Episode 358 – Staying the Distance with Catherine Baker

Catherine Baker‘We’ve all been missing a trick, because sport has been showing us day in, day out, not just how to improve, perform and achieve, but how to do so on a sustained basis, in a way that ensures that we can consistently deliver results when it matters.’

Catherine Baker qualified as a tennis coach before she qualified as a lawyer, and throughout her career has been fascinated by the interconnectedness of sporting and professional excellence. In her new book Staying the Distance, though, she argues that by drawing lessons for business only from the high performance we see, we’re missing out on the reality that underpins that performance: what elite athletes do when noone’s watching, the routines and rest that allow them to sustain that performance. 

It turns out this is also true for writing…



Catherine’s website: https://www.sportandbeyond.co.uk/

Catherine on Twitter: https://twitter.com/SportandBeyond1

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge April 2023: http://proposalchallenge.com/

WriteBrained: A 28-day exploratory writing adventure: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=writebrainedcourse

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

Alison Jones: I am here today with Catherine Baker, who is the founder and director at Sport and Beyond. An ex-City lawyer, she now combines her twin passions of sport and leadership, bringing a unique perspective to the mindset and approaches that deliver exceptional and sustained performance, and the sustained bit is really important we’re going to be talking about that.

Her new book is called Staying the Distance: The lessons from sport that business leaders have been missing.

So first of all, welcome Catherine. It’s really good to have you here.

Catherine Baker: Thank you, it’s a real privilege to be here. as I was just saying earlier, this is my first ever podcast. I’m very familiar with doing keynotes and panels, but not podcasts. So, thank you so much for having invited me on and I’m really looking forward to it.

Alison Jones: Oh, it’s really not, I think podcasts are the best thing ever. Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I? But it’s just, it’s so, A- I get to have these amazing conversations with incredible people, and B- everybody gets to listen in so, you know, what’s not to like. It’s brilliant.

Catherine Baker: I’m an avid listener. It’s not my first podcast, you know, only in terms of being a guest. I listen to so many, yours as well, of course, in particular. And as you say, it’s a great way of accessing, at times that suit you sort of, you know, inspiration, motivation, whatever you are looking for. So yes, really looking forward to our conversation.

Alison Jones: Yay. Well, let’s kick off with a bit about you because it is a really interesting background, and I mean, you could say performance is the kind of golden thread through it all, but just tell us a little bit about how a City lawyer goes on to work in sport and yes, what’s the background all about?

Catherine Baker: Yes, thank you. So, I was a very, very sporty kid. I’m one of five. My twin and I came unexpectedly as numbers four and five. We were five children in six years, so we were pretty much left to our own devices and that involved a lot of running around, playing proper sport, made up games, whatever.

So very, very active, sporty kid and continued that through school. Started to take two sports in particular, quite seriously, tennis and hockey. when I was 12 I was advised that it probably made sense to decide and choose between them, because if I wanted to really try and make it in one, then I probably needed to start focusing.

And actually I didn’t because I found that really hard. I loved the team aspect of hockey, but I loved the kind of more mental and individual challenge of tennis. So I continued playing both, sort of got to representative level, but nothing that was sort of really, really great shakes and as I got towards the end of school, I was very fortunate I had a very good academic background, so the kind of route of going to university was really going to be the most obvious route to go down. So did that, but actually, continued playing sport to quite a high level throughout that. And actually, my first qualification was as a tennis coach. So, although a lot of people from my first career know me as a lawyer. I always point out, actually my first qualification was as a tennis coach, and I did a lot of that through my year off to kind of earn some money to travel. And then through university and through law school holidays, again, a great way to earn money while I was studying, but also just to keep my hand in really with the world of sport, which I’ve always been fascinated in.

So corporate law and sport, maybe not such a good combination. So I did try and continue to play, particularly hockey at a high level at that stage, but really trying to make training and stuff became very difficult. and then I went through, my husband and I have got three sons.

