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What Can We Learn From Olympic Coaches?

25/08/2016 16:46 | Updated 25 August 2016
Tom and Steve via Getty Images

Double Loop Learning

Listening is to hearing what seeing is to looking. Check this out:

I love
Rio in the
the summertime.

You that read wrong.

You read that wrong too.

Shocking, isn't it?

Not the message, which after all, makes no sense, but the fact that we can get it so wrong.

In my work, as an adviser to sporting and business leaders, I have witnessed how they are able to get athletes to mentally come alive and prepare to deliver their very best performance at the moment it is most required.

The reason we misread the sentence, as you have probably guessed, is all down to one simple thing: our brain's persistent and hard-wired preoccupation for taking short cuts. When we look at a word, we tend to swallow it whole instead of taking each of its constituent components in turn. As a result, as long as the first and last letters remain the same, our refined cognitive palates are more than happy to swallow it down in one go as opposed to chewing it over.

This is the same when we hear someone talking. Most of the time, as long as we see the lips moving in synch and detect words coming out of their mouths, we are perfectly happy to let our brains flick over to autopilot and let whatever they happen to be saying go in one ear and out of the other.

Think about the last time you were genuinely surprised.

When I work with teams, I often put a picture of Susan Boyle on the screen and asked how many people recognised her. Nearly 80% acknowledge that they know of the Scottish singer who sprang to prominence on the stage of the TV talent show Britain's Got Talent in 2009.

'Why,' I asked, 'do you know who the person who came second on a show so many years ago is yet would struggle to recognise the numerous winners since?'

The most common answer to the question was Susan Boyle wasn't what you expected. 'She wasn't as useless as I thought she'd be,' was the politest response.

Note the most important four words:

Wasn't what you expected.

Think of the great discoveries of our time - Columbus setting sail to the edge of a world considered to be flat; Edison discovering light without heat; Wilbur and Orville Wright achieving the very first powered flight; Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon. These were all achieved by people who refused to let their own horizons represent the limits of what can be achieved. In sporting terms, think how Dave Brailsford didn't merely look at the world of cycling to recruit members of his support team, or how Clive Woodward utilised the best minds in business and education to help him create an elite culture in rugby.

Breakthroughs in sport have come from innovators. Think of Kevin Pietersen introducing the switch hit to international cricket, or Sonja Hennie winning the gold medal in figure skating at the 1928 Olympics by going out of the traditional skating 'box' and introducing ballet into her routine. Some have even given their game to an innovation: the Fosbury Flop in the high jump, the Cruyff Turn and the Panenka in football, and Federer's SABR (Sneak Attack By Roger) in tennis. In other words, doing what wasn't expected - not so much pushing the envelope as ignoring it.

Most people possess a model of the world, a script for how things should be. What stops innovation is the lack of willingness to double back and revisit our scripts and determine whether they are helpful or not. When I hear coaches respond to a defeat by declaring that they will 'work harder', I often wonder whether they are making the same mistake of thinking that simply shouting louder at someone who speaks a foreign language will make them understand the point any clearer. It's not working harder but working smarter which is what double loop thinking requires us to do.

Chris Evans recounts that he knew he was in professional trouble when his best friends were all on his payroll. "They were paid to laugh at my jokes," he recalls. The best coaches resist the urge to run with the herd, recruiting people from outside their own areas of expertise and allowing them to challenge. It is easy to run with the herd. Even on our most important issues of the day, we often adopt views of our friends, families and colleagues. On some level, this makes sense: it is easier to fall in line with what your friends and family think than to find new family and friends. But running with the herd means we are quick to embrace the status quo, slow to change our minds and happy to delegate our thinking.

As I have pored over the thousands of notes and observations from the great coaches I have seen and studied - including rowing's Jurgen Grobler, cycling's Shane Sutton and Dave Brailsford and numerous elite coaches - I have recognised, over and over, the same principles at work. They all deliver their message using five STEPS:

Simplicity of ideas, Thinking skills, Emotional Intelligence, Practical language, Story telling ability.

It is, however, their focus on the thinking skills - notably, the ability to solve problems and do so under intense pressure - which distinguishes them. They don't simply issue a set of prescriptions. They want to make athletes think.

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