Rebecca Adlington, the darling of British swimming, put in a faster time this week to win Olympic bronze in the 400m Freestyle than the time she clocked to win gold in the same event four years ago in Beijing. This simple fact, whether surprising or not, encapsulates the essence of high performance sport. The margins between top performers are ever-decreasing, and every athlete is seeking that special something that might just give them the vital edge that will make the difference on the day.
People sometimes ask why people like Usain Bolt, Roger Federer or Tiger Woods need coaches. After all, when athletes have already become the best in the world, what more coaching do they need, and who is ‘qualified’ to coach someone who is the best? The answer is simple. They want to remain the best, and only being as good as you are now is not going to achieve that.
I am fascinated by the variety of ways that performers seek to gain that vital edge over the competition. Swimmers, for example, are increasingly engaging in an intriguing mixture of cross-over training. Rock-climbing, pilates and ballet are just three unlikely activities that are being incorporated into their already punishing schedule. This is not just to generate variety and ease boredom from swimming lengths, although the value of that is not to be under-estimated, nor is it just because they are proven for building exceptional core strength, something that is vital for top swimmers. The additional benefits gained relate to developing an increased sense of overall body awareness. Having spatial awareness of hands and feet is very important to swimmers, especially in those micro-seconds and vital millimetres when a wall touch needs to be timed to perfection. One swimming coach this week stated that “…..he and his swimmers will leave no stone unturned to find that extra ingredient that might just make the vital difference, and if that means tapping in to other disciplines then great”.
I referred in my last post to the importance of ‘Learning from the Outside’. This can be thought of on different levels, whether as an individual or as an organisation. In any walk of life, whether athletics or business, any fresh and innovative ideas that can be drawn upon to enrich training methods, and ultimately produce peak performance are to be welcomed. Business leaders have been slower than their counterparts in the athletic world to adopt this ‘leave no stone unturned’ mindset, and to tap in to other disciplines to help create the winning edge. (See Why aren’t Business Leaders more like Athletes?)
Of course, this focus on sport and winning, raises another dilemma for many people. Some argue that competition can be harmful and unhealthy, and actually brings out the worst in people. After all, not everyone can win the gold medal, and doesn’t competitive sport result in more disappointment and failure than anything else? Well, I like the treatment this subject gets from Tim Gallwey in his book the Inner Game of Tennis. “Winning is overcoming obstacles to reach a goal, but the value of winning is only as great as the value of the goal reached.” In other words, the essence of competition is all about the challenge and obstacles to be overcome. In a game of tennis, the opponent provides the obstacles required to allow a player to reach and experience their own peak performance. To that end, when an opponent makes things difficult for you, they are in fact cooperating in the ‘game’ of helping you strive to higher levels. If each player is trying their hardest to defeat the other, they are in fact participating in a unique form of cooperation. When one player ‘wins’, it is not the other person they are defeating, it is a matter of overcoming the obstacles presented by the other.
This way of thinking may help people who struggle with reconciling competition with a vision of a better world. Instead of hoping that your opponent in a tennis match double-faults, you actually hope that they deliver their best serve so that it extends you, causes you to react quicker, move better, and return your best, and in turn make it more challenging for your opponent. Operating from this mindset, where reaching the goal may actually feel less valuable than the experience of overcoming obstacles, can result in the process being more rewarding than the victory itself.
Tim, goes on to explain that he used to think that when playing a friendly match with a player with a weak backhand, it was a bit mean to always play to that weakness. Once he had rationalised his thinking along the lines above, he realised that by actually playing to the backhand, it offered the opponent an opportunity to improve that facet of their game.
Finally, a story of conflicting parental reactions to ‘winning’ provides a fascinating insight into the psychological challenges many people have with finishing off games when in winning positions. Gallwey describes a time, as a fifteen-year-old, he beat an older boy of eighteen in a tennis tournament. His father ran down from the stands to congratulate the young Tim on a great victory, while his mother’s first reaction was “Oh, that poor boy; how badly he must feel to have been beaten by someone so much younger”. Tim describes how he felt pride and guilt simultaneously, and never quite felt good about actually defeating someone, and often had his most difficult times on the tennis court when close to victory. It took him many years to unravel the complexity in his head, and get comfortable with the true nature of competition and winning.
The athlete who is unencumbered with any sense of ‘fear of winning’ and who is mentally prepared to search for the marginal gains, even when they are already at the top of their game, will have the opportunity to experience the true meaning of winning.
I can help you to discover and win 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.