World Class

I love watching elite sports people competing under pressure.

This photo is taken from the London Olympics 10,000m final. The expressions on the three medalists’ faces tell the story…

MoFarrah

First: WTF, did that really happen?
Second: OMG, I’m a white dude winning a medal in a long-distance race at the Olympics!
Third: FML

The bronze medalist on this occasion was Kenenisa Bekele from Ethopia. The reason he’s looking a bit glum is that he was, and still is, the world record holder for this event, so no doubt was expecting more of himself on that evening.

(Interestingly, according to research, bronze medalists are usually happier than silver medalists – one possible explanation for this is that silver medalists compare themselves to the gold medal winner and wonder what could have been, where as bronze medalists compare themselves to the lower place getters and are happy to have a medal at all – success is all relative!)

Pace

It’s nearly impossible for the average person, watching on TV, to appreciate the speed that world class long distance runners run.

Bekele’s 10,000m world record is 27 min 17 sec, which is the equivalent of 100 consecutive 15.8 second 100m races. I doubt many people reading this could run a single 100m at that pace, if sprinting.

He ran the final kilometre of that race in 2 min 32 sec. Again, probably twice as fast as the average runner could go at full speed starting fresh, and he had already run 9km at world record pace before then!

There are only a handful of people on the planet who can sustain that sort of pace. If you watch any of the elite marathons you’ll see the leading group contains some designated pacemakers for the first 20 or 30km. They are themselves very, very good athletes, running at an eye watering pace, but they peel away eventually unable to stick with that speed over the critical final third of the race.

It’s difficult to find words to describe the gap between these guys and you and me.

The most obvious difference is genetic. Mo Farrah, the gold medalist above, is 1.75m (my height) but 58kg (somewhat less than my weight!) The world record holder, Bekele, is 54kg. That physiological difference is telling. Fewer than 40 people have ever run sub-27 mins for the 10,000m, and Chris Solinsky, at 74kg, is the only one heavier than 65kg.

But, of course, it’s much more than that. There are plenty of people born with the same genetics as those guys who never go on to athletic greatness. It takes half a lifetime of hard work to get to the start line capable of running at that pace. The media loves stories about people who come from nowhere to win, but these days those sort of performances are more than likely to attract suspicion rather than admiration. Most champions are well signposted, with a long history of improving performances from a very young age.

For example, Usain Bolt ran the 200m in 21.81sec in 2001, when he was 15, seven years before setting the world record of 19.30sec at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, with small but consistent improvement every year in between.

Or, consider Tiger Woods as a 2 year old:

Then a 14 year old (already a junior world champion, and scratch handicapper):

Then a 30 year old:

According to the video title this is the best shot ever played, which is a big claim, but possibly true – it was the 16th hole, in the final round of a major tournament and in an amazing setting. Imagine being Tom DiMarco who had to putt immediately after this! As it happened, he missed his gettable birdie putt and when on to lose to Tiger in a playoff.

Confidence

Standing on the breakwater, in front of the Golden Gate Yacht Club in San Francisco, on the morning of 7th September earlier this year waiting for race one of the Americas Cup to start, my heart rate was noticeably higher than it normally is. It’s hard to comprehend how the team themselves must have felt, given what they had personally invested in the whole event. Up close the fragility and bespoke-ness of the boat is much more obvious. They are designed and constructed to sail right on the limits.

Somehow those on board continue to operate and hold it all together despite those nerves. The very best actually seem to thrive on the pressure.

And, it wasn’t just physical. There was an amazing moment in the press conference after day four of racing. Team NZ were dominating the event at that stage, winning both races that day, and leading 6 to 1 overall in the first to 9 series (actually 6 to -1, as Oracle didn’t get to count their first two wins due to a penalty). Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill is asked how he was dealing with the pressure, and replies:

“I think the question is: imagine if these guys lost from here. What an upset that would be. They’ve almost got it in the bag. So, that’s my motivation. That would be one hell of a story, one hell of a comeback. And that’s the kind of thing that I’d like to be a part of. I’ve been involved in some big fight backs, with some big challenges, facing a lot of adversity. That would be the kind of thing I’d love to be involved in.”

You can see it starting around 21mins into this video:

Huge words, and with the benefit of hindsight quite prophetic. That’s a remarkable level of self-confidence bordering on cockiness. And it was a deliberate strategy. I’d love to know how much he actually believed himself deep down, that day.

Watch the video and imagine yourself in Dean Barker’s position, and wonder how you would respond to that sort of comment – not just immediately, but lying in bed trying to get to sleep that night and then looking across the water on the start-line the next day with him smiling back at you.

Bonus: Dean Barker, interviewed on Radio NZ recently about his experience in San Francisco.

Executing the Basics

If you get a chance to go to an All Blacks game be sure to get there early and watch the team warming up. Take some binoculars and just follow one player. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find it mesmerising to watch them run though a very methodical set of exercises as they prepare for the game.