So another kind of time commitment around that, but that’s relevant in terms of this real, the real shift in my career. So, first half, obviously corporate law. I trained and qualified at Magic Circle Firm, Linklaters. I was very fortunate to get a training contract there and they sponsored me through law school, qualified into the corporate department there.

My husband at the time, was at, my, same husband, but at the time, just to clarify that in case he listens to this and he was at Freshfields, which is another Magic Circle Firm. And you know, those firms, they’re fantastic, but they, you know, you have to work hard. You have to put in…

Alison Jones: Yes, demanding.

Catherine Baker: Decided we wanted to have kids and actually we quite liked each other as well. We wanted to spend time together, so I moved to a different firm and as I started having our family, I changed my role to what’s called a Professional Support Lawyer. And that involved a lot more training, giving client seminars and internal training and I realized actually that’s something I really enjoyed.

Through a series of steps, including then moving up North and trying to continue to work with my law firm down South, I realized I probably needed to change my focus and started to pick up more training and facilitation roles. And actually one of those was with the LTA which sort of got me back into the world of sport, certainly at that work level.

Alison Jones: Just going to come in with that acronym for those that don’t know, Lawn Tennis Association.

Catherine Baker: Thank you. yes, thank you, yes, absolutely. Well done, and then through, you know, these things are always, they don’t just happen, there’s very sort of moves that you make that get there, but that led me then to set up my business Sport and Beyond in 2015. So that’s the kind of pattern that got me to there and then that focus on mindset and leadership and what we can learn from elite sport.

Alison Jones: And what’s really interesting, I’m thinking about the inner game of tennis, which it was… for a very long time, we’ve known that the lessons that you learn on the playing field, the court, whatever, get used in the rest of our life and particularly at work. So what was it that you started to notice as commonalities when you’re thinking about performance in the workplace and performance on the court?

Catherine Baker: Yes, so it’s a really good question. Thank you. I think, you know, business leaders, as you say, are very used to drawing those lessons from sport across to business, aren’t they, they are essentially about human performance and human potential, and that’s relevant both in the field of play, as in the field of work.

But a lot of the lessons that we have been drawing across both in practice but also in a lot of the brilliant books that are out there, tend to focus on winning, on sort of high performance in the moment, leadership again possibly around that kind of performance in leadership in the moment, and there’s more, you know, there’s more that sport can show us.

And I think my interest was first piqued in this area specifically back in 2016 when a really interesting document came across my desk. I was very fortunate that it did, it was a piece of research commissioned by UK Sport called the Great British Medalist Study, and at the time it was just being circulated within elite sport and it paired 32 athletes, so 16 pairs of athletes. One of each pair was what they termed an elite athlete, and the second was a super elite athlete, and it was looking at those commonalities and distinctions between super elite and elite. It’s been misinterpreted in some places, but it’s a very interesting piece of research that was then carried forward, very nuanced. But the commonalities in particular I was really interested in because they were focused around things like striving, a culture of striving, conscientiousness, commitment to training.

And as you say that applies across to the world of work as well in terms of performance. But the thing that really struck me, and the thing that I then reflected on for quite a long time after, was how can you sustain that? You know, where you’ve got that culture of striving that conscientiousness, that willingness to improve and develop, that kind of relentless improvement is the terminology some people use, how can you sustain that?

That’s where I think I got to the point of thinking, we really used to join those lessons from sports business, but I generally think we’ve all been missing a trick because sport has been showing us day in, day out, not just how to improve, perform and achieve, but how to do so on a sustained basis, in a way that ensures that we can consistently deliver results when it matters.

So I really wanted to shine the light on those unseen lessons that I felt just hadn’t been brought to the fore.

Alison Jones: And it is fascinating because we, you’re right, it’s a blind spot in a sense, is that we, when we think of sport, we think about performance, we think about the Olympics, we think about those moments of peak performance, where it’s eyeballs out and everything. But of course, for most of the time, the athletes aren’t doing that.

