Breaking Barriers

As the London Olympic Games draw towards their close, it has been exciting to watch records tumble and barriers being broken. Of course, not all barriers are measured by distance or by the clock. Some of the most fascinating are psychological barriers.

Andy Murray appears to have broken a personal barrier in winning his Tennis singles gold medal. Regular readers will have read Learning from Wimbledon a few short weeks ago which described the progress Murray was making with his Inner Game. At the Olympics he buried the anguish he experienced a month ago, by defeating two of his fiercest opponents in quick succession, something he has found tough to do previously. He played unbelievably well, out-hitting, out-moving and out-thinking both Djokovic and Federer. A huge breakthrough, which may well see Murray move on to achieve much more success in future championships. .

Michael Phelps broke the barrier of all-time most decorated olympian – 22 medals – 18 of which are gold. This is a phenomenal achievement, even in a sport that provides more opportunity than most to multi-event. Phelps has set the bar at a new height for someone else to emulate in years to come.

Oscar Pistorius broke a barrier of a very different kind, becoming the first double amputee to ever take his place in an Olympics starting line up. He qualified from his heat to reach the semi-final of the 400m. A remarkable story which has cleared the way for future paralympians to stake their claim to be able to qualify for full olympic participation. New barriers will no doubt have to be overcome, but Pistorius has shown it is possible.

Some barriers are broken with increasing regularity, most notably in the swimming pool and in the velodrome, the latter no doubt assisted by advances in cycle technology. Others stand defiantly unobtainable, such as the long jump record which has stood for over 20 years. What fascinates me most of all is the psychological nature of breaking barriers.

Perhaps the best known example of this in the sporting arena is that of the mythical 4 min mile ‘barrier’. Until 1954, many actually believed that it was impossible, and perhaps even dangerous (or fatal) for anyone to run a mile faster than 4 mins. Roger Bannister became the first to make the breakthrough, and opened the floodgates for many others to do the same very soon afterwards. Soon the record was being broken over and over again. Those people who were soon running sub-4 minutes on a regular basis, were clearly physically capable of doing so, in the same way that Bannister did. The barrier they broke was inside their head, not on the track.

Running the 100m had a similar ‘magical’ barrier for quite some time. Once 10 sec was broken by Jim Hines in 1968, many others soon followed. The 100m final at this week’s Olympics was won by the extraordinary Usain Bolt. Had Asafa Powell not pulled up with an unfortunate injury, there is no doubt that every runner in the race would have gone under the 10sec barrier.

No-one has yet gone under 2 hours for the marathon, but it is getting closer with the current world record for men standing at 2hr 03min. It will be fascinating to observe how long it takes for the first person to run 1hr 59min 59sec, and how long afterwards we have to wait to see that time further reduced.

What is going on with these symbolic barriers, and what learning can it provide for other areas of life? In business, when people say it’s impossible, do they simply mean it’s not been done yet? Does it mean that they are not prepared to put the effort in to make it possible? Or, do they just need someone else to do it first, to prove it can be done, before they follow?

How can leaders take this phenomenon in sport and use it to inspire people to break through barriers? How can leaders point the way and help people to see that with the correct focus, teamwork, application and commitment, barriers need not be insurmountable. That barriers are not the end of the line, but just another staging post on a longer journey.

What are some of the learning points leaders and people in business can take from sport, and high performance athletes…

  1. Pressure. Pressure to top athletes is viewed as a ‘privilege’. Michael Johnson, the 400m world record holder, describes the pressure he felt in this way. It was what he was in the top tier for, to compete against and beat the best, and if he wasn’t feeling pressure something was wrong. The key here has to be about how to view the pressure – to see it as a source of energy, an aid to focusing on the task at hand, and not as a force that causes you to freeze, or be afraid of what lies ahead.
  2. Teamwork. The importance of team is paramount, and even in the most individual and lonely of sports, the top performers are always quick to recognise that their success only comes as a result of a huge team effort – coaches, physios, dieticians, training partners, family, and so on. No one achieves greatness alone. Trust of others in the team to do their part is essential. Cycling and rowing have demonstrated that it is the team who works together, who have a plan and a rhythm that is executed excellently that wins, not necessarily the best individuals. This is a huge piece of learning, as so much more can be achieved this way, more than any one individual is capable of.
  3. Learning. Continual learning and a hunger for knowledge mark out high performers. Feedback on performance – particularly where things did not go to plan, and when some may label it failure – are sources of huge potential learning. Too often in business, performance management and constructive feedback can turn in to a ‘battleground’ where little value is created. Seeking new techniques, and looking to see what others are doing is essential in sport and in business. Innovation and creativity are vital to keep moving forward and for finding that winning edge. Marginal gains (discussed recently in Unassailable Leads) depend on creativity, which requires being open to learning. Sir Clive Woodward, British Olympic Association’s Director of Elite Performance, looks for ‘teachability’ when assessing young prospective talent. A thirst for knowledge, the desire to learn, and becoming expert in their chosen sport are all signs that tell Sir Clive so much more than simply the physical attributes and raw talent of the young athlete.
  4. Demonstrate the art of the possible. Leaders play a vital role in coaching people. Coaching is a hugely powerful process for removing demons, doubts and concerns, and helping people to become aware of their own limiting beliefs.  Leaders as role models are able to inspire and motivate, opening doors to allow others to charge through.
  5. Resilience. Athletes suffer setbacks and many describe their journeys as being more occupied with downs than ups. They experience many failures, injuries, and defeats but it is the building of resilience that sees them succeed. Staying focused on the big vision or prize is an essential quality to survive in the tough world of sport, but equally in the world of business.

Above all, not seeing barriers as obstacles, but merely as temporary staging points on a journey that continues on the other side, is a helpful mindset to adopt in both sport and in business.

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.  

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2 thoughts on “Breaking Barriers

  1. I like this post from Seth’s Blog on “Persistence and possibility” http://bit.ly/RPcvx4
    It makes a really good point about the … “benefit of having a hero, a case study, a role model for what came before. The fact that it’s been done before makes just about any task more amenable to persistence. And it also means that doing something that’s never been done before is even more valuable than you’d guess, because your peers and competitors likely gave up long before you did.”

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