Skip to content

Innovation lessons for startups from Olympian Dick Fosbury

August 22, 2016

The Rio Olympics saw 11,414 athletes step into the spotlight, and whatever the outcome, medal or not, they had achieved a level of performance to be admired. They did it. They beat the odds. They made it.

But what about the gold medallists, what makes on Olympic Champion? The combination of biological and psychological factors, and regular training, are key, but there is also risk taking and innovation, a need to do something different to find an edge on the competition when it matters most.

Innovation is key to any startup business, and Olympian Dick Fosbury captures the very essence of this. Fosbury is considered one of the most influential athletes in history after winning a gold medal at the 1968 Olympics and revolutionising the high jump event, inventing a unique ‘back-first’ technique, known forever as the ‘Fosbury Flop’, adopted by all high jumpers today.

When sixteen-year-old Fosbury first attempted the high jump at school he didn’t qualify for local club meetings. With a bad back, bad feet, and a weak body frame body, he was hardly champion material. He also had a terrible habit of jumping and landing the wrong way, to the dismay of his coaches.

Five years later, he broke high jump records, winning gold at the 1968 Olympic Games by clearing 7ft 4in.

At the time, competitors used what was known as the ‘straddle’ technique, running straight and seeking to clear the bar face-down, kicking their legs up and over in succession. At the 1968 Olympics, Fosbury shocked the world by running at the bar in a diagonal arc, jumping off the ‘wrong’ foot, and arching himself over the bar backwards — resulting in implausible height and the world record.

His method was to sprint diagonally towards the bar, then curve and leap backwards over the bar, which gave him a much lower centre of mass in flight (it was actually below his body) than traditional techniques.

Fosbury first started experimenting with his approach aged sixteen. Over the next two years, the evolution began. High jump rules stipulated only that competitors jump off one foot at take-off, there was no rule governing how a competitor crosses the bar, so long as they went over.

So he began to experiment with his technique, gradually adapting it to make himself more comfortable and to get more height, such that by his senior year he had begun to go over the bar backwards, headfirst, curving his body over the bar and kicking his legs up in the air at the end of the jump. This required him to land on his back, but prior to his junior year, his high school had replaced its wood chip landing pit with foam rubber so he was able to land safely.

Having previously failed to jump beyond 5ft 3in, he broke his high school record with a 6ft 3in jump, and the next year achieved 6ft 5.5in using his now recognised ‘Fosbury Flop’. Still under pressure to use the traditional technique, he won the argument when he cleared 6ft 10in.

As a student of physics and maths, Fosbury continued to refine his technique by studying ergonomics, developing a curved, J-shaped approach run. This allowed him to increase his speed, while the final curved steps served to rotate his hips. As his speed increased, so did his elevation.

Fosbury’s key discovery was the need to adjust his point-of-take off as the bar was raised. His flight through the air described a parabola, giving more ‘flight time’ so that the top of his arc was achieved as his hips passed over the bar. To increase ‘flight time’, Fosbury moved his take-off farther and farther away from the bar and the pit.

Jumpers have a natural tendency to be drawn in closer to the bar and it requires mental discipline to move out, rather than in. By way of comparison, Straddle jumpers planted their take-off foot in the same place every time, less than one foot away from a line parallel with the bar. Photographs of Fosbury attempting heights above 7ft show him taking off nearly 4ft out from the bar.

Fosbury’s new style was criticised at first. One local newspaper said that he looked like ‘a fish flopping in a boat’ while another called him the ‘World’s Laziest High Jumper’. But Fosbury went on to win a place in the US team with a jump of 7ft 3in.

In the Finals competition, only three jumpers cleared 7ft 2½in, and Fosbury lead by virtue of having cleared every height on his first attempt. At the next height, 7ft 3¼in, Fosbury again cleared the bar on his first jump. The bar was raised to 7ft 4¼in, what would be a new Olympic record.

Fosbury failed on his first two attempts, but cleared on his third, securing the gold medal. Fosbury asked the bar to be raised to 7ft 6in, hoping to break Valeriy Brumel’s five-year-old world record. However, none of his attempts came close to clearing.

Four years later, in the Munich Olympics, 28 of the 40 competitors used Fosbury’s technique, although gold medallist Jüri Tarmak used the straddle technique. By 1980, 13 of the 16 Olympic finalists used it, and of the 36 Olympic medallists in the event from 1972 through 2000, 34 used ‘the Flop’.

Today it is the most popular technique in modern high jumping. Javier Sotomayor (Cuba) is the current men’s record holder with a jump of 8ft 014 in set in 1993 – the longest standing record in the history of the competition and the only human being to jump over eight feet. Derek Drouin from Canada won gold in Rio with a jump of 7ft 10in.

