Unassailable Leads. The Agony and the Ecstasy.

I’ve just witnessed yet another fascinating weekend of sport, and it never fails to throw up intriguing twists and turns whilst shining a light into the deepest recesses of the human psyche.  Watching people at the very top of their sport perform under the spotlight and scrutiny of millions, not to mention billions around the world on TV, reveals so much about what makes humans tick.

Two very different sports, golf and cycling, and two leaders with what most people considered to be unassailable leads in major events.  One went on to finish the job, while the other, sadly for him, suffered a ‘meltdown’ as he saw the finishing line in sight.   What can we learn from these two events, and what was going on for these two athletes at those crucial moments?

For those of you who were not glued to these events, here is a brief summary.

Adam Scott, an Australian golfer, led the The Open (sometimes know as the British Open), by a very comfortable margin on the final day’s play. If he were to defend his lead, it would be his first ever ‘Major’ triumph.  At one point he held a 6 shot lead, and no-one in the rest of the field was making any serious inroads into his lead. One or two players made the occasional threat, only to falter again at the next hole. Meanwhile, Scott played like the ice-man. He was focused, calm and very much playing ‘in the present’. He was not getting excited and was playing a very ‘safe’ game, staying out of all trouble. With 4 holes to go, he still had a 4 shot lead.  Up ahead of him Ernie Els, the popular and experienced South African with previous Major wins to his name, was quietly picking off the occasional birdie on the back 9 holes, but none of the experts, commentators or crowd, really foresaw what was about to happen.   Scott, who had barely put a foot wrong during the previous 4 days, bogied the last 4 holes.  Els, from nowhere, was The Open champion.  The crowd were stunned.

Photograph courtesy of Reuters 

At the same time, about 500 miles further south, history was being made in Paris. Bradley Wiggins, a British cyclist, became the first man from his country to ever win the famous Tour de France in its 99 years history. Wiggins had held the yellow (leaders) jersey from very early on in the 3 weeks long race, and his lead had been considered unassailable for the previous 4 or 5 days.  Only after the penultimate stage, when Wiggins reinforced his lead, did he allow himself the luxury of acknowledging that, barring a disaster, victory would be his in the Champs Elysees. But, he still had work to do on the final day, and his focus was on helping his team-mate, Mark Cavendish, to win the final stage. He was successful in this, setting up Cavendish for a final sprint finish that saw him race to his fourth stage victory in four years in Paris. A short while later, Wiggins stood on the top of the podium to be crowned the 2012 Tour de France champion.

In a recent post I touched on the importance of the Inner Game, in sport, and in life. Success, and staying focused, depends hugely on being able to quieten the ‘inner voice’. Avoiding the twin enemies of success – regret and anxiety – is vital to ‘play your best game’. I have no way of being sure what Adam Scott was experiencing, as his bogey count rose during those final few holes, but I am willing to bet that either regret at the choices he had just made, or anxiety about how he would ‘recover’ and play his next shot (or both), started to occupy his thinking.  He was playing a lonely Inner Game all by himself, in full view of a global audience, and, on this occasion he was unable to come through and take the big prize.

Wiggins’ Inner Game was played to perfection. He allowed himself only a very brief moment of anticipating his victory, before  refocusing his attention on the task of helping his team-mate to a final-day stage victory.

Photograph courtesy of Christophe Ena/AP. http://keepingscore.blogs.time.com/2012/07/22/britains-bradley-wiggins-wins-tour-de-france/ 

So, what lessons can we take away from the amazing Tour de France victory achieved by Bradley Wiggins and his team?

  • Team-work      Watching the Team Sky cycling team operate was fascinating. They functioned like a bee colony which was ultimately focused on one thing – to get Wiggins into position, stage after stage, to accumulate a lead  to secure the yellow jersey for the team. Each rider had a different role to play, and they stuck to it. Some of the riders are referred to as ‘domestiques’ (or servants) whose role is to ride at the front, shielding team-mates from the wind and airflow, allowing them to preserve energy for later in the race. The team was unselfish in the way it worked. Egos (and there were plenty) were put aside, for the benefit of the group. There were people in the team who could have sought their own individual glory, but they worked for something bigger – the team. Wiggins was always quick to acknowledge his team-mates and their role in putting him in the position to lead and win the race for the team.
  • Adaptability    Wiggins has transformed himself physically to make a serious assault on the Tour. He already has a successful career as a track cyclist with 6 Olympic medals to his name.  But, to win the Tour de France is the ultimate for any cyclist, and demands more all-round attributes. It requires an ability to climb punishing Alpine peaks, to have unparalleled endurance, speed when required, as well as tactical nous and patience. He has lost weight and changed his body shape over a number of years, in order to adapt to the demands of this unique event.
  • Learning from Experience      Wiggins has suffered disappointment and failure in previous events. Most recently, in 2011, he broke a collar bone early in the race and had to withdraw. In this year’s race, that learning was invaluable. Despite a large number of crashes and pile-ups, Wiggins stayed out of trouble and was well protected by the team.
  • Discipline     Wiggins and the team remained focused, calm and disciplined throughout the event. They had a plan and they stuck to it. They were prepared to allow other teams to win stages and sprints, always remaining focused on the big prize which was the yellow jersey at the end of the event  They could have panicked or worried about losing ground and deviated from the plan, but their belief in the plan and discipline in executing it was unwavering.
  • The significance of Margins    After more than 87 hours of gruelling pedalling, Wiggins margin of victory over the nearest rider was a mere 3 minutes. The Team Sky principal, Dave Brailsford, advocates an ethos of ‘aggregation of marginal gains’. He encourages the entire team, not just the riders, to seek an extra 1% in everything that they do, the theory being that if every member of the team can squeeze their own small improvement out of whatever their job is, the accumulative effect will be significant for the team. This means support mechanics switching wheels on bikes marginally faster, drivers of support vehicles issuing instructions sharper, drinks and food distributors finding marginally more efficient ways to get supplies to the riders. It all adds up, and any one of these could make ‘the difference’.
  • Learn from the Outside     Another innovative way of thinking that Brailsford has introduced is opening up the sport, and how things are done, to people from outside the sport, in order to challenge assumptions. Cycling has a long history, and there is a tendency, like in many established areas, to assume that the people inside the sport know best. He has been criticised by some within the sport for ‘being so bold’ as to invite outsiders in. But, having people from totally different disciplines look at training methods, racing formations, and question established practices, introduces new ideas, and fresh thinking, and protects from complacency and stagnation.

I suspect any team, whether in business or in sport, will benefit from building these principles into their way of thinking and operating.

I can help you to discover your Inner Game. Learn how to recognise the obstacles and derailers that damage our ability to perform at our best. Discover how to unlock your potential, free from interference.  Simply contact me through the Contact Us page. I will be delighted to have an initial chat about your personal or business objectives.  


5 thoughts on “Unassailable Leads. The Agony and the Ecstasy.

  1. The tour was quite amazing and your analysis of what attributes served the SKY team is spot on. Talent is often not enough. It takes a combination of the right traits! Enjoyed your post.

  2. Pingback: Winning margins | Gyro Consulting Services

  3. Pingback: Breaking Barriers | Gyro Consulting Services

  4. Pingback: The Quiet Power of Selflessness | Gyro Consulting Services

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