3 Ways to Become as Disciplined as an Olympian

What the Olympics can teach us about narrowing our focus.

Admit it: In your career you worry about being “pigeonholed” and stuck in a rut. We think we’ll end up doing the same thing for the rest of our lives, and never have the chance to prove our abilities in multiple areas. But at the Olympics—the top level of sports—being the best at a narrow niche is exactly what these competitors want.

The vast majority of Olympic athletes spend their careers concentrating on a single event. Even the rare multiple event superstars like Michael Phelps keep it all in the same athletic area, such as swimming.

So the question is: Why is Olympic performance so different from our typical performance in our own career? Why do we spend so much time bouncing around from job to job, organization to organization – all in a desperate attempt to escape the very thing that makes these athletes legendary?

In researching my new book, I discovered three key areas that open the door to Olympic levels of performance—either in athletics, business, or your personal life:

The Ability to Focus.

Great performers have the remarkable ability to focus on the one big thing they're facing. Today we live in the most distracted and disrupted culture in history. In an age of email, instant messaging, and mobile technology, it's more difficult that ever to focus on the task at hand.  

Recently, the journal Nature revealed an interesting study called “The Cocktail Party Effect.” Simply put, at a cocktail party with 30 or 40 people present, researchers discovered that human beings have the remarkable ability to focus on a single conversation happening across the room, but we can’t keep track of 2 or 3 conversations happening right next to us. The conclusion? Human beings are wired to focus. We’re designed to accomplish one big thing. Even in the middle of disruption and clutter, we can focus on a single thing across the room, but are unable to track multiple events right in front of our face.

Human beings are wired to focus. We’re designed to accomplish one big thing.

Study after study reveals that "multi-tasking" simply doesn't work. The only thing it does is help us do multiple things badly. That’s why if you want to excel, and reach new levels of productivity and excellence, then learn to focus.

Leave the past behind.

 
I spoke at a CEO conference in Los Angeles a few years ago and after the talk, the audience wrote their questions on index cards and passed them to me. Flipping through the cards, I was stunned at how many of the questions were alike: "How can I get over a past failure, and move my career and business forward?"  

It doesn't matter if it was a defeat in the last Olympic race, or a financial, marriage, career, or personal failure.

Dwelling on the past, only distracts us from the future.  

This year in London, American gymnast and World Champion Jordyn Wieber was devastated when she didn’t make the cut for the all around competition. But she didn’t dwell on failure. Just a day or two later, she led the American women to a dominant team victory. They defeated Russia by nearly five points and Jordyn Wieber was flawless. It was reported that once her floor routine was finished, Team USA's victory was on ice.

Whatever your failure, loss or defeat from the past, learn to let it go and focus on the future.

Don't settle.

I think that’s one reasons millions of people put their lives on hold to watch the Olympics. It’s one of the last places where people refuse to settle.

As I look around our culture today, every area of life is filled with mediocrity. Athletics, business, politics, school—even church and religious organizations. We settle for a lot of reasons—the need to be liked, laziness, insecurity and sometimes oddly enough, pride and arrogance. But whatever the reason, I honestly believe it's tearing apart the fabric of our society.  

Our politicians in Washington have exchanged vision for whatever the polling tells them, CEO's have exchanged integrity for a bump in the stock price, educators are more focused on their careers than their students. Chances are the level of excellence in your own work is something you'll regret later.  

I think that’s one of the most important reasons millions of people put their lives on hold to watch the Olympics. It’s one of the last great places where people refuse to settle.

Man up (or woman up). Make a stand. Push the boundaries, take a risk, and be willing to create a few enemies. As Winston Churchill said, "You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life."

9 Comments

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Jared commented…

Three things;

First if you intend to say something about higher education you need to clarify that that is the collegiate realm that you are thinking of. For most of the populace "education" means my kids k-12 teacher.

Second, to use "stereotypes exist for a reason" as a defense for being called out on mediocrity in journalism is incredibly short sighted. It opens the door for the same argument in other less innocuous areas i.e. "Women are less intelligent then men... stereotypes exist for a reason." If you are going to make generalizations back them up with stats, or don't make them at all.

Finally, I did enjoy your article and thought it a timely call to excellence and intentionality.

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Jared commented…

I just wanted to say that I do realize that CS, is not the author of this article.

Phil Cooke

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Phil Cooke commented…

Actually MR, I have a Ph.D in Theology, so I do have some authority to speak about education. And the truth is - just like every other area you can name - ministry, science, publishing, law, medicine, media, and more - there is far too much mediocrity. Instead of defending the status quo, why don't we join together and raise the bar? That will impact the culture in a far more effective way...

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Seth Cox commented…

Great post Phil! I absolutely agree with your point about our need to specialize. I think much of our inability to get traction can be attributed to a lack of focus and lack of tenacity in that focus. It's one thing to define a niche. It's another thing to stick to that niche day in day out. Consistency is key! Thanks again Phil. Looking forward to your book.

Seth Cox
www.sethcox.co

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Travis Dommert commented…

I love to think that we are all "wired for focus", but I think it would be more fair to say we are all "capable of focus".

If we are "wired" for something, wouldn't it be our tendency? In our work at irunurun, we are finding that most people suffer from a tragic lack of focus in both their professional and personal pursuits.

In fact, our results suggest that only 1-2% of people are able to sustain a high level of focus on their own. It is one of the reasons many highly disciplined people, including the members of the US Olympic team, have a coach...because most people simply cannot achieve their potential on their own.

Agree focus is essential...but a big caveat to readers...it is tougher than you might think!!!Enjoyed this piece and will check out your book, thank you!

travis dommert
irunurun

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