Catherine Baker: Absolutely.

Alison Jones: They are consistently training, they’re resting, they’re maintaining themselves. Yes, so what’s the equivalent for performance in the workplace, do you think, of the stuff that we don’t see happening for the elite athletes, if you like?

Catherine Baker: Yes, I think I’ll start with an analogy. I think we might think about building our strength muscles or our speed muscles, but really what we’re talking about here is building the stamina.

So that’s really the equivalent into the world of work. You know, our working lives are long and they’re increasing, you know, every day, aren’t they, in terms of pension age moving and whatever else and you know, our life expectancy increasing.

So we all hope that we are going to have long, enjoyable, purposeful careers. And of course, as we get more senior in our careers, it does require commitment, energy, stamina. You know, leadership is a privilege, but it’s also a responsibility. Leadership can be hard and it can certainly be relentless. And I think what was one of the triggers for actually sitting down and saying right now is the time to write this book was obviously the pandemic, where we could see that that was wreaking havoc on the health and wellbeing and sustained performance of so many leaders.

I was seeing that at the coalface with so many of the CEOs and senior leaders that I was coaching. All of us were reading about it pretty much everywhere we turned. And it’s not like that stopped and got boxed off when the pandemic quote marks ended. You know, that’s continued. So I think leadership is critical to the success of strong performance of every single organization.

So I was just thinking how can we draw those lessons out for those senior leaders to really understand how they can sustain their performance over the long term, which is critical for the performance of their organizations and for themselves as individuals in a way which is sort of relevant and accessible for them.

Alison Jones: And of course you’re going to have to read the book to get the answers to all of these, but just give us sort of one insight that perhaps people can take away and go, that is interesting. I hadn’t thought about it like that.

Catherine Baker: Gosh. Now that’s a question Alison, because my mind’s going through so many stories. One of the wonderful things about this book is I’ve been so helped by the amazing stories that I’ve been able to share from so many athletes, teams and coaches and so much research in the world of sport. And then obviously sort of overlaying that with research from the world of work.

But there’s probably, there’s one bit in particular when I tell this piece of research, people are always quite fascinated and it’s normally immediately sort of actionable. So when we think about our energy levels, people often think about perhaps the bigger things like sleep, nutrition, hydration, et cetera.

It’s a really piece of interesting research done from the world of tennis. We’ll come back to tennis, about actually what you can do on a much smaller scale. So back in the turn of the century, a very well-known sports psychologist or performance psychologist called Dr. Jim Loehr was facing a conundrum, which was annoying him because at the time there were a small number of tennis players who were consistently winning the big tournaments.

Now, those of you who know about sport or, and particularly individual sports like tennis, there’s not generally that much difference in technical ability between say, number 100 in the world and number one. So he wanted to try and understand what was it about this small group of players, both male and female, that were consistently winning the big tournaments?

He looked at hours and hours of videotape, as it was back then. He went to watch loads and loads of live matches, and he couldn’t see what they were doing differently until he started to look at what they were doing when they weren’t actually playing. In other words, the break between the points and the break between the games, and he realized that they were doing something very different with that time.

They were turning away, they were decompressing, they were taking deep breaths. They were removing that point or that game from their mind before turning back to the court with a reset, both physical and mental for the next point. Once he picked up on this, he actually started to put heart monitors on some of the players to assess the differences. And these top players, actually, their heart rates were going down more than others between points and games.

Now, of course, we see players doing that all the time. You know, that’s now become a recognized thing off the back of that research. Bring it back to the workplace, especially now that we’re doing so much like this, virtual meetings, et cetera.

Are you building in micro or mini breaks during the day? Are you making sure that you have a five minute break between calls where you might even just go to the loo or make a cup of tea or stand up and do some stretching? Are you building in a proper lunch break, even if it’s 30 minutes? So these little ways that we can actually maintain and sustain our energy and stamina through the working days. Day after day after day, replicated, that’s going to have a huge impact on your ability to sustain your performance.

