Leadership Lessons from Olympians

Leadership Lessons from Olympians

Leadership Lessons from Gold Medal Winners

Fabulous Five

What separates us from Olympic athletes?

You mean besides diet, fame, and probably 20 other factors? By the way, check out the Olympics Facebook page. Lots of good pics!

It has been estimated that it takes 10,000 of deep and deliberate practice to become world class. During those 10,000 hours, Myelin forms around the Axiom of a Neuron. This forms like a T1 line so that information flows easily and quickly. Body memory is formed for perfection (or as close to perfection as possible).I learned about this concept when I read The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown by Daniel Coyle and Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin.

Here is some background on from a Wikipedia article.

Deliberate practice

Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of Psychology at Florida State University, has been a pioneer in researching deliberate practice and what it means. According to Ericsson:

“People believe that because expert performance is qualitatively different from normal performance the expert performer must be endowed with characteristics qualitatively different from those of normal adults.” “We agree that expert performance is qualitatively different from normal performance and even that expert performers have characteristics and abilities that are qualitatively different from or at least outside the range of those of normal adults. However, we deny that these differences are immutable, that is, due to innate talent. Only a few exceptions, most notably height, are genetically prescribed. Instead, we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.”[3]

One of Ericsson’s core findings is that how expert one becomes at a skill has more to do with how one practices than with merely performing a skill a large number of times. An expert breaks down the skills that are required to be expert and focuses on improving those skill chunks during practice or day-to-day activities, often paired with immediate coaching feedback. Another important feature of deliberate practice lies in continually practicing a skill at more challenging levels with the intention of mastering it.] Deliberate practice is also discussed in the books, “Talent is Overrated,” by Geoff Colvin, and “The Talent Code,” by Daniel Coyle, among others.

Behavioral versus Cognitive Theories of Deliberate Practice

Behavioral theory would argue that deliberate practice is facilitated by feedback from an expert that allows for successful approximation of the target performance. Feedback from an expert allows the learner to minimize errors and frustration that results from trial-and-error attempts. Behavioral theory does not require delivery of rewards for accurate performance; the expert feedback in combination with the accurate performance serve as the consequences that establish and maintain the new performance.

In cognitive theory, excellent performance results from practicing complex tasks that produce errors. Such errors provide the learner with rich feedback that results in scaffolding for future performance. Cognitive theory explains how a learner can become an expert (or someone who has mastered a domain).

So the first lesson from Olympians would be…..Practice…..Practice……Practice!

Psychologists who have studied Olympic athletes have identified common psychological characteristics that help them succeed. For example, Daniel Gould of Michigan State University has found the following:

1. Knowing how hard to push – Work hard but don’t overtrain.

As leaders, train hard, but don’t lose balance. Don’t burn out.

2. Optimism – Searching for solutions

My favorite book in this area is Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman. It’s all about how you define the causes of the good things and the bad things that happen to you. Optimists define bad things that happen to them in terms of causes which are temporary, specific, and changeable. So optimists may say things like, “This too shall pass” or “It’s always darkest before the dawn”. Pessimists define bad things that happen to them in terms of causes which are permanent, pervasive, and personal. So a pessimist might be heard saying, “It’s like the worst day of my life”.

Optimists define good things that happen to them in terms of causes which are permanent, pervasive, and personal. So an optimist might be heard saying, “I got this” “I’ve got this figured out”. Pessimists define good things that happen to them in terms of causes which are temporary specific and changeable. So a pessimist might be heard saying about a bad boss, “It’s not just my bad boss, it’s management at this company. In fact, it’s the world we live in today”.

3. Self-awareness – Knowing what you need to work on

An awareness of self and your impact on others is an important component of Emotional Intelligence. Self Awareness is a foundation skill and enormously important.

4. Intrinsic motivation – Personal quest for excellence

An Olympic athlete like a great leader must “Want it bad enough”. Before you can dedicate the 10,000 hours to becoming world class, you must have a burning fanatical desire to be great.

5. Adaptive perfectionism – Focus on achievement, with low concern for mistakes

Mistakes are merely opportunities for learning and improvement.

6. Plans to deal with distractions – Helps keep focus during performance

Michael Phelps coach intentionally stepped on his swim goggles and cracked them before one of his practice sessions. Phelps learned to swim with bad goggles. Then in 2008 during an Olympic swim, Phelps goggles failed and filled with water. Phelps counted his strokes and won the gold medal with goggles filled with water.

7. Having a routine and sticking with it – May be the most important strategy for long-term success

Do you have a leadership development plan? Do you have a coach that can give good feedback? If you need some help with your plan, let’s talk!

About Dale Perryman

Conduct workshops and seminars on leadership, management, and employee development. Founder of Center for Organizational Learning. Co-founder and creator of MyMeetingPro, a suite of apps for iPhone and iPad that create simply effective meetings. Specialties include leading change, meeting facilitation, developing R&D leadership, merger integration, and social media marketing. Enjoy playing poker and stock investing in spare time.