An Olympic athlete, a best-selling author…and the rest of us

By Matt Norquist on August 18, 2015

I’ve had the good fortune of knowing a handful of people who are the very best in the world at what they do. Reflecting back, I’ve learned a couple of things along the way that have shaped my perspective on how to create peak performance, as a leader and as a trusted advisor to clients who rely on us to advance leadership performance.

These experiences combined with relevant research that I’ve read on positive psychology, the ideas in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, and other writing on the role of practice in peak performance have informed my thinking about what produces greatness, and what we can do to foster greatness in ourselves and in others.

Sometimes even the best experts in the world have a chance to demonstrate greatness for only very brief periods of time. Consider these examples, including that of my close friend Bryan Clay, whom I trained with extensively during my less than illustrious athletic career. Bryan won an Olympic gold medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics in the decathlon event. Prior to that, Bryan won a silver medal in 2004, and a couple of World Championships in between. For about five years, he was the very best in the world at his job. But, think about this: in his performance to win an Olympic gold medal, he was in actual competition for about 9 minutes. He spent 40 hours a week, practicing for more than 10 years, for 9 minutes at the Olympic Stadium in Beijing!

Then, there’s my former colleague Tom Rath, whom I worked with at The Gallup Organization. He is a human behavior expert who has sold more than 5 million books, made 300 appearances in the Wall Street Journal best seller list, and is widely regarded as one of the best non-fiction writers of his time. The amount of time he spends actually putting pen to paper (or hand to keyboard in this case) is miniscule in comparison to all that goes into and comes out of writing a book.

These examples, others that I’ve observed, and research that I’ve read have informed a model for how I approach peak performance:

  1. Inspired Purpose – Nobody can give you a purpose, and we can only inspire reasons or purpose in others fleetingly. It’s up to each of us to identify and choose our own purpose. You don’t accidentally write a book, or do a decathlon—no more than you accidentally become the best in the world at either. If you choose to do something at an elite level, pick something you have some natural inclination toward. I could choose or purpose to be a world-class ballroom dancer, but my size 12 two left feet, 220-pound frame, and lack of interest are not going to get me too far toward that goal. We must first clarify and give voice to our own individual purpose to support others in achieving their purpose.
  2. Preparation – Preparation is where the best spend most of their time. Great preparation is planned. It is mastering how to throw a baseball, how to read music and harmonize notes to write a song, devouring the words of other writers as you develop your own voice, or studying a customer’s business model before offering solutions. The best athletes have their physical training mapped out over multiple years, and are careful not to develop one strength at the expense of another—not to do too much too soon and risk injury. Working individually, with a team, and with coaches allows you to build a preparation plan to move toward your purpose—and also provides the benchmarks to measure your improvement.
  3. Practice – Different from developing general capabilities, practice is about refining and improving those capabilities. This is where you work on how you hold that violin bow, how you make that business case in a way that makes a client forget about everything else, where you swim lap after lap adjusting how you make that turn at the end of the pool, when you test each word of your campaign speech to figure out which ones spark your audience. Practice is about using your preparation to be ready for the big event.
  4. Peak Performance – The 9.69 seconds of the final in the Olympic 100 meter dash. The interception to win the Super Bowl. The sold-out show at Radio City Music Hall. The moment your fingers hit the keys as you write that best seller. The final conversation when you help a client understand how to implement your recommendation. Or the handmade birthday card from your daughter saying “You are the most awesome mom in the universe.” Peak performance is when you get a chance to display or realize the purpose you set out for.

So, how do you build toward your purpose as a leader, an athlete, a team member, a mother, a father, a wife, a partner, a husband, or other?

My thoughts: Work on your preparation and create a plan to practice and master the capabilities you need to meet your purpose! Let me hear from you and maybe we can practice together.

Posted in Blog, Leadership Development, Team Effectiveness Tagged with: , ,

About Matt Norquist

Matt Norquist is President and CEO of Linkage. He has a passion for driving business change at the leader, team and organizational levels. Matt led Linkage’s largest research study in the firm’s 30-year history. The culmination of this data formed the foundation for Linkage’s Purposeful Leadership™ Model, a proven framework that is equipping leaders globally to achieve better business performance.
4 comments on “An Olympic athlete, a best-selling author…and the rest of us
  1. Artemios Miropoulos says:

    Matt that’s a great article and a very handy list for peak performance seekers.
    Since, I too, am a great fun of Malcom Gladwell’s “Outliers,” let me add another one to your list: Resilience
    In his rule of 10,000 hours of practice to reach execellence Malcom warns success might come in an unexpected burst. He uses the story of Fleetwood Mac who leaped to the top rank of rock bands with “Rumors” after a long obsolete career of, I think 50 mediocre albums prior to tthat. We, as business leaders seem to expect a linear line of progress from our teams, ignoring that in these 10 years of practice there are peaks and valleys and backslides we should expect and tolerate (10,000 hours divided by ten years gives around 3 hours per day, half of Bryan’s effort).
    In my book “The Nameless King-15 Stories of Leadershio from Ancient Greece” I have included a story caleed ’16 Holes.’ Somewhere in southern Greece there is the so called palace of Nestor, one of the kings who fought in the war of Troy. The palace’s floors are a work of art as the original painting has been preserved, buried in the soft ashes caused by a massive fire that destoyed the palace around 1,100 BC. Sharon, the American archaeologist who was giving me a private tour showed me a couple square well masoned rocks lying on the side of the palace’s perimeter. She said they knew there was an older, Minoan palace underneath, but no one dared dig the masterpiece floors to reveal it. I instantly though we didn’t lose much as “it was older, therefor less sophisticated.” She looked at me and said they had indications the buried palace was even finer than the one on top. And there it struck me! Sometimes we do not show enough confidence, trust and support when someone stumbles and falls. We are too quick to dismantle teams. When we lead individuals and teams we need to bear in mind that hard practice goes together with resilience and parience.

    • Matt Norquist says:

      Artemios – I couldn’t agree more about your thoughts about resilience. Similar to resilience, Jim Collins speaks about taking a 20 mile march – rain or shine – that ability to stick to it, even on days you don’t feel like it. Rumors still has to go down as one of the greatest rock albums of all time, too!

  2. I agree with finding a purpose. I am a para-triathlete. Sometimes things happen and you get discouraged. My coach always tells me to remember the “Why” I am competing. Remembering my purpose makes all the preparation I have to do to achieve peak performance worth it. It is your purpose that will drive you to practice. The peak performance is the celebration.

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