We marvel at the performance of professional athletes. Our jaws drop, our eyes open wide, and we “ooh” and “aah” as we watch them perform for our entertainment. Who doesn’t remember Joe Montana, engineering what may be the greatest comeback drive in pro football history? With 51 seconds remaining the in the NFC championship game against Dallas, Montana made the legendary throw that later became known simply as “The Catch” in the end zone to Dwight Clark, giving the San Francisco 49ers a 28-27 victory over the Cowboys and the 1981 NFC Championship. Most people know quite a bit of the story that followed. There is, however, more to Montana’s story. At Notre Dame, Montana began his college career as a seventh-string quarterback. There were six other players who were better than him at his position.
Regardless of whether we are fans of particular sport, observing the display of the superb abilities of athletes at the top of their game makes for an impressive spectacle. ESPN’s Greatest North American athlete of the 20th century, Michael Jordan, led the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships in an eight year time span. Since his retirement, no player in the NBA has come close to approaching his individual or team achievements. And while most people know about Jordan’s achievements as a player, they don’t know this: He failed to make his high school’s varsity team as a sophomore.
I often wonder if we give these people too much credit. Should it come as a surprise to us that they have accomplished such greatness? After all, what we really see are the finished products:
- Montana, engineering 31 fourth quarter come-from-behind victories in the NFL.
- Jordan, hitting the championship-winning jump shot in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA finals with 40 seconds remaining in the game.
What we do not witness is the practice, the learning, and the mistakes they made before they achieved success. If we could only see the process that led to the results of greatness. It should come as no big surprise that for every minute spent performing in competition, athletes like Montana and Jordan spent thousands (more like tens of thousands) of hours practicing, studying, rehearsing, and yes, making mistakes. Their performances represent a minuscule fraction of the time they devoted to their work.
For most of us, game day is every day. The expectation is that we are able to perform at high levels consistently. Yet we are not routinely given the opportunity to practice what we do for long periods of time before we do it. When we show up at the office, we aren’t wearing practice jerseys. Instead, we’ve got our game uniforms on. Once the whistle blows, the workday starts, and it’s full contact until the game clock reads 00:00. It might be easy to think, Yeah, but those guys are athletes, any comparison between what they do and what we do doesn’t work. If you are inclined to conclude there’s nothing to be learned here, not so fast. A number of techniques used by top-performing athletes, coaches, and teams can also be used to increase performance in any organizational setting.
Consider how you would include some of these techniques that athletes use to amaze and entertain us:
· Coaching. Want to learn how to swing a golf club like Tiger Woods? Don’t ask Tiger. Ask his coach. All athletes have coaches who encourage them, hold them accountable, and point out their shortcomings as they help develop their strengths. Do you have a coach? Are you coaching the people you are leading?
· Rehearsal. Before every game, under Coach Lynn Chivarro, the Army women’s basketball team would gather in their locker room, dim the lighting, close their eyes, and visualize the entire game they would soon play from tip-off to final buzzer. Before major events in your life do you rehearse? Before a sales presentation or when anticipating a difficult meeting, do you consider as many of the possibilities as possible? Preparing in advance makes you confident.
· After-Action Reviews. From the high school to the professional level, football teams review video of their games. Each player is graded on every play. They all get to see what they did well and what they need to improve upon. Athletes are constantly reviewing game tape (video) with an eye toward getting better. You may not have the luxury of a game tape, but you can recreate the experience by discussing it, defining the actions taken that were successful and those in need of improvement. Regardless of whether an activity resulted in success or failure, there are lessons to be learned from it. Reconstruct it with a focus toward learning lessons you can apply to the future.
· Mid-course adjustments. Trailing by 32 points in the third quarter, the Buffalo Bills came back to win a playoff game against the Houston Oilers in 1993. Now that was a mid-course adjustment! Great teams have an ability to see the situation, adjust to it, and achieve their goals. No endeavor ever proceeds exactly as it was planned. Realizing the fluid nature of any situation and taking action to accommodate it usually results in improvement.
· Celebrate success. The St. Louis Cardinals, after roundly defeating the Detroit Tigers in game 5 of the 2006 World Series, joyously popped open cases of champagne in boyish celebration inside their locker room. If you reflect, you will be amazed at how many times during the day, the week, or month you have succeeded. Good leaders sincerely celebrate success. If you win, take time out and enjoy it. Celebrating success is a guaranteed method for ensuring more successes.
For most of us, our athletic activities have been relegated to the weekends. And we are almost never paid for them. Our glory days as athletes are in the past. But, whatever we’re doing now, we’re playing in a different kind of Super Bowl, and are expected to win it—every day! Maybe we should approach it like Montana and Jordan did. Our glory days may be just ahead.
About the author
David Garic develops and trains leaders in organizations and is the author of “Leading from the Front.” His leadership workshops teach leaders at all levels the skills they need to thrive. He holds an M.A. in Leader Development from West Point and a B.S. in Business and Management from the University of Maryland. He can be reached at www.garicconsulting.com or (504) 837-4577.