The Untold Truth of High-Performance Environments

Spring 2023

The Untold Truth of High-Performance Environments

Being in a high-performance environment, whether it be in sports, the corporate world, or any other arena, is not for everyone and the reality is it’s often unpleasant and it hurts.

It’s a place where the best of the best come to compete, and where the stakes are high. The rewards for those who succeed can be great, but the price of entry is equally steep. I’m hugely fortunate to have played and worked in some high-performance environments, and I’ve experienced the discomfort, the pain, the sacrifices and the failures, and learnt so many lessons about life and myself along the way.

So often when the concept of a high-performance environment is discussed it is misunderstood, with focus only being placed on the celebration that comes with success or victory. Little attention is placed on the realities of what it takes to live and work in a high performance environment.

In this article, I’ll explore the untold truth of high-performance environments and begin to consider what it takes to succeed.

1 – It’s Worth It!

Despite the challenges, being in a high-performance environment is worth it, especially if you’re the type of person who doesn’t know how not to compete or to strive for constant personal and professional improvement. In fact, if you’re a driven person, not finding a high-performance environment is mentally and emotionally almost certainly worse. Looking back on your life and career with regret thinking you could have achieved more will hurt way worse than the pain of knowing and realising your limits along the way.

It’s an opportunity to be part of something bigger than yourself, to work with the best and learn from them, and to push yourself to new limits. The rewards can be significant, both in terms of personal growth and achievement, and in the recognition and respect that come with success – but it isn’t for everyone.

2 – It’s Hard – Intense Pressure

One of the hardest aspects of a high-performance environment is the intense pressure that comes with it – it is constant. You must be constantly asking yourself, “will it make the boat go faster?” will what I’m about to do positively or negatively improve my performance? What aren’t I doing that I should be? Through my time in high level sport, with much of the time spent training alone, I would imagine a perfect athlete competing for my place in the team and always try and beat them ignoring the fact that in reality I never could.

Whether it be the pressure to win, to achieve a goal, or to meet a deadline, the stakes are high and for the most driven people the pressure you place on yourself will be greater than the pressure anyone else applies to you. The pressure can be all-consuming, and it can take a toll on an individual’s mental health. It’s not uncommon for athletes or business leaders in high-performance environments to experience anxiety, depression, or burnout as a result of the pressure.

Lots of high performers will tell you that the success doesn’t bring euphoria, or even happiness, it just numbs the pain for a moment and then they ask what’s next.

3 – You’ll be asked to make sacrifices

Success in a high-performance environment requires a significant amount of sacrifice, not just from you but from your family and your friends. Athletes (in sport or business) must dedicate themselves fully, often sacrificing time with family and friends and missing out on other life experiences. In the corporate world, it may mean working long hours, sacrificing vacations, or missing important family events. These sacrifices can be challenging, and they can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Before you start, ask yourself do I really want this enough to make the sacrifices needed to succeed. And then consider that often they won’t be your sacrifices and you’ll be asking somebody else close to you to pay the bill for your dreams!

4 – You’re ALWAYS Competing

In a high-performance environment, you’re always competing with yourself and others. The competition can be intense, and it can create a highly competitive and sometimes cut-throat environment. This level of competition will push you forward and give you an opportunity to achieve your full potential, but the journey will be painful – physically and emotionally. For many people it can lead to feelings of bitterness and resentment, sometimes the successes and wins wash away this feeling, but ultimately it catches up with even the most competitive people.

It will also be a marathon and not a sprint, think about an Olympic cycle of four years. You will be competing constantly, with yourself and others to find that next level of performance, that tiny advantage that can make the difference between winning and losing. Its constant 24/7, 365, you’re never off the clock. And of course you don’t have to work that hard, but someone else will.

5 – You’ll Get Constant Feedback that will often feel like Criticism

In a high-performance environment, feedback is constant, and I mean constant. It can feel like criticism, and when you’re hurt or tired it might feel personal and painful. Athletes and business leaders are continually evaluated and critiqued, often unfairly by people not qualified to judge, and their performance is analysed in great detail. This level of scrutiny can be hard to handle, and it can lead to self-doubt and anxiety.

In the best high performance environments, increasingly performance psychologists and mindset coaches are available to support athletes, including in some forward-thinking businesses. In much the same way as sports teams have had strength and conditioning coaches and physiotherapists, to prepare athletes and help in the process of recovery, business are now investing in mental health training, preparation and support. For avoidance of doubt, I don’t mean mental health first aiders, I mean exceptional high-performance professionals able to coach and support people to be the best they can be.

