Work: The corporate athlete

What happens when top thinkers in sports psychology and physiology apply their expertise to business? Inside a training camp for elite executives.

Now and then, we have these moments of reckoning, these brief windows where we’re gifted perspective on ourselves and our circumstances, and given the opportunity to change them. When the last such moment visited me, I was wearing a Speedo and sitting in a giant plastic egg.

I had woken up early on a Monday in a Seattle hotel room after 12 hours of fasting, and dressed with the nylon swimsuit under my clothes, as I’d been instructed. At 7 a.m., I rode the elevator to the hotel’s conference rooms, where the Orlando-based Human Performance Institute had hung out its shingle, offering a two-day training course in becoming a Corporate Athlete.

“When I call you a Corporate Athlete, I pay you the highest compliment,” Dr. Jack Groppel would tell his trainees a few hours later. A renowned fitness and nutrition expert, Groppel founded the HPI almost 20 years ago with performance psychologist Dr. Jim Loehr. The two were coaching at tennis’s elite levels when they met in the late ’70s. Finding common ground in their approaches – unusual, says Groppel, because at the time physiology and psychology were “like oil and water” – they partnered and worked with some of the sport’s biggest names, like Jim Courier and Monica Seles, offeringa holistic approach combining the physical with the emotional, mental and spiritual, and stressing their inter-reliance.

Through the HPI, founded in 1992, they’ve expanded their focus to include those who perform in boardrooms instead of stadiums, offering highly leveraged executives the tools to better handle the pressures of the corporate world, and to balance those pressures with a fulfilling home life. Along with professional athletes, they now work with companies like Cisco, AT&T and GlaxoSmithKline, and the open enrollment Corporate Athlete training courses they hold in Orlando and across the U.S. attract C-suite executives happy to pay up to $5,000 a head for two days of coaching from a team Procter & Gamble CEO A. G. Lafley credits with helping him stay “calm and cool under fire.”

Though I’m in Seattle to write about the HPI, I’m happily going through the Corporate Athlete course as a full participant. My exercise habits aren’t regular and my diet veers to the indulgent. The course literature promised the potential to improve energy, sleep and focus, all areas with which I sometimes struggle. Assignment aside, I’m looking forward to a tune-up.

That morning, I join a group of business people going through the course’s basic health diagnostic tests. In one room, a doctor takes blood samples. In the next, we queue in front of a grey tent. When it’s my turn to enter, Chris Jordan, the institute’s director of fitness, zips shut the tent flaps for privacy, and I strip down to my Speedo and pull on a swim cap. He weighs me, then ushers me into a machine called the Bod Pod. Used to measure what percentage of your body is fat, it’s a white capsule, like a spaceship escape pod for one. I sit in it, and Jordan closes the hatch. I hear a pumping noise as the machine works, altering the air pressure in the capsule and measuring displacement. Alone in the capsule, listening to the hiss of the air pump, I am ruefully aware of the flesh bulging over the elastic of the swimsuit, and I’m regretting ordering fries with yesterday’s lunch.

More than once during the course, we’ll be asked to confront some hard truths about ourselves. When I’m later handed a printout detailing my body composition, I find myself falling short of where I want to be. On the up side, among my cohort, which is teeming with over-achievers, I’m not alone.

You hear the phrase “time management” over and over again in the workplace, but Corporate Athlete training is focused on the concept of energy management. “If you can’t manage your energy, you can’t control your life,” Groppel tells us after we eat. He, Jordan and Raquel Malo, HPI’s director of nutrition, stand at the front of a makeshift classroom, introducing the course to the audience. Two dozen casually dressed executives, some in workout clothes, fill the room. Some are locals, representing some of the region’s largest employers; others have come from Chicago, Pittsburgh and further afield. (One locally headquartered global titan has flown executives from Germany and Italy in for the course.) Their point is that time isn’t everything. You can block off time to attend a meeting, to work on a project, to spend at home with your loved ones, but if you don’t have energy to invest along with that time – if you’re not really present or not fully engaged – you may as well not bother. “Very often, we take energy for granted,” Groppel tells me later. “We either have it or we don’t. But when people realize that you truly can manage your energy – be deliberate, be intentional, have boundaries – it becomes an incredible experience for them.”

On a projection screen, Groppel calls up a diagram that’s going to recur in the intensive sessions each trainer will lead over the next two days: a pyramid divided into four tiers. “Energy is four dimensional,” we’re told. The base of the pyramid represents the physical, the next tier the emotional, the penultimate tier the mental, and finally, on top, the spiritual. Full engagement with the task or the person at hand, he says, requires energy from each of those four dimensions. Bad energy management inevitably leeches from all of them. We all understand what happens when physical demand exceeds our available energy, but Groppel drives home what not having enough energy means in those other dimensions: we get frustrated and impatient; we lose focus and make bad decisions; we grow bored and apathetic.