Alison Jones: It’s absolutely fascinating and as you say, super practical. And what’s interesting is that combination as well, it’s both mental and physical. And of course the two are so closely linked, aren’t they? That’s absolutely brilliant.

Now you’re used to performing at a very high level in sport. You’re used to working with elite athletes. You’re used to working very high level in professional life and leadership. What was it like to have beginner’s mind when you came to write the book? Because you’d never written a book before, right?

Catherine Baker: No, I hadn’t. And, you know so much of what I write about in the book, I had to apply in order to try and approach this process in the best way. So, let’s start with the basics, growth mindset. Okay, I can’t do it, but actually I can’t do it yet. So that understanding that I’ve never written a book before. My starting point may not be that good, but I’m going to work really hard in a targeted way. I’m going to challenge myself. I’m going to ask for as much feedback as possible and get as much support as possible in order to make sure that this is as good as it can be. I had a clear goal. I wanted this to be a good book. I want to walk into Waterstones and see it.

So that really helped me with that clear goal to draw back from that and think, therefore, I’m going to open myself up to all sorts of feedback, challenge, et cetera, because it’s all in pursuit of a very, very clear goal. Help, targeted help, I obviously took you on as a book coach, which was completely invaluable.

And if anybody is sitting there at the beginning of the process of writing a business book, not sure where to start. I would genuinely recommend, by the way just for the listeners, Alison has not teed me up to say this but I.

Alison Jones: I’m not stopping you though.

Catherine Baker: I cannot tell you how much it transformed my focus and obviously things like why you, why the book framework, et cetera.

I think final thing then as well, again in terms of lessons from the book that I applied to my own writing, purposeful practice, so I have been writing a blog for a number of years now that goes out to an amazing network of senior leaders. And that regular practice really helped me to hone my writing style.

Obviously very different when you’re trying to write a 13-chapter book than it is from a short blog. But that purposeful practice really helped, I think, me define my style and develop in the right way.

Alison Jones: Yes, so it’s putting the reps in, isn’t it? It’s building, as you say, building the strength, building the stamina, building the muscle memory, and…

Catherine Baker: I could go on because it’s again, it’s so much from the book that’s relevant. It’s not just about being motivated, it’s about making sure you bring the required discipline and for people that works in different ways. Some people might need to leave a chunk of time each day or whatever it might be. But yes, you’ve definitely got to have that continued discipline.

It’s the work that you do when no one’s looking.

Alison Jones: Oh, that’s a great phrase. And did anything surprise you about the process? Or did anything delight you about the process indeed. Or was it just a grind?

Catherine Baker: I think I’ll start with a delight, if I may: the willingness of people to share their stories, actually, and get involved. I mean, some of the stories I’ve got are new and fresh insight, which I’m really pleased to be able to share, particularly around female athletes, coaches and teams. A lot of the sport to business books tend to focus on some brilliant stories, but they’re a bit same old, same old, All Blacks, et cetera.

And I’ve got a lot of that there, but a lot more female coaches, athletes. So for example, Tom Daley’s coach, Jane Figueiredo, Adam Peaty’s coach, Mel Marshall, and I should be starting with their names rather than the male athletes, shouldn’t I?

Alison Jones: Well, we recognize the athletes.

Catherine Baker: Yes, so in terms of what delighted me, you know, people like Mel Marshall were just fantastic in giving her time and sharing her insights. And whilst it’s easy to box people into sport, the insights were so valuable actually, and I learned so much from these people. so that was probably a delight, the opportunity to collaborate, talk, and to learn from so many of these people whose stories I’ve been able to share.

What surprised me, I think, yes, I found it very hard at first to think about the structure, what it was I actually wanted to say, what was the kind of golden thread that was going to be running through it. Once, with your help massively and a couple of other people, I’ll name Cath Bishop actually, because we had a conversation over a cup of tea one afternoon, where she was really helpful in terms of paraphrasing back to me what she was hearing in terms of what I was trying to say.

