The Quiet Power of Selflessness

To me, teamwork is the beauty of our sport, where you have five acting as one. You become selfless ~ Mike Krzyzewski

Much continues to be written about what marks out successful teams from those that fail. Most of us can think about our own experiences of both, and, no doubt, recall factors that contributed to both positive and negative experiences.

source: thevalleys.co.uk/

source: thevalleys.co.uk/

The Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro have been providing us with thrilling achievements, but while they shine a light on athletic stars and big names such as Usain Bolt, Simone Biles and Laura Trott, I am fascinated by the armies of unsung heroes. Team members who are vital parts of the success but who do not receive the same media attention. This can be coaches, trainers, physios and sometimes fellow athletes, who sacrifice themselves for the greater good. They may not receive the Olympic medal or the adulation, but their contribution is vital, often displaying a level of selflessness that appears extraordinary. I have touched upon the role of the ‘domestique’ in team cycling in previous posts, which illustrate this point further.

But, let’s take a closer look at this. The mental state required to achieve this is one of ‘selflessness’. And, to exist happily in this state, one must be more concerned about achieving the eventual outcome than about personal recognition for it being achieved. In other words, the outcome is the most important thing, not your own psychological state.

Let’s think Continue reading

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The Power of Optimism

A great deal of pressure was heaped on the young shoulders of Matt Biondi in the run up to the Seoul Olympics in 1988.  He was one of the United States great hopes for multiple medals in the swimming pool. Comparisons were being drawn with the legendary Mark Spitz who had won seven golds in the 1972 games.    In his first event, the two-hundred-metre freestyle, he finished a creditable third.  Great by most people’s standards, but disappointing for Biondi and the hard-to-please media back home.  The next event was the one-hundred-metre butterfly.  Having blasted into an early lead, and dominated the race all the way, he made an error of judgement on his final stroke. One more stroke squeezed in with a metre to go would have seen him home, but he chose to coast and stretch for the wall instead.  In doing so he was pipped by a fingernail and beaten into second by an unknown swimmer, Anthony Nesty, from Surinam, not a country renowned for swimmers, let alone gold medals.

biondiThere was much gnashing of teeth and criticism levelled at Biondi from afar. This was not the start to an assault on seven gold medals that the American public expected, and many started to write him off.   There was at least one person who did not, however.  Marty Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, watching proceedings on his television, had belief, and evidence, that Biondi had what it would take to come back from these disappointments and go on to achieve success.  Continue reading

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 Continue reading

Winning margins

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 Continue reading

Learning from Wimbledon

It’s the Tennis season, though those of you living in the UK or Ireland could be forgiven for mistaking it for the Asian monsoon season. Thank goodness for Wimbledon’s Centre Court roof or we could still be waiting for the final matches to be played.

I was delighted to see how well Andy Murray performed, becoming the first British men’s player to reach the singles final at Wimbledon in 74 years. Although he lost in a great final to an inspired Roger Federer, I sensed that Murray had buried a few ghosts that have been haunting him. In fact, what pleased me, even more than the level of tennis performance that he put in, was the Inner Game he played.


All sports, games and activities that people undertake can be thought about on two levels. The outer game is the one played out physically, and witnessed by others. In the case of tennis it includes the serves, ground strokes, smashes and lobs. But more often than not, especially in a contest between two players of comparable skill levels, it is the one that plays the better Inner Game who comes through and wins.

The Inner Game is played out completely inside the brain. To succeed in the Inner Game one must quieten the ‘voice’ in the head that judges, criticises and worries. It can act in many subtle (and not so subtle) ways, but basically it does one of two things. It either causes us to dwell on and regret past events (e.g. a poorly executed drop shot at the end of the last rally that cost you the game), or it worries about and raises anxiety levels about future events (e.g. if I don’t win my next service game, my opponent will be serving for the match). Neither of these thought processes are useful or conducive to delivering your peak performance. To perform at your best, you need to be operating neither in the past nor in the future, but with total concentration on the present.

This applies, of course, not just to Tennis, sports or games, but to our everyday lives. How much of your thinking time in work is preoccupied with concerns or regrets about past events or with anxiety about deadlines or future presentations?

As it is the Tennis season, I wanted to give my own game a boost, so I re-read Tim Gallwey’s seminal work, The Inner Game of Tennis. This is a hugely recommended book for tennis (and non-tennis) fans. It’s simple messages about quieting our inner voice, and questioning traditional ‘teaching’ and ‘coaching’ methods, are every bit as applicable to how we operate, function and interact in our personal and working lives, as they are to tennis.  I was lucky enough to hear Tim speak recently (via videolink from his home in California) at the Association for Coaching 10th Anniversary Conference in Edinburgh. He used a simple formula to describe excellence – Excellence = Potential minus Interference (i.e. where interference is all of the internal negative thoughts, doubts, limiting beliefs, self-criticism and judgement that we are capable of inflicting on ourselves on a regular basis).

Tim describes the typical ways of learning that people adopt :- Continue reading