Competitiveness, data, and aiming small to win big: 4 business lessons from a pro sport athlete

Business leaders have long turned to sports coaches for insights into how to build winning teams and enjoy sustainable success. Here, former London Irish rugby player, Eamonn Sheridan, discusses how wellbeing lessons from the sporting world can be applied in the workplace.

Yugi the Giraffe - 10 February 2022

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“In sport, your most valuable asset to the business is your people, and it’s the same in the workplace,” says Eamonn Sheridan. The YuLife sales director speaks from experience of both worlds, having spent many years as a professional rugby union player, with stints at Leinster and London Irish, as well as representing Ireland at international level.

“If you employ the best talent and you don’t look after them then they’re not going to be the best talent for very long. It’s especially true now that people are increasingly working from home. The lines between work and home life are blurred, so people are much more likely to burn out. Burnout is something that was prominent in rugby, and it’s something that I experienced too.”

So, what physical and mental wellbeing lessons from the sporting world can be applied in the workplace, and how can YuLife help to make that process easier?

1) Use gamification to tap into competitiveness

Professional athletes are driven by the desire to be the best. But how do you harness that same energy to support employees being healthier?

“Everyone has that competitive streak in them,” says Eamonn “It just so happened that mine was in sport. But you see people that are just as competitive, if not more competitive in the business world. So how can you tap into that in order to bring people to their wellbeing? The business can’t simply tell them to ‘engage in our wellbeing tool!” because that simply doesn’t work. But gamification can help.”

The YuLife app encourages healthy competition, with the option to share leaderboards and allow people who’ve opted in to challenge each other. Employees can earn YuCoin by simply going for a walk too, which can then be cashed in for real-world rewards.

“It’s been suggested that to be a professional sportsperson you have to spend 10,000 hours practising the same thing, using the same skills over and over again. This is the same thinking behind the gamification of the YuLife app. Making the journey fun encourages people to do these activities every single day. It’s just that we’ve replaced having to press a button to get onto the next level of a game with healthy activities. When you engage people in this way, that’s when you start to see a real benefit."

2) Use meaningful data

Data underpins everything, says Eamonn. “It enabled us to move away from a purely reactive way of looking after player welfare and wellbeing. And that in turn led to increased performance on the pitch, and it meant that we were able to stave off injuries before they actually happened.

“It’s the same for business too. Being able to use tech and data as a force for good, enables you to move to a proactive way of looking after the people within the workplace.”

But as Eamonn explains, the data needs to be meaningful in order to provide a clear picture. “Data is only really relevant when you get really granular with it. If I said to you that 70% of your people have used a wellbeing app, that doesn’t mean anything to you if you’re a business owner or if you’re an HR leader. But if I said that 70% of your people have used the app and 40% of these people were under the age of 25 and based in London, then it starts to give you more of an idea as to what that actually means. Then if I can say that 40% of those people in London under the age of 25 were practising mindfulness and meditation after 10 o’clock at night, that really starts to tell you something.

That was the case for one business. “We were able to see that some of the staff were practising mindfulness and meditation late at night. We worked with them to understand what exactly that meant, and it became clear there was a problem with stress within the business. We were able to identify a hole in the company’s wellbeing strategy, and suggest steps to address the issue of stress and recommend sleep hygienists.”

3) Aim small, to win big

“When we were looking at physical performance as a rugby team, it was measured in the smallest percentage increases every day,” reveals Eamonn, “because what you weren’t getting was players coming into the gym one day and then the next day they’re 20 percent stronger. Instead, you would have to track those very small gains every single day.”

It’s a behavioural science model that the YuLife app adopts. By engaging employees in small, regular steps it makes change accessible and increases engagement. And the small changes add up to a significant health impact – mitigating the risk of large goals, with large rates of failure.

4) Measure mental health to improve performance

While data-driven insights into physical health are routinely used to measure and improve performance in professional sports, the effect that mental health and wellbeing has on performance is now widely recognised.

“Being able to see exactly how many high-speed metres were being covered during training was helpful, but doing mental wellbeing reports every morning and being able to give a score out of 10 for how you’re feeling became a powerful tool for understanding the pressure that a player was under in their personal life,” explains Eamonn. “An algorithm calculated how much load each player was under, and when they reached a particular point, we would look at reducing the training for the next week for those individuals.

“We could see from our data that if you’ve got healthier and happier people, they perform better. When players returned from time off, we would see their scores in the gym and fitness scores spike back up."

The scientific link between mental health and performance translates to the workplace, and is the reason YuLife supports employees in preventative measures: meditation, regular physical activity and a market-leading EAP service that offers mindfulness training delivered over the phone.

Eamonn Sheridan will join Team GB athlete, Jack Green, for a live event on the 15th of February to discuss what we can learn from sport in workplace wellbeing. Sign up here: https://events.yulife.com/on-your-marks

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