But once I’d got that, nailed that, and then nailed the structure, not just of the chapters, but also of each chapter, the writing flowed, and I think it probably surprised me that it did flow that easily and I think really helped me believe and be confident in the fact that I knew what I was talking about and it was the right stuff to be getting out there.

Alison Jones: Yes, and I could just pick up on a couple of things there because I think they’re really important for listeners as well, working backwards, that point about having your through line, being really, really clear on what your focus is, the real message is, and then having the structure of the book there, it just frees you up, as you say, to actually sort of fill in the content.

And the other thing, which you may not have picked up on, listeners, is that point about the stories. In a sense, you could have had those conversations with people at any point, but the fact that you are writing a book, I was going to say legitimizes, that’s not quite the right word, but it gives you a kind of a focus for those conversations, doesn’t it?

So the quality of the conversations that you have when you’re writing a book, I feel is qualitatively different from the everyday conversations that you might have when you are not. I don’t know what you think about that.

Catherine Baker: I think that’s really fair. And I think one of the interesting things for me, some of the stories are out there already, so I just kind of used those and built on those. But I’ll give you a really fascinating example around that. So one of the coaches that I feature quite bit in the book is a chap called Danny Kerry.

Now he coached the GB women’s hockey team to their gold medal at Rio. And Danny is A- an amazing guy, but B- a fascinating case study for somebody who had some setbacks in his professional career, got some harsh feedback and took it on the chin and really worked hard to develop and improve and be as good as he could be. He’s a wonderful chap and a really good case study.

I knew a lot of his story through having worked with a couple of the players in the team and having read stuff, et cetera. So I had quite a good understanding of Danny’s story, and so had really picked that from the book, from what I’d seen, heard, and read.

But obviously then contacted Danny to say, this is what I’m looking at writing around you. Are you happy with this? And is this okay? And of course, what that led to then was the building of a new relationship with Danny, which has been absolutely fabulous and some more insight into his story that I’ve been able to add into the book as well, that perhaps hasn’t been out there.

So I think that’s been really enjoyable and a real privilege. And because I’m so genuinely interested and driven by sport, and that elite performance and grassroots, but you know, what you can get out of a sport, I always enjoy meeting and talking to these people.

Alison Jones: Yes, it’s a great example, isn’t it, of just the richness of that relationship you can build. Yes, brilliant. And where you are now, obviously you’ve written a book, it’s about to be published. It’s coming out from Bloomsbury and we’re speaking 1st of February, 2023, what. do you wish you’d known when you started, that you know now, that you could perhaps share to other people so they don’t have to learn the hard way?

Catherine Baker: Gosh. It did get all consuming at times, and I think that’s probably okay and natural, but it’s very important to leave breathing spaces. And I think that’s kind of naturally possibly built into the process, but I didn’t know that at the beginning. You know, I thought you kind of worked really, really hard to write the book and then you sent it in and then, you know, sort of that was it.

But actually taking a bit more of a measured approach, chapter by chapter, leaving a bit of breathing space. I had quite lot of breathing space between part one of the book, which is about how to get the best out of yourself as a leader on a sustained basis, and then part two, which is how to get the best out of those you lead, two distinct parts to the book and I had left some breathing space between those, that was really helpful. So I think, yes, it will get all consuming, or it probably will, and I think that’s probably okay and don’t beat yourself up about it but there is real merit in that just letting things breathe for a bit sometimes as well.

Alison Jones: And I guess there’s an obvious parallel isn’t there to sport in that your muscles actually develop while you are resting, so that you work them and they sort of break down and then it’s while you’re resting that they repair and build stronger. So you have to have those cycles of the work and the reflection. Yes.

