Keeping your cool

I apologize.

Sorry I’m late.  I’ve been distracted the past couple of weeks by the Olympics. And what a glorious two weeks it has been – particularly if you are Canadian. Canada placed third in the medal count – behind the United States and Germany. We did, however, receive more medals than at any other games in our history. Canada also has the distinction of setting the world record for the most gold medals – fourteen – ever awarded to one country at a Winter Games.  Pretty cool.

They are many stories to tell about the Olympics. There are also so many things we can learn from them.  Here are some random examples that came to me:

First, I have often spoken in my keynote speeches about the difference between ‘sweating in private’ versus ‘sweating in public’. This means, of course, that you must do all of your preparation and planning in advance so that the performance looks effortless.  Unfortunately for the Canadian men’s hockey team, they had to do some of their preparation in the public eye, and it showed. The team had to experiment with line combinations, for example, throughout the tournament as they had little time to practice prior to the tournament. In the end, although they had to play four games in six days, they came together and won the Gold. (And what a thrilling game it was; hats off to the American team.)

Second, how Evgeni Plushenko, the Russian figure skater won Silver when he expected Gold. The difference – in my opinion, and that of many of the pundits – was that he barely walked through his routine in the practice session on the day of the finals. He violated what I call the Ramsay Rule. John Ramsay, a great Scottish sleight-of-hand magician, always stressed the need to practice the sequence or routine before the show – on the day of the show. Plushenko didn’t and it showed. His jumps and landings were not as crisp as they should have been. That was the difference.

Third, to win one must be committed to the entire process. Olympic champions must execute at every moment during their event. It was sad to see, for example, a potential Gold medalist settle for Silver because he let up for a fraction of a second near the finish line because he thought he was in a position to win.

Fourth, when you push the envelope, disastrous things happen, but without pushing that envelope, you cannot win. You saw this all the time in the speed-skating events. How heartbreaking it must have been for the South Korean team when, instead of sweeping the podium, the third place skater, trying to jump ahead, wiped out – and took the second place skater, a fellow countryman, out of the race.

Fifth, even with a perfect race, the difference between first and second, or even fifth in any field is minimal. I’ll never forget, for example, Devon Kershaw, the Canadian cross-country skier who placed 5th in the 50 km race. The difference between his fifth place finish and first, after racing 50 km over the course of two plus hours – 1.6 seconds!

Sixth, the courage displayed in the face of adversity.  This was on display in Vancouver perhaps more than at any other recent staging of the Games.  First, from the team from Georgia who had to deal with the death of one of their colleagues, Nodar Kumaritashvili, a luger who flew off the track and was killed during a practice run on the afternoon of the opening ceremony; then, to the Canadian figure-skater, Joannie Rochette, whose greatest coach and fan – her mother – died of a heart attack at the Olympics a couple of days before her daughter’s Olympic skate. Rochette performed the skate of her life – twice – and won the Bronze medal.

[I’ve always been intrigued by the figure skating.  It seems the closest thing to performing magic at the Games. It requires virtuoso skill, coupled with movement and music, rendered in an artistic manner. Very difficult.]

Finally, vision, that is the ability to visualize every aspect of your work, prior to executing it, and how important it is to success. In less than 28 seconds, for example, a man or woman skiing the moguls had to execute 64 different twists and turns, at exactly the right moment in the course, to achieve success, and how each athlete had the power to visualize each and every single one of those movements without actually making the run.

Don Greene discusses this technique, and many others, in his superb book Performing Success:  Performing Your Best Under Pressure. Greene helps elite athletes and musicians cope with pressure and deliver maximum results.  He maps out techniques for practicing and rehearsing leading up to the event, the importance of visualization, creating adverse or challenging conditions, and a host of other suggestions, so that you are in a position to win.  I recommend his book for anyone serious about improving their game – and that includes the game of “business”.

Although the next Winter games are four years away, you can bet that not only are people preparing for them today, they have been doing so for years.

What are you waiting for?

I Believe

I believe.

That’s the mantra my fellow Canadians are chanting to encourage Canadian athletes to deliver gold at the Winter Olympics. The games, as you know, open this Friday in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. The expectations are high and the pundits predict that this will be Canada’s most successful Winter games.

The Olympics gives cause to reflect on the amount of practice and perseverance required for success. I’ve often spoke about my son and his skating coach who informed him that it took 800 repetitions before a movement became embedded into muscle memory; and that Olympians generate over 16,000 repetitions to achieve a modicum of success. I suspect that number is a conservative one.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell – a Canadian – mentions the “10,000 hour rule”, namely that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in any area or endeavour. I have certainly logged over 10,000 hours of practice and plan on logging easily that many more hours. It is easy to do if one views practice as part of the process rather than the end goal.

Recently, while conducting research on Max Malini (mentioned in an earlier post), I came across an article published in March 1920 in The Magical Bulletin (Vol. 8, No. 3) in which the author, Edward H. Philbrook, spoke with Malini about the secret of his success. It wasn’t Malini’s technical virtuosity or bold personality that made him successful; the real secret was “rehearsal”.

Interestingly, Margaret Wente in her Globe and Mail column “Have you done your 10,000 hours”, discusses an alternate point of view Steven Pinker, another Canadian, tables in his book The Blank Slate. Pinker, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard, claims that innate talent and intelligence matter more than we like to openly champion. We emphasize the power of hard work – 10,000 hours – because it is politically correct.

While I believe talent, intelligence, practice and persistence are all required, practice and persistence are key. The reason being there are now so many talented and intelligent people in this world, one must look to other factors – practice and persistence – to separate those who truly excel from those who don’t. Persistence, what Canadians call ‘heart’, has always been our strong suit. When it comes to ice hockey, however, as I’m sure these games will demonstrate, the playing field – or ice – is now much more level. Canadians, and Americans, have adopted the best practices of European skill development; Europeans now understand the importance of heart and tenacity. Now, it’s anyone’s game.

Perhaps it comes down to a matter of faith. If so, that’s good.

I believe.