He dismisses the truism that life, or a career, is a marathon. “It’s a series of sprints,” he says, and urges us to manage our energy accordingly. For every burst of effort, there needs to be a recovery break. Displaying a slide with a sine wave pattern, the peaks representing stress and the troughs representing recovery, he says, “The science of recovery has escaped us. We have the idea that recovery is a sign of weakness, and it’s been perpetuated over time. We have created a linear monster.”

The point of managing all this energy is the completion of our individual “ultimate mission,” the goal that binds the spiritual with every subsidiary level of the pyramid. Prior to attending the course, we’d each been asked to write down a mission, our ultimate purpose in life (“To be a dedicated, caring person whose actions and words will have a lasting impact with my partner, friends, work and community” is one example we’re given). I’d come up with something vague and hopeful and self-improving, but I wasn’t sure I necessarily bought the idea. But Groppel makes it clear that the ultimate mission is the core of the course, and I wonder whether my distractibility, and the nascent spare tire exposed by my Speedo, will really offer enough motivation for me to make decisions in line with the monumental language the doctor is using.

My question hung around most of that first day, until the afternoon’s last session. On the agenda, it is ominously listed as “Facing the Truth,” and Groppel sets it up in kind. “We transition now into probably the toughest part of the course,” he says.

As part of our pre-course paperwork, we’d completed a 360-degree evaluation, wherein we’d rated ourselves in response to questions about habits and performance, about our time management, our self-awareness and trustworthiness, our ability to accept criticism, our ability to listen, and dozens more items. We’d been instructed to send it to our managers, direct reports, peers, and family members, and have them rate us. Groppel began distributing the results.

“For the next 24 hours, your brain is not your best friend,” Groppel tells us. “The brain will keep circling the wagons, to keep you safe. People have an infinite capacity for lying to themselves. My goal in this section is to put the truth on the table. No judgment. You may not like it, but it’s there.”

We skim the anonymously presented numbers and comments, and they make unpleasant reading: we’re distracted at home, and aloof at the office; we’re curt with our families, prone to outburst with our co-workers. There’s a gap between how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. “Did anyone have any surprises?” Groppel asks. A smattering of hands goes up. “How many of you have heard these criticisms before?” Many more hands go up. Apologizing for his bluntness, Groppel asks us: “So why haven’t you done anything about them?”

At session’s end, we return to our hotel rooms with a tough homework assignment – to rewrite our ultimate mission knowing what we now know – and a word of advice from Groppel. “Don’t talk to anyone who gave you feedback. I don’t want you rationalizing. I don’t want you validating. I just want you to sit in it. I want you to resist the urge to sort them out. We’ve got more processes to go through.”

In the hotel gym on Tuesday morning, half the Corporate Athlete class goes through the basics of a comprehensive resistance-training workout, using weight machines and dumbbells, while the other half sweats on treadmills and elliptical machines. Jordan, in exercise gear, runs back and forth among the interval trainers, taking readings from the heart-rate monitors with which we’ve been outfitted and helping us determine a target heart-rate range for our exercise and recovery periods. If the foundation of the pyramid is physical, the Corporate Athlete course intends to make sure that our foundations are solid.

Jordan’s classroom sessions have focused on the science of exercise and the science of recovery, and on how the physical tedium of our work lives affects our energy. “I want you to build movement into your day so that you’ll go home with energy left over,” he says. We’ve all received booklets that diagram plans for interval and resistance workouts, but Jordan emphasizes the importance of taking regular breaks for small movements. Every half-hour or 45 minutes, he wants us stretching and moving around a bit at our desks. Every 90 minutes to two hours, it’s time for larger movements, of the get-up-and-go-for-a-walk kind. Connecting the importance of circulation to energy, and of energy’s importance for meeting our mental, emotional and spiritual demands, he gives us a maxim: “Do not make any important decisions when your shoes are tight.”

In other sessions, he explains the results of our Bod Pod tests, suggesting that a balanced approach to eating and exercise that will reduce body fat percentages much more effectively than “running a marathon and eating anything you like.” He walks us through the creation of a recovery strategy, giving examples from his own life. He drives a less direct route home from the office, because it throws up less traffic and fewer traffic lights. He changes out of his work clothes as soon as he’s home, symbolizing a break from the office mindset. And he’s taken up gardening, giving him something in which he can fully engage that’s completely different from his job.

Meanwhile, in place of a diet or taxonomy of forbidden foods, Malo talks about the science of nutrition, and of its role in the individual missions we’d been developing. Her sessions emphasize the need to eat small amounts of food regularly throughout the day. “Everybody’s heard of it, everybody’s heard it’s good, nobody’s doing it,” Malo says. “Our environment is not catered to helping you eat this way.” We talk about strategic snacking – eating small amounts regularly during the day to maintain a steady glycemic index.