There are hundreds of thousands of kids who grow up dreaming of being an All Black. There are thousands who play at 1st XV level, and every year there are a couple of hundred who play professionally and are eligible for selection. The breadth of that pyramid and the competition for places and desire to be part of the team that results probably goes a long way to explaining why the level of performance is so high at the very top.

It’s tempting to imagine that those who are picked have something magical that sets them apart from mere mortals. But, actually it’s not magic.

It was fascinating last year to work with some of the All Blacks and see them describe some of their roles in their own words, and understand the thinking and preparation that goes into the performances we all get to watch and enjoy (and heavily criticise when things, occasionally, don’t fall their way):

They are talking about the same skills that any weekend warrior has – passing, tackling, kicking – but these guys are able to perform those skills consistently under extreme pressure of time and space.

Or, as eloquently put by the NZ Herald after the Bledisloe Cup match in Wellington earlier this year:

“They are the rugby equivalent of the great Dutch football team of the 1970s, seemingly full of genius ploys when really, their whole game is about supreme execution of the basics.”
NZ Herald

It’s very easy to talk about executing the basics. But, actually, just doing that consistently and despite all that is happening around you is enough to set you apart from nearly everybody else in the world.

Are you really?

The expression “world class” gets casually thrown around, like a frisbee at the beach on a sunny afternoon. But most people who use it actually have no concept.

In sport there is an obvious and massive gap between the elite few and everybody else. It’s tempting to bridge that gap in your mind and imagine that you could be a contender, but that doesn’t often stand up to much scrutiny.

And likewise in business. And especially in start-up businesses.

It seems so possible to start a company and dream big. Anybody could do it, right? I have a great idea for an app, if only I could find a developer to build it for me. Or, I’ve built this amazing dingus and just need to find some way to sell it (or even more delusionaly, I just need to get it out there and it will sell itself).

It is worth taking the time to ask yourself at the outset if you can be world class.

Do you have the desire to put in the years of hard slog and dedicated focus, to be able to push yourself to match the performance of the very best out there (keeping in mind that every founder thinks they can do in two years what always takes at least five, often seven, sometime even longer)?

Can you look your competitors in the eye and confidently know that you are mentally stronger and able to execute better when it counts? And, even if you don’t believe that, are you able to talk it up anyway, so at least they believe you do?

Are the basics so ingrained, due to consistent and repeated execution over time, that you’re able to repeat them almost mindlessly, even when time and other constraints are working against you?

Are you world class? Really?

Of course you can be world class. Don’t let me convince you otherwise.

But, you don’t achieve that by calling yourself world class.

You achieve that by competing with, and beating, the best in the world.

4 thoughts on “World Class”

  1. Hi Rowan. Great post.

    I think about world-class a little bit differently. You implied in the last few sentences that to be world-class you have to win. But surely, everyone who competed at the London Olympics 10,000m final was world-class (or at least olympic class)? You might think it’s semantics, but I think that it’s not always useful (or healthy) to strive to be the very best, the number one, the world champion.

    For example, I want us to build a world-class dev team here at Vend. I want us to help invent best practice, host site visits from other SaaS companies wondering how we do what we do, have my guys keynoting at conferences. But I don’t want the number one dev team in the world. The extra work is not worth the extra 0.1s performance improvement.

    1. In any race there is only one winner. And there are a lot of examples in sport of world class performances which ultimately weren’t winning performances. So, I don’t think one necessarily implies the other.

      I suspect that most elite sports people would judge their performance mostly relative to what they are capable of and what they expected of themselves, rather than how that compared to others. Competition gives them a relative measure to push themselves to perform better than they may have previously thought possible (there are many famous rivalries which are good examples of this).

      So, you’re right – it’s not nearly as simple as winning.

      And, of course, the sporting arena comes with slightly contrived rules which make for easy measurement. The real world is different and messy and as a result often much more subjective.

      How would you even determine if you were the very best dev team? I think the three measures you’ve put up are great – it’s interesting that they are all education related and involve a relative external comparison.

      Different teams will measure themselves in different equally valid ways. So, at that point, we’re back to the comparison with your potential or expected performance. Do that well and others will call you world class.

  2. Good read – interesting to see that Tiger’s attitude and even the mannerisms in his game haven’t really changed since he was so young!

    For you as an investor Rowan, I suspect that over-use of phrases like “world class” become noise that you get good at filtering. For me, as a start-up founder in a SaaS space full of competing solutions, this topic is particularly relevant from a customer-centric perspective.

    Imagine the small business owner who’s good at their job and loves what they do. They decide to upgrade some software – not something they are doing day in and day out. A quick Google search returns dozens of solutions claiming to be “world class”. The marketing sites all look amazing.

    Are all of those apps world class? I can guarantee that they aren’t. In fact some of them probably hardly even work. Imagine the fatigue of wading through the trial accounts to find a good solution. A quote yesterday from a new customer we had was “I installed and tested about 20 of them!”. Poor bugger.

    Like your first example above, start-ups are a marathon. You can start with a sprint and stick your nose out for a few hundred meters. But will you be there at the end?

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