Performance Lessons from Rio


We’re in the dog days of summer—not the typical time when people engage in deep thoughts about high performance. And yet millions of people around the world have been focused on the subject over the past few weeks, thanks to all those athletes in Rio who performed superhuman feats of endurance, strength, speed, agility, grace, and precision.

While we’d love to tell you that we kicked back and chilled out while watching the Olympics, the truth is that we’re too Type A to do that. We both watched TV with computer or tablet in our laps, scanning for articles that give clues about how the foregone-conclusion athletes—Katie Ledecky, Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, etc.—managed to become so dominant in their fields. We’ve been insatiably curious about these extreme outliers. We’re hunting for pointers we can apply to our mission and passion: helping social-sector leaders perform at the highest possible level for the benefit of those they serve.

Here’s what we take away…

Yes, innate gifts matter. Phelps inherited a great swimmer’s build: long wingspan, long torso, and flexible ankles. Bolt has epic strides and the right amount of fast-twitch muscle fibers. Biles has an insane strength-to-weight ratio and probably has an especially plastic brain that helps her master complex physical movements.

But these blessings aren’t the key differentiators between the great and insanely great. Ledecky, who’s been called “better at swimming than anyone is at anything,” has average physique for her sport and “borderline poor” athleticism. And some of Phelps and Bolt’s anatomical advantages come with downsides. For details, see “What Makes Michael Phelps So Good?” and “Secret of Usain Bolt’s Speed Unveiled.”

Training must play a role. But there, too, the story is complex. Take Biles, for example. She trains a lot: 32 hours a week. But that’s less than many of her competitors.

What about diet and nutrition? Not likely. Phelps has a weakness for Sour Patch Kids, Reese’s, and pizza. Bolt sometimes loads up on McDonald’s McNuggets before big races.

Perhaps the biggest differentiator is the one that’s hardest to measure: a burning desire to get better at getting better. Russell Mark, USA Swimming’s high-performance consultant, said this about Ledecky: “She’s proven to be the best in the world, but she’s still looking to get better. I wouldn’t be offended if someone as good as her was like, ‘Hey, I’m just going to train and keep doing what I’m doing.’ But she’s still attacking these opportunities to get better.” We suspect the same can or has been said about Biles, Phelps, and Bolt as well.

So here’s the take-home for those of us who will never set a world record but who strive to make the world a better place. Whether you’re a CEO or in your first year on the front lines, be grateful for the gifts you inherited and then work like hell to build on those strengths. That takes an openness to learn in every possible way and a relentless drive to be the best you can be.

And now for some brief updates from around the Leap of Reason community:

  • We loved Elizabeth Cushing‘s SSIR commentary “Walking a Different Kind of Grantmaker Walk,” which highlights the positive-outlier partnerships her organization, Playworks, has formed with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Einhorn Family Charitable Trust. Both funders understand that their impact is inextricably tied to the performance of their grantees. So instead of sitting back in crossed-arms “show me the results” mode, they are curious, constructive advocates. Cushing is clear that these types of supportive partnerships “have enabled Playworks to achieve greater impact and allowed me personally to develop more capacity to lead our organization effectively.”
  • In “Winning the Campaign to Curb Teen Pregnancy,” Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Tina Rosenberg studies what’s made teen-pregnancy prevention such a great social-sector success story. One key driver: making long-acting reversible contraceptives (e.g., hormonal implants or IUDs) available for free, an idea that has been championed by several foundations. In Colorado, where this approach has been used since 2009, the teen birth rate has dropped by nearly 50 percent and the state has saved “tens or perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars.” The Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation kickstarted the program with a big-bet $25 million grant. Obamacare insurers and Medicaid now pay for most of the costs.
  • The ‘Better’ Bet,” an article by freelance writer Greg Beato in SSIR, describes the work of the brilliant Harvard surgeon and New Yorker writer Atul Gawande and his Ariadne Labs to “to identify areas where healthcare workers and institutions could be—but aren’t—deploying proven interventions.” At the core of Ariadne’s approach is the “hard, slow work of changing human behavior” and helping healthcare workers “embrace systems that help them get better at getting better.” (The article sits behind a pay wall, but it’s well worth the price of admission.)
  • Foundation Culture Matters will never have the ring or potency of Black Lives Matter, but the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s Kevin Bolduc makes a compelling case that a foundation culture—positive or negative—often has a significant impact on grantee effectiveness. Bolduc’s conclusions come not just from surveys of grantees, in which grantees too often report things like, “The process the foundation seems to use to develop funding areas is almost completely indecipherable and maddening…. Its strategies are overly prescriptive and directive, [and] do not allow for innovation on the grantee side.” It also comes from analyzing cases in which foundations have asked CEP to conduct surveys of grantees and foundation staff around the same time. CEP’s findings make clear the “importance of designing internal culture, learning, and knowledge in a way that recognizes how important a funder’s culture is to grantees‘ ability to effectively create the impact both partners strive for.”
  • We know we give disproportionate attention in these updates to Roca, Inc., which is relentless and effective at helping gang members and other high-risk young people get off the streets and stay out of jail. But we can’t help but share a new animated video they just produced about their work, because it’s so darn good. If you’re looking for ways to explain what your organization does in ways that make people care (heart) and help them see how you’re effective (head), we guarantee this video is worth two minutes and 14 seconds of your time.
  • We were disappointed (but not shocked) to read “More Data than Evidence in Evidence Commission’s First Meeting,” Patrick Lester‘s report on the inaugural meeting of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking. Lester says the meeting gave almost no attention to “the needs of local practitioners and evaluators, who are commonly on the front lines of evidence-based work.” Lester makes several strong recommendations for future meetings, including this: “The commission should invite frontline (especially state and local) public sector and nonprofit actors” who are known for using rigorous data and evidence.

Events/Webinars for Raising Performance:

  • New Frontiers” conference; November 16-18; Washington, DC; Independent Sector

Best wishes,
Mario and Lowell