Catherine Baker: And actually that’s a really interesting one. I’m just going to throw one more piece of insight from the book in, if that’s okay. I’d mentioned Mel Marshall, she was one of the coaches who I featured quite a lot and particularly in the chapter around how to find your confidence sweet spot and how to focus on leveraging your strengths and improving and developing.

And she made a fantastic point that everybody imagines that her work with Adam Peaty is that they’re constantly trying new things and striving and changing and developing, but actually it’s really important to leave time for consolidation.

Alison Jones: Yes.

Catherine Baker: That period to breathe, to consolidate what it is that you’ve been doing and trying, et cetera.

There’s also, of course, the periodization that comes with elite sport, where you’ve got times when you’re training hard or competing hard and times when you rest, and why that’s so important for your performance when your next go back. But yes, really, really good, thank you for making that link across. Yes.

Alison Jones: Yes, brilliant. So I’m going to ask you for recommendation and you are not allowed obviously to recommend Staying the Distance. I’ll do that for you. It’s such a important book, I think. But what book would you think that anybody listening should read? What’s really perhaps stood out to you?

Catherine Baker: Yes, obviously I was given this question a bit in advance, and anyone watching the video can see, I’ve got so many books in my bookcase and I have genuinely read them all, so I just hoover up books around leadership and mindset. So I did find this difficult, but my one recommendation is going to be a book called Hit Refresh by Satya Nadella.

Now Satya Nadella is only the third ever CEO of Microsoft. So why am I recommending this book? I guess two main reasons. One, he is a current CEO, so it’s a very current, relevant book of a significant organization, which really he’s had to drive quite a lot of change in. The other reason is whilst my focus is lessons from sport across to leadership, business, et cetera, I’m not, you know, too blinded by that. As in, I understand that not everything can be transferred across. And one of the perhaps areas of skepticism is that when you’re talking in sport about culture and that kind of thing, it’s easy because you’ve got a smaller number of people. You know, you’ve got a team, or even with a club, you’ve got a smaller number of people than you would have say in a multinational, global organization like Microsoft.

What Nadella’s book shows us though is that those lessons are still relevant. So the two central planks that he took to transform Microsoft were mindset, where he really worked hard to instill growth mindset within Microsoft and culture. So the bits that we know make a real difference in sport, mindset and culture, that slight skepticism, can we still do that with a big organization? That’s exactly the approach that he took. They were his central pillars in that transformation of Microsoft.

So, from my point of view, I love it because it’s a really good example from someone else of how yes, you can do this in big business.

Alison Jones: And it’s such a fascinating example because you naturally might expect the CEO of Microsoft to be talking about technology, about the hard stuff, about the thrusting innovation and all that. It’s just fascinating that actually the secret to a well-functioning organization, like the secret to well-functioning athlete, I suppose, you know, is that the, yes, the hard skills, the technical skills are essential, you haven’t got a performance without that, that is what you do. But actually to operationalize those properly, it’s the mindset, it’s the culture, that’s really fascinating that he should pick up on those two things, particularly

Catherine Baker: Absolutely. I couldn’t put it better. Thank you.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. And if people want to find out more about you, more about the book, Catherine, where should they go?

Catherine Baker: Yes, so probably starting point is the website, sportandbeyond.co.uk gives a good bit of information about the business, but also about the book in particular. Anyone who’s more interested in me more generally or I guess the things that I’m interested more generally, I’m also a trustee on the board of the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust, which is a youth charity which uses elite athletes to mentor young people.

And I also chair an organization called the O-Shaped Lawyer, which is looking to entirely transform the way lawyers are trained and developed, with a lot of what I talk about in the book being relevant. So that’s probably the best places to go.

Alison Jones: It’s brilliant that you still have those two strands just running through your life so inextricably.

Catherine Baker: Very busy but very lucky.

Alison Jones: Wonderful. Well it was so much fun talking to you. I hope you enjoyed your first podcast experience. There will be many more, I’m sure. Thank you for your time today.

Catherine Baker: I did. Thank you very much, Alison.

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