan of heavy metal music and his car time was when he would use that to recover and recharge. Be creative and willing to experiment.

As executives seek to thrive in increasingly complex, fast-changing environments, mastering oscillation and the daily moment-to-moment balance of stress and recovery is no longer a “nice to have” but a necessity to perform at your best.

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