Thriving in your legal career: Resilience and lessons from sport

How to build resilience for sustained performance


For many of us, macro factors such as the ongoing pandemic, geopolitical instability and the cost-of-living crisis, plus our individual work and life challenges, are leading to burnout and exhaustion. So how can you build your resilience and protect yourself?

In this series on the future of work we explore the key learnings from a recent panel discussion hosted by Richard Chaplin, Founder and Chief Executive at Managing Partners’ Forum – looking first at how you can be best prepared to thrive in your career.

Panellists included Dana Denis-Smith, CEO and Founder of Obelisk Support, Steve Ingham, Chief Executive Officer at PageGroup, Catherine Baker, Founder and Director at Sport and Beyond and Meirion Jones, Director at Tongues In Trees Ltd.

#1 Physical resilience: the 90 second reset

When it comes to building resilience, Catherine Baker recommends looking to other fields, in this instance professional tennis, for learnings you can apply to your legal career.

In the world of professional tennis there is only a small group of tennis players consistently winning tournaments. At the top level, the margins to win are quite small. In fact, Catherine highlights that the difference in technical ability between the number 1 and number 100 ranked tennis players in the world is incredibly small – almost negligible.

A study by Dr Jim Loehr, a world renowned performance psychologist, looked at what professional players did when they were not playing tennis – the 25 seconds between points and the 90 seconds between game changeovers – to try and understand what separated the top ranked players when better technical ability was a marginal differentiator.

His findings highlight the power of taking a pause. Of using time differently.

Dr Loehr noticed that the top players were using their ‘break’ time to turn away from the court, to reset, to switch off. To remove from their mind what had just happened on the court so that when they turned back, they were capable, ready, alert and focused on winning the next point. Using heart monitors also demonstrated the positive physical impact of this technique in helping players reset physically.

Today every professional player applies this technique. They grab a towel, they turn their back on the court. These small physical acts mean they are mentally and physically prepared to move forward.

Top tip: The power of the “micro” break

The documented benefits of taking a proper holiday, eating well and sleep for sustained resilience are well known. However, what can we do daily to ensure sustained performance?

Catherine highlights that this lesson from sport can be applied powerfully in your legal career by applying the 90 second reset in the form of ‘micro breaks’ throughout your day.

From standing up between Zoom calls, making a cup of tea or taking the dog for a walk, Catherine recommends creating breaks regularly in each day to refocus and build in physical and mental resilience for long term performance.


#2 Mental resilience: the power of “self talk”

Alongside physical resilience, Catherine notes that mental resilience is equally as important in helping you thrive in your career.

Here Catherine highlights the power of ‘self-talk’ – a concept which is prevalent in the field of sport and which she believes needs to be spoken about more in the business world.

In another research project by Dr Jim Loehr, he investigated the impact of self-talk to understand the impact in the performance of top tennis players and whether this too helped to tip the scales in where a player was ranked.

The study involved asking professional tennis players to vocalise out loud their self-talk over a week’s play, during training and in practice matches so that it could be recorded. Dr Loehr then condensed all the recordings into clips of 5 minutes to play back to the players.

The finding? Most of their self-talk was negative and derogatory. A surprising finding for the players themselves!

Dr Loehr then set out to work with the players to turn this ‘self-talk’ to be more positive. The result? A direct positive impact on their performance on the court.

Top tip: Be conscious of your inner voice

Catherine notes that the impact of ‘self-talk’ is even more important because of the pandemic – a period in which many of us have lacked company. So how can we ensure that our self-talk helps us build mental resilience?

Catherine’s advice is to be attentive to your self-talk. Make a conscious effort to speak and think positively and to quash negative thoughts.

Positive, helpful self-talk will sustain performance. Negative, derogatory self-talk will take away from your performance.


Invest in yourself

As we’ve seen before when we’ve listened to experts on resilience, the key is investing some time and effort in yourself. The differences that a positive mindset and proactively protecting against negative thoughts and burnout make to performance have been proven with athletes, and we can all make small changes in our own lives to reap similar benefits.

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