6 – You’ll Be Pushed to Your Limits (and beyond)

In a high-performance environment, you’ll be pushed to your limits and often beyond. You’ll find out what you’re capable of and what you’re not. You’ll get knocked down and have to decide if you’re willing to get back up. You’ll be pushed to the breaking point, but it’s in those moments that you’ll learn the most, I know I have – in sport, in business and in life.

You’ll need to adapt and improve continually to stay ahead of the competition. If this is the environment for you, you’ll love the process of immediate impactful feedback as a powerful tool for learning and development.

You’ll also learn some often very harsh truths. One of those truths is that there are levels to everything in life. Everyone thinks they work hard until they meet someone who works harder. You’ll need to put in the time and effort to reach the next level, and you’ll need to be willing to make the necessary sacrifices to get there – so often hard work is the answer regardless of the question.

7 – The Performance Bar Keeps Rising

As you reach new levels of success, the bar is raised higher, and the pressure to maintain that level of performance increases. It is a never-ending cycle of striving for excellence and constantly pushing yourself to new limits. The expectations can come from yourself, your coaches or team leaders, your colleagues, and even friends and family (or demons of your past).

The challenge with increasing expectations is that it can lead to a sense of never being satisfied with your performance, no matter how well you do. There’s always something more you could have done or something you could have done better. Some people suggest that it’s essential to find a balance between striving for excellence and acknowledging your accomplishments and progress, others use that dissatisfaction as motivation but that can be an explosive fuel.

8 – People Won’t Understand

Living and working in a high performance evening isn’t normal. Most people won’t understand why you make the decisions you make, they may challenge, criticise and even ridicule your sacrifices, but remember they’re yours. If you want to achieve what others haven’t you have to do what others won’t. Being in a high-performance environment can be isolating. The sacrifices required to succeed can be hard for others to understand, and it can be challenging to find support from people outside the high-performance environment (and sometimes within, especially in individual sport). It can feel lonely, and it can be tough to find people who truly understand what you’re going through. But I’d encourage you to try. Find people who have achieved great things, treat them with absolute respect, listen and learn from their experiences and then when you can, share yours and help the next generation.

9 – Take The Opportunity

There is a finite window of opportunity for high performance, and it’s essential to make the most of it while you can. Whether you’re an athlete, an entrepreneur, or a business leader, there will come a time when your physical or mental abilities start to decline, or circumstances change, and your opportunity disappears.

It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day demands of a high-performance environment and forget that time is always ticking. It’s crucial to be mindful of this reality and take advantage of every opportunity to grow, learn, and excel while you can. Don’t take your health, time, or resources for granted, and be proactive in pursuing your goals and aspirations.

Take care of your physical and mental health, surround yourself with a supportive team, and be willing to adapt and evolve as circumstances change. By doing so, you can maximise your potential and make the most of the time you have to achieve high performance.

10 – Winning might not feel like you expect

As you progress in a high-performance environment, the wins don’t move the needle as much as they used to. You become used to winning and achieving success – it becomes an addiction, you need the wins (and the endorphins) to feel normal. However, that means the mistakes, losses, or failures hurt more. They can be a setback to progress, and they can lead to self-doubt and questioning.

When you achieve a significant victory in a high-performance environment, everyone will celebrate with you. They’ll tell you that they were with you on the journey and that they’re proud of you. However, once the celebrations are over, you may feel at your lowest.

Many gold medal athletes have talked about crying alone in their hotel rooms feeling a sense of loss as their purpose, and sole focus for so many years, has been achieved but now taken away. If you’re a high performer you might recognise the absence of celebration, failing to recognise successes, and instead be often found yourself asking… what’s next?


Being in a high-performance environment is not easy, and it takes a significant amount of sacrifice and dedication to succeed, and not just from you! The pressure can be intense, and the competition can be cut-throat. You’ll need to be willing to put in the time and effort required to reach the next level continually, until you make the decision to stop. You’ll be pushed to your limits and beyond, and you’ll need to be willing to continuously adapt and improve.

However, despite the challenges, being in a high-performance environment is worth it, if you want to achieve incredible things. It’s an opportunity to be part of something bigger than yourself, to work with the best, and to push yourself to new limits. The rewards can be significant, both in terms of personal growth and achievement, and in the recognition and respect that come with success. If you’re considering entering a high-performance environment, be prepared for the challenges ahead. Seek out support from others who have been through similar experiences, and be willing to make the necessary sacrifices to succeed.


Rich Stockdale,

Managing Director