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Home » Featured, Talent

Lessons from the world of sport #1 – playing to your strengths

Submitted by on Tuesday, 16 June 2009One Comment

‘Can companies learn from the world of sport?’ We’re sometimes asked by our clients.

The answer we give invariably is, ‘yes’, with the belief that companies can do so in a multitude of ways.

The great thing about sport is that so many of the behaviours, emotions, actions, moments of teamwork and the flashes of individual brilliance – are often on open display.


In companies it’s different. Many of these things remain largely hidden. This is why we feel that sport makes for a great classroom point for people in business.

We kick off this series of articles on Lessons from the World of Sport with a focus on Talent and how, by understanding it better, we can play to our strengths.

We look at what Talent is, how it works, and how one Olympic Champion has applied that understanding to achieve outstanding success.

That person is Michael Phelps. Many may know him for his incredible haul of 21 Olympic Golds and no fewer than 14 world records.

Yet, unbeknown to many of our readers, Michael Phelps is a mediocre swimmer. At long distances.

Playing to his strengths: Michael Phelps
Playing to his strengths: Michael Phelps

A perfect illustration of how Talent works and how, in his case, it has been turned into performance and results lies in this story of how Phelps reacted to this unfortunate weakness.

No matter how hard he trains, no matter how meticulously he prepares and how more dedicated he could possibly be, Michael Phelps will never be more than a mediocre swimmer over long distances. Why? Because of a simple physical condition: the nature of the ‘twitch’ fibres in his muscles.

We all have different types of twitch fibres, and their composition can’t be changed. Having a predominance of ‘high’ twitch fibres means Phelps is naturally predisposed to short distance swimming which relies on explosive bursts of energy. All the swimmers who are successful over long distances have ‘slow’ twitch fibres, more suited to slow-burn, endurance type of swimming.

How Phelps’ story applies to Talent in your place of work

The key learning here is that your type of muscle forms according to a genetic code, which can’t be changed through training. The brain, being a muscle, is also no different.

In the brain’s case, as it develops through childhood, synaptic connections are made which form the communication superhighways between different areas of the brain, which in turn determine how we perceive, absorb and organise the information hitting us every nanosecond – and then put it to use.

And, just as Michael Phelps is suited to certain types of swimming (due to the formation of his type of body muscle) we, performing day-to-day tasks, are also suited to certain types of work due to the formation of  these connections in the brain. This is nothing to do with the ‘content’ or knowledge of the work, but how naturally some of the following roles come to us:

  • Strategic decision-making
  • Connecting with people empathetically
  • Coaching
  • Creating artistically, and
  • Managing processes and procedures (among others)

And if any of the above do not come naturally or instinctively to us, the chances we will be happy or successful performing tasks (or jobs) requiring their use is highly unlikely.

Where it all goes wrong in companies

Unfortunately, as commonsense as the above findings may sound, it is not what many companies practise today.

This is because of a number of what we call ‘killer concepts’: the concepts, which unconsciously practised, strangle Talent. Here are three of them:

Killer Concept 1 Hire for knowledge and experience

Companies all too often give unduly high weights to knowledge (eg qualifications) and past experience when hiring for a position. Then they wonder why the same employees either leave or underperform when they ‘can’t get on’ with their job.

Killer Concept 2 Fix Weaknesses

Then, realising an employee has a weakness in an area, companies usually gear their training around trying to fix it, rather than beginning with the root cause and trying to discover that person’s natural talents and possible areas of strength (the syndrome of ‘square pegs in round holes’ is often a consequence of this flawed approach).

This is akin to making Michael Phelps train for long distance races, then curse his lack of application or willpower or any number of things when he only comes up with one bronze for a whole Olympics (say in the 1500m division) and nothing else besides.

Killer Concept 3 Promote a person to his or her level of incompetence

This is often called ‘The Peter Principle’, where one person, who might have excelled, say, as an engineer, is then promoted to the role of a manager. What happens next? If the person is no longer in areas of his or her natural role, missed project deadlines, employee disengagement, stress, and frustration typically ensue.

There are numerous alternatives a company can follow other than blindly ‘promoting’ employees to their level of incompetence, or playing them to their weaknesses.

Phelps revisited

The practice of fixing weaknesses has been largely been ingrained in us at school, where most of the effort was expended in ‘passing’ grades in subjects we hated rather than in ‘excelling’ in subjects we loved (often which we are naturally good at – a sign from nature).

Playing to one’s strengths is the secret to outstanding performance as management gurus like Jim Collins, Peter Drucker and Stepehen Covey have long been saying. So important have Gallup found it that Marcus Buckingham, one of their consultants, wrote a whole book on the subject called The One Thing You Need to Know.

If you would like your team to play to its strengths, then you may be interested in Talent Factor, our one day programme which helps your company make the change.

Key Learnings

The secret to playing to our strengths lies first in discovering our talents – formed in us from birth – and the natural roles they create

Talent Factor identifies these objectively

♦ Outstanding Performance has little to do with education, skills or knowledge. It lies first in identifying your strengths and then putting yourself in situations where you can maximise them.

♦ Successful sportspeople almost always play to their strengths, yet in companies most employees don’t. A 2005 Gallup study in the US discovered that only 13% had the opportunity to ‘do what they do best’ every day.

♦ The barrier to making the change lies in concepts in people’s minds and the habits they have formed reinforcing those concepts. By changing those concepts and creating practices based on strengths, a strength-based organisation can flourish.


One Comment »

  • admin says:

    Great to hear that the above article has been endorsed by Niels Bouws, the German Olympic Swimming Coach. Thanks to Rob Bluett for his help on this!

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