August 11, 2008, Beijing Olympic games. The team from France was favored to beat the USA in the 4 X 100 meter men’s freestyle swim finals. They would race side-by-side in lanes 4 and 5.
Over a dozen world-record holders would be in the pool, including Michael Phelps who was seeking to set the record of gold medals won with eight; it wouldn’t happen without a win in this race.
By the third leg, the French overtook the USA and led by a body-length. For the USA, the final leg would be swam by 32 year-old Jason Lezak (Phelps was ten years younger). Typically, in the 100-meter race swimmers will pace themselves. As one record-holder said, “When I go max for 100, I die in the last ten meters.”
Lezak went max. When he flipped and turned for the last 50 meters, he was still three-quarters of a body length behind a record-holder. He said his muscles and lungs hurt intensely. He told himself there was no way to win, but he felt some confidence return when he got up to the leader’s hip.
Seeing the slightest chance to win, he felt supercharged. Over the last 15 meters he overtook the leader and won by an outstretched arm.
I remember watching it happen. Fans were stunned. His team was jumping up and down. Later, referring to the charge he experienced, Lezak said, “I’d never felt it before.”
Lezak won, but he wasn’t alone in top performance: five of the eight teams in that race finished ahead of the world-record time.
What Top Performers Know
Competition sparks unbelievable performance.
I was in a meeting this week. My friend and I were demonstrating an app that companies and organizations can use to “game” their teams - competitive measures in key performance areas.
During the course of the presentation, someone asked my friend a question about the productivity of competition. Picture a mature, extremely intelligent professional, soft-spoken and well-spoken; his answer, “Sometimes people just need a kick in the pants.”
He should know. HIs past teams still hold the record in an extremely large company for consecutive wins for quality scores.
How are you creating competition for yourself and in your teams so that you are drawing out their best performance?
We get complacent. And it’s okay to blame our brain or will or emotions. Because those three are guilty of the same trait: they fatigue. And in fatigue, you look for the easy way, not necessarily the best way.
But fatigue is an explanation, not an end-all.
But To Be Fair
Lezak benefited from three dynamics:
- The race was tight.
- The possibility of winning was there.
- The team was important to him.
For competition to bring out the best, it must be:
- Fair - You can win.
- Finite - It will have an end.
- Narrow in Field - Too many competitors makes for too much competition.
Another associate of mine developed an app that allows for competition within police forces. They have a performance measure, ranking system and scoreboard (and no, it’s not for the number of tickets issued). They worked with police to determine the behaviors and outcomes they wanted to reward in their officers, and then gamified it.
- What are the outcomes you want in your team that seem to be lagging behind? Will competition spur on better performance?
- What are common indicators in most of your projects? Do you have a measurement for it?
- How do you as a leader “game” yourself? The very question takes me back to grade-school and being a teacher’s assistant and having to hand-staple sets of papers together. I would watch the clock and time how many sets I could do in a minute, and then try to beat that the next minute.
I am a competitive person; and I have lost some competitive edge. It sneaks up on you. And before you know it, someone passes you.
Not today. Not in this pool. I’m a leader who wants to know how much I can take, and then take it further.
You don’t have anything to prove. But you have everything to win.