This message began as a story about a race. An unlikely, great Olympic race. But this is not just a story about Dave Wottle. Everyone is coming out of an unspeakably difficult year. One more week, even one more day, seems like a great strain. We are weary; days are heavy, sometimes discouraging. Many of us may have lost loved ones or livelihoods. Businesses we have known for fifty years are gone. We may feel so far behind from where we were one year ago. For many, living and working remotely is a hardship and has caused immense anguish. At the minimum, it is a huge change for all of us. Lives and families have been altered drastically. It is hard to imagine that we may be entering an even more difficult stretch of months. So, the question becomes, what are we going to do?
Maybe you are afraid. Maybe you, friends, and colleagues question if you may make it through this time. You may feel like you are so far behind. How long is it going to take to get back to where I need to be? What if things get worse?
Maybe there’s a new story, one that’s not over before we have written it. With even a little bit of courage, in the face of immense adversity, there is a reason for hope. With that hope, there is a chance for action. Dave Wottle’s massive comeback in his 800m run at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany gives us a strong example of how to perform at your best.
How do you perform at your best when you are weary and fearful, and everything rides on your performance?
We may need to approach this new year differently than how we approached the beginning of the pandemic. We now know this uncertainty will not resolve in a month or two and we cannot simply ride it out or continue as before. Even as people are receiving the vaccines, the healing process is only beginning. We must still keep our guard up, we must still wear masks, we must still socially distance, and we must still limit our travel. Navigating towards a more stable position will require thoughtful, conscious decision-making and courage. What do you need to do next? What do you need to address in order to reclaim stability, security, and peace of mind? Starting from the position many of us are in, we must confidently rely on what we do really, really well.
What is it you do really well? What strengths get you through times of anxiety and fear? When it comes down to the moment when we need our best, we rely on our natural strengths. It is time to put those strengths to work. Preparing a plan that plays to our natural strengths may provide an opportunity to restore a stronger foundation in a better direction.
The story of Dave Wottle illustrates the importance of long and careful preparation and the possibility of a remarkable, tremendous result. U.S. Olympic runner, Dave Wottle had recently recovered from severe tendonitis in both knees and had taken time away from the track to spend with his new wife. Lanky and wearing a golf cap, he didn’t look the part, especially not against the others, all of whom were former medal-winners and one of whom was undefeated for three years. Here he was, unknown runner from Bowling Green State University in Ohio, stepping to the starting line of the 1972 Munich Olympics 800m final. Everything was riding on this race. The intimidation of his first Olympics was immense.
For the first half of the race, he fell painfully behind. His prevailing thought, as he later explained in an interview, was that his mother was going to be so embarrassed. Even the back of the pack’s lead was seemingly insurmountable. But Wottle’s position was no mistake; he was not slower than he expected, everyone else just took off. He was running exactly as he planned.
As he hit the bell lap, he looked for a spot on the outside of the pack. Little known, he planned to catch the fastest runners in the world at this exact distance. What a furious kick he could deliver when he needed. Before you knew it, he joined the pack. Over only 25m, he passed four runners one by one on the outside, working his way into striking distance of the lead runners. You can see him with only steps left in the race slowly overcome the three lead runners with a margin so narrow, he appears unaware he pulled it off.
Dave Wottle’s Olympic win was uncommon. He certainly was among the most unlikely winners, coming from so far behind, his first aim was to avoid an embarrassing finish. But his race was possible, very possible. He ran with immense courage to stay back and on pace until he was ready, then get into a competitive position for the final stretch. With less than forty meters remaining he furiously caught four of the five runners ahead of him. He passed the fifth runner in his last step.
The story of Dave Wottle’s historic run stands to teach us lessons of peak performance. It took immense courage to run on race-day just as he prepared to run. That is the core of peak performance: to consistently deliver one’s best when they need their best. Even when he was far behind the pack, with everything riding on the line, he resisted giving into fear and breaking his plan. I consider that being a champion. In whatever you do, whether you are an Olympic athlete, a venture team leader, a multinational corporate executive, or leading a few others, you can achieve peak performance.
Not everyone can be an Olympian, but anyone can build a champion’s mindset. It requires reshaping how we think about preparation and how we approach the moments when we need our best. With so much riding on 2021, we will need our best.
While it may be tempting to jump ahead to envision the end of this pandemic story, thinking about the outcomes of this year distracts us from taking a measured approach to our path forward. To draw on the running analogy, most people are underactive during practice and overactive during their event. People frequently overlook preparation as secondary to performance, but preparation is how a person becomes a champion. Preparation adds focus. It is how we can attain peace of mind and a renewed sense of security in these trying times. By putting our pieces in place and having a plan for how we can get to where we want to be, we can take the problem one step at a time and keep a clear mind.
Do you have the resources you need in order to prepare well?
2021 has become our Olympic stage. In the coming months, there may be many moments that significantly impact each of our futures. It is a lot of pressure. We may take a lesson from Dave Wottle here. The other runners took off so fast, maybe too fast. Focusing on the other runners may not be constructive. During these troubled times, focusing on the circumstances around us will inevitably induce anxiety and impair our performance. With so much on the line, getting to where we want to go depends on our ability to stay focused on how we can best use this time to place ourselves in a better position for tomorrow. How would you view yourself and the position you are in today outside the context of the pandemic?
Especially during the pandemic, for many it may seem like setting goals seems like too much when some businesses cannot even open their doors. But the goals that send us the furthest are the ones that currently seem out of reach. In other words, our willingness to look beyond the moment gives us the chance to grow. A tough, detailed self-evaluation of our goals, and our strengths that can help reach those goals, may not always be straightforward. Do you have someone who you trust to help evaluate yourself?
This point may be particularly difficult to digest this year. For too many, no matter what they tried, the pandemic has proved too onerous for their business. Many business owners will have to find a new path. Even the ones that remain open or will be able to reopen following the vaccine, will have to switch gears. Business owners in either scenario can still attain their peak performance. The focus on peak performance is delivering one’s best when they need their best. Sometimes one’s best is about making progress to stability rather than climbing to the top.
Each of us understandably may have storm clouds swirling throughout our minds. Thoughts racing, doubts rising, fear brewing. Hopefully, this is one of the harder tests we encounter, but we must get comfortable being uncomfortable. Now more than ever, we must remain disciplined and patient, and act with a clear mind.
It has been very hard, even painful. We may see that we are way off our plan from a year ago. Recovery likely will be a deep test, once more. Perhaps for some, the most courageous thing to do is to ask for help. If so for you, please ask someone. For others, you may face the prospect of needing to take a great risk that would have seemed like a great reach a year ago. As you consider your options and actions, perhaps you may find a way to involve others or your team in a new way — and then become a stronger team going forward. As you prepare, you also may find that you need someone you can trust to partner with you and to help gain new and additional insights on your courageous journey.
There is no doubting the deep weariness after such a long run throughout the past year. But maybe you have an idea, a plan, and can see clearly what you have managed to do well so far in your challenge, even in the midst of great loss, uncertainty, and turbulent months. Please understand that an opportunity remains for us to do what we need — to deliver our best — in the next months and beyond. May we run with clear vision and take heart in pursuing unknown but new opportunities. May you, families, and those near you be at peace.