Fosbury’s breakthrough took his sport to a new level. He did it not by working harder or developing bigger muscles than his competitors, but by recognising that a convention of his sport was not a rule. The same pattern is present in breakthrough innovations in business. Dramatic progress happens when entrepreneurs break rules that aren’t actually rules – in other words, when they rethink assumptions.

This is what psychologist Edward de Bono called ‘lateral thinking’. In most usual, real life situations we assume certain perceptions, concepts and boundaries. Lateral thinking is concerned not with playing with the existing boundaries and norms but with seeking to change this framework.

So how did Fosbury adopt this Lateral Thinking approach and convince himself to use his unorthodox technique? What can we learn from this to aid the calling of an entrepreneur to forge her own path despite the obstacles? Here’s what Fosbury did.

Be prepared to experiment One of the interesting interviews I’ve seen with Fosbury was explaining how he built experimentation into his training programme. The science was clear regarding the ergonomics to reproduce specific athletic movements of the arch of the back and speed perfectly, and skill in getting the body, arms, hands and feet into a position to create an extra inch of height. He then practiced, over and over again.

Measure performance All athletes measure performance whether it’s time, weight, height, or distance. Whatever the metric, they constantly evaluate where they are compared to where they expect to be, and whether they are on-track to achieve their goals or not. By evaluating performance they can determine if they need to change their plans.

Fosbury kept a meticulous journal of the metrics of his performance. At the end of every training session or competition, Fosbury debriefed to both understand performance, but also set targets for next time. In business you need to measure so you can analyse how to be more effective in the future. What gets measured gets improved. It’s an attitude of constant improvement.

Train like a champion No matter how talented an athlete is, they train to perfect their skills and maintain peak levels of performance. Continuing to dream is part of this, they never stop striving for that next big performance.

This captures the essence of Fosbury, planning to compete at the highest level and putting in a shift, like all high-performance athletes he planned out his training schedules in advance to make sure he reached specific performance goals.

Dont settle for good enough, use pressure to improve your focus Most business folk lack the same level of mental discipline that Fosbury had in abundance. One of the risks for businesses is being tolerant of sub-optimal performance. When an athlete does badly, their performance is reviewed and analysed from all angles and they work out how to improve from there. In business, average performance is often tolerated.

The choice is yours – average work, yields average results. In today’s global economy it is easy to think as a startup you cannot change anything and to struggle due to scale, yet there are entrepreneurs that are flying, so use the pressure to set the bar higher and to improve your focus. Chose your attitude and get the right mindset.

Focus on what you do best Fosbury was a specialist. Weight-lifters and divers have specialised skills, strengths and body types that enable them to compete in one sport. Other than in the pentathlon and decathlon, high-level sport is dominated by niche-oriented athletes who focus on just one field.

Increasingly, businesses must recognise that the more they pursue a single niche, the more they will succeed. Understand your true strengths and the unique way you create value for customers, and find an area of focus where you stand at the top of the world. Keep getting better at that one thing.

Set your priorities When asked what he had sacrificed to get to where he is now, Fosbury replied by saying ‘nothing’. The career he built and the accomplishments that came with it were because of choices he made – not sacrifices. He set his priorities and executed on them.

The principles applied at mastering a sport can also be applied to startup life. If we learn from athletes like Fosbury and filter the noise around us, focus on the task that we prioritise to be highest, be passionate about the things that mean most to us, and ensure we are resilient along the way, who knows, perhaps we can win our own gold medal.

Self-belief Did you ever doubt it? Fosbury didn’t. He found his fire. Know where your fire is and follow it. Even though the switch from sand to foam landing pits allowed athletes to experiment with a wider range of jumping techniques, everyone continued to do the same old thing until Fosbury came along.

Fosbury’s achievement is exactly why you see startups completely disrupt established industries. Take Uber for example. Taxis were the standard way to get around cities for decades. Then mobiles and internet access became the norm in our daily lives, but everyone continued to flag down taxis and pay for them the old fashioned way. The environment had changed, but the behaviour stayed the same.

Then one day Uber came along and said ‘Use your phone to request a car, we’ll pick you up wherever you are at, and you can easily pay through your phone’. Today, Uber is the biggest taxi company in the world. When the environment around a task changes, a new and better way to do things is usually possible.

You have to be willing to experiment with new ideas if you’re serious about discovering what works best for you. A startup is successful by following this path, spotting opportunities and winning by doing things differently. The key is to be aware of when the landing material has changed, so that you can experiment with new jumping styles.

It makes sense in most sports to reject the title ‘greatest of all time’ as Time has not yet run out. The boundaries are always being pushed back, new peaks crested. Yet Fosbury will always be in the Olympic pantheon, as his contribution is not measured simply in medals, but as an innovator.

For me, Fosbury’s influence is just as profound beyond the track. The human brain struggles to process such anomalous brilliance and disruptive thinking, but we all have to find our own flop if we are to win.


No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: