When to Walk and When to Run

Published: September 6, 2018

The normal human reaction to success is to celebrate. Often, this is the moment the opponent seizes to catch you back on your heels – while you’re celebrating. Martial artists master the timing of a counter-strike to take advantage of their opponent’s vulnerability immediately after an attack. In sports, championship teams avoid the natural letdown that follows achievement by refocusing and staying in the zone. They don’t get too high after a positive moment and they don’t get too low after a negative one. Can you apply this to your workplace?

Top teams and high performers figure out the science of human letdown. They recognize the desire to relieve the tension of pressure, especially following a surge of effort. Rather than trying to sustain full energy at all times, they finesse each moment to deliver whatever exertion is needed for that instant. There is always a pace, even if it’s not always a sprint.

When Meb Keflezighi won the Boston Marathon in 2014, he strategically broke into a short sprint at a street corner where a building blocked the view of his competitors for a few precious seconds. When his opponents rounded the corner, Meb had gained visible distance from the pack thus gaining a mental edge that carried him to the finish line.

Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute has studied the phenomenon of sustained performance for decades. In his book, The Breakout Principle, Herbert Benson outlines four stages of mind and body transformation that unfold as we move from tension to resolution:

  1. Engage in hard mental and physical struggle. For a business person, this may be an extended period of concentration, analysis, or problem-solving. For an athlete, it might be demanding physical workout or the effort to mount a comeback.
  2. Pull the “breakout trigger.” Once the struggle has peaked, we let go, back off, and release our minds and bodies from the hard-work mode. This causes a molecular change in our biology.
  3. Activate a peak experience. After a “breakout” (letting go), the human body rejuvenates to produce creative insights, renewed energy, and elevated performance. A greater sense of well-being and relaxation follows.
  4. Return to a new normal state. The game or engagement continues but the team enjoys greater capacity. The experience of overcoming struggle has generated new abilities. The intense labor requires a reboot. The reboot activates new awareness. The refreshed vision lifts performance.

Sometimes the best way to gain new perspective is to walk away. That’s difficult to accomplish in the middle of competition. High performing teams do this while in motion. They learn to recognize the value of struggle, know exactly when to dial it down, re-engage with fresh insight, and grow their power. These teams always know where they are in the game, why they are in that stage, and precisely what to do about it.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst University where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.