She explains the glucose cycle in the language of supply and demand, imploring us to become mechanical in the timing of our eating. Eating at regular intervals, she says, makes the body more comfortable burning fat when it needs extra energy, rather than drawing from the easier-to-get-at glucose reserves in the muscles or the brain. “Four hours without eating is all that it takes” for the body to start tapping those glucose reserves we’d rather it didn’t drain. It goes into survival mode, as it does during periods of chronic stress or lack of sleep, doling out energy to only those processes most necessary to function, not to those that make us patient or pleasant.

Before Monday’s lunch, Malo had challenged us to think about how much we actually needed to eat at lunch that day to be satisfied, not full. At noon, when all the participants and trainers sat at long tables together, some of us discreetly watched her for guidance. When her plate was served, she immediately pushed a portion of her meal to the far side of her plate. When she was satisfied with the amount she’d eaten, she immediately pushed the plate across the table and slid her water glass in front of her, grasping it with both hands.

“If you always feel full after eating, you will always need to eat until you feel full. You need to retrain yourself to stop when you’re satisfied,” Malo told us on Tuesday. “If throwing food into the garbage is hard for you, I recommend you go home and practice scraping food into the garbage. You either waste it, or you waist it, and at the end of your life that’s going to cost you more.” The rule of thumb we’re given is to use the palm of our hand as a measurement, however proportionally large or small our hands are – and “no fingers,” she cautions. The size and thickness of our palms is the benchmark for things like meat, and our cupped hands offer the same for legumes, salad and the like. Meals should consist of two handfuls of grains, two of fruits and vegetables, and one of protein. “Some of you may be shocked by the amount of grains because of carbohydrates,” Malo says. “This is not a weight loss plan. This is an energy management plan.”

The ultimate mission that we’ve written and revised and that we revised again on Monday night becomes the focal point of Groppel’s sessions with us on the final day, and of his calls to action. We talk about the importance of developing rituals that will reinforce our mission, that will create good habits in our lives. We drill down on a “training mission,” a more bite-sized mission we’re to aim to achieve in 90 days. We share our missions with partners, and with the group; we share the rituals that we’ve devised to support them. People talk about the recovery breaks they’re going to build into their schedules, about the time they’re going to take to eat breakfast in the morning with their children, about creating designated times to check their e-mail and voice mail so as to better focus their energy, and Groppel encourages us to start every morning by reading the new story we’ve written for ourselves.

But he sounds a cautionary note, as the last session on Tuesday afternoon winds down. At the beginning of the course, he’d offered a statistic. “Eighty percent of the people who come through this course do really well. They change their lives. Twenty percent of you will struggle.” To this he adds, “The world’s not going to know you went through this program. There are going to be setbacks.” He talks about accountability and support structures, about how we need to speak to people, our friends or co-workers, and let them know about the changes we’re trying to make. “You will have all the support you need,” he says, and with that, it’s time for a graduation ceremony, with rubber bracelets and Corporate Athlete polo shirts, hugs and applause.

A week later, with that applause fading in my memory, I’m on the phone with fellow Corporate Athlete Linsey Dicks. A senior executive with California health-care provider Kaiser Permanente, Dicks took the course in 2008. I’ve ostensibly called him to get some perspective on the experience HPI offers, but I’m also hoping for a little reassurance. Applying the Corporate Athlete principles in my everyday life has proven trickier than seemed likely when I was in Seattle, in the safe environment the course provided. “I call it the dipping phenomenon,” Dicks says. “You go to a three-day program and you kind of get dipped in the notion of, OK, this is what we’re going to try and do. And you come back and you put the binder back on the shelf, and life continues unchanged.”

On my return to Toronto, I bought nutrition bars, fruit sticks, and other low-glycemic snacks, and stock my office and kitchen. I bought breakfast foods, and made rules about getting up at the same time every morning and eating them. I set up my computer day planner to interrupt me for regular movement and snack breaks, and at mealtimes, the palm of my hand hovers over the plate, measuring portions.

But I’m back in the flow of my life and my journalism career, and it’s easy to be cynical about missions and self-improvement. Dicks is reassuring? – to a point. He says he’s managed to change his life by applying just about 80% of the course’s teachings. He eats healthier, exercises more regularly, gets better sleep; he leaves work at the office and focuses wholly on his family when he’s home, and he’s curbed his habit of being short with his employees. But he’s never been much for forming habits, he says, and so I’m interested in how he did it. “Reach out to somebody else who did the course,” he suggests. “That’s what made a world of difference to me. If you go back to your own world, back to business as usual, it’s very easy for everything to drown this out.”

I think back to the caveat Groppel gave us when he passed out the results of our 360 evaluations. “Your brain is not your best friend,” he’d said. We wouldn’t be able to think our way through the life change he was offering. Athletes – Corporate and otherwise – have to buy into their missions in other ways. “I don’t care how tough you are, how resilient you are – change happens in the heart,” he’d said. I chat with Dicks a few minutes more, and as I hang up the phone, my computer’s calendar flashes a reminder at me. I stand up at my desk and stretch.