You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to benefit from the principles of sports psychology. As the author and seasoned Olympic coach Michael Bar-Eli of “Boost” explains, basketball teams and workplace teams alike can use the proven techniques of sports psychology to take their performance to the next level.
In the winter of 1971, the author, Michael Bar-Eli, was in the Israeli military, undergoing a tremendously challenging basic training that included finishing a 3,000-meter run in under 12 minutes. Time and time again, Bar-Eli found himself running at the end of the pack during the practice runs. And then, the commanding officer threatened to punish him with four extra hours of night-watch duty if he didn’t shape up.
This proved to be just the motivation the author needed. Immediately, he set himself the goal of keeping pace with the front-runners who were always beating the 12-minute mark. And sure enough, when it came time for the official race, Bar-Eli managed to come in under 12 minutes.
This experience taught the author an important lesson about how goals can greatly influence outcome, as long as those goals are specific.
Being specific is crucial because it leads to a detailed action plan that you can focus on and measure yourself against – all of which will help you achieve your goal.
In the case of the author’s 3-kilometer run, the goal was specific – keep up with the front-runners – and this allowed him to plan, focus and measure his progress by comparing his pace against theirs. In tracking himself against their speed, the author knew precisely when and where he needed to adjust in order to stay on track.
If the author had settled on just “doing his best,” he wouldn’t have been so focused and motivated, since there wouldn’t have been anything to measure his progress against. The author’s “best” has no specific pace.
One of the greatest Olympic swimmers in US history was John Naber, and he used this incremental goal-setting strategy with historic success. His specific long-term goal was to cut four seconds off his personal best in the four years before the next Olympics. If he did this, chances were he’d win gold.
Now, to reach this primary goal, he set small, yet still specific, short-term goals of shaving off a fraction of a second in each practice swim. He knew that, by doing this constantly, he could reach four seconds by the end of his four years of training. Naber’s strategy worked like a charm. The fractions of a second added up as planned, and his new time didn’t only win him the gold – it made him the holder of a world record.
In the ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor falls deeply in love with one of his statues, so much so that he prays to the goddess Venus that his statue may be given life. Venus sympathizes, grants the wish and the new couple have a child and live happily ever after. This ancient story highlights what modern psychology refers to as a “self-fulfilling prophecy” – when you have such strong faith in a particular outcome that it indeed does come to pass.
Well, the same thing can happen with athletic performance. The expectations players have can greatly influence the outcome of their performance. And one of the best ways to change their expectations is to boost their self-confidence.
So how can you improve self-confidence? There are two primary methods:
The first is through vicarious experience: when you see someone else successfully make the high jump, it gives you greater confidence that you can do it, too.
The other self-confidence boost, which is even more powerful, comes from first hand experience. Let’s say a soccer player has a fear of penalty kicks, chokes every time and kicks the ball over the net. Well, this player might benefit from improving his self-confidence in another way – say, by being given some corner kicks. And then, when he feels more comfortable with high-pressure situations, he’ll have more confidence next time he makes a penalty kick.
1968 witnessed one of the greatest innovations in sports history. At the Summer Olympics in Mexico, Richard Douglas Fosbury, an Olympic high jumper, forever changed the event by doing something very silly looking. He forewent the traditional technique, known as the frontward straddle roll, and threw himself backward over the bar.
This unorthodox approach was met with a fair amount of skepticism, but the results spoke for themselves: Fosbury won gold and his new technique went down in history as the “Fosbury Flop.” Fosbury’s achievement highlights a trend in the world’s great innovations: they tend to come from unexpected places because they’re often somewhat counterintuitive.
Luckily, there is a pattern to innovation – one that can be broken down into four steps and put to use by anyone.
The first step happens when you encounter a problem.
In Fosbury’s case, the problem was that he had trouble using the frontward straddle roll technique, yet he still wanted to be a competitive athlete in his high school’s high jump competitions.
The second step happens when you discover an unexpected solution to the problem.
Fosbury sought alternatives to the traditional jump, which led first to experimenting with the outdated and inefficient scissor jump technique, which in turn led to Fosbury entertaining the unusual idea of jumping backward over the bar. And though it may have sounded unusual at the time, Fosbury’s experiments with the technique showed great promise.
The third step is to refine the idea through repetition.
Throughout his high-school years, Fosbury practiced his backward jump over and over again, refining it until he’d perfected the gold medal-winning “Fosbury Flop.”
The fourth step is to share the innovative idea for the world to adopt.
Fosbury had the best possible place to unveil his invention: the world stage of the Olympics. As a result, it was immediately adopted by the rest of the world. What was once most unusual is now a conventional technique that continues to be used by high jumpers of all nations.
When trying to be innovative, one shouldn’t put too much emphasis on rationality, for it’s often the unconventional ideas, thoughts and actions that lead to world-changing creativity.
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