As a Strengths-Based personal and business coach, I am always looking for ideas and connections that might help me and my clients improve our Success, Happiness or Fulfilment, both in business and in life. In my spare time, I am also a very rough around the edges springboard and platform diver, and love supporting my two sons who both compete in the sport. It struck me the other day, that there are some interesting parallels between the sport of diving and the 'art' of running a great business. Here are a few of my insights and observations:
The sport of diving is an interesting and relatively unique community internationally, forged on the premise that fear is manageable and can be overcome. Every diver I have ever met understands the fear of missing a dive badly and wiping out completely, both in training and in competition, or the fear of hitting the board or platform on the way down. The higher the height, the harder the dive, the greater the likelihood of a serious mishap taking place and causing minor or even major injury. Learning a new dive, or taking an existing dive up to a new height, always involves a process of learning how to manage fear, overcome it, and throw yourself off the board/platform in the hope that all will go well. While some divers have a natural ability to suppress (or even fail to feel fear), most athletes learn the process of overcoming fear through training, unbelievable levels of repetition, and faith in their coach and fellow athletes that they can execute a new dive successfully.
In business, overcoming or managing fear is also part of the game we play. Whether it is launching a new product or service, raising our prices, defending our brand in a public forum or dealing with challenging and sensitive people issues (with staff, strategic partners, customers or suppliers). Unless we are very experienced and practiced, there is often potential for fear to affect our performance. Tackling something brand new, taking a calculated risk or doing something outside of our comfort zone will also trigger a fear response. Great performers in business, like divers, have the discipline to swallow fear, or stand in the face of it and deliver a great result anyway.
Practice Makes Perfect
Every athlete understands that winning a competition requires hours and hours of practice and training. In the sport of diving, there is an unbelievable level of repetition both in land training and on the boards. Muscle memory is key, because when you have less than 2 seconds to perform a dive, your performance had better be close to automatic. Land training is essential to improving flexibility, strength and 'imitations' which replicate a dive's key movements out of the water. Diving on the boards can often involve session after session of the same dive, from the same height, in order to perfect each movement, or even just one element of the dive (e.g. the approach and hurdle, or the entry into the water).
Like diving, business at an exceptional level nearly always involves repetition, training and systems to make the operations of the organisation error free. Whether it is rehearsing a company presentation, practicing a sales pitch or testing and repeating an operational process over an over again to fix bugs and make continuous and never ending improvement. Great businesses understand the value of rehearsing and repeating a process in order to make the customer experience seamless, efficient and when they get it really right, delightful.
There is Always Another Level
Diving usually begins with very simple and straightforward forward jumps off the side of the pool. As a diver progresses, they add new positions (tuck, pike, straight), new heights (1m, 3m, 5m, 7.5m and 10m), new rotations or somersaults, and new twists. All of this combines over time to create a 'competitive list', which involves building capability in several directions (forward, backward, reverse, inward, twists, handstand) and may range from 1/2 rotation (simple front dive) up to 4 1/2 rotations before hitting the water. In order to progress in the sport, every diver is usually very aware of what their next level or skill is likely to be and, with their coach, they set goals to achieve new dives or new heights through practice and calculated risk taking.
Business also involves getting to the 'next level' over time, through investment and practice aimed at specific goals or strategic milestones. Whether a business begins locally, progresses regionally, launches nationally or attempts to dominate globally, there is often a geographic next level to pursue. Similarly, achieving the next level in quality, service or product breadth, recognition as a brand or thought leader, or even simply scaling operations, will always include understanding the criteria needed to reach the next threshold, and the disciplined application of time, talent and other resources to achieve the goal.
Prepare to be Judged
The sport of diving, like gymnastics and other subjective sports, involves a panel of judges who score or rate the dive on a 10 point scale. In order to remain objective, a panel of 5 judges will score a dive, and both the highest and lowest score are eliminated before an average of the remaining three judges' scores are used to calculate the performance, multiplied by a degree of difficulty based on the level of challenge of the dive executed. As divers develop, in training they are prepared to be judged, sometimes through mock competitions where their peers or the coaches will score the dives. Athletes expect to be judged, that is how they win a competition, and they know that the level of perfection they can achieve will determine the colour of the medal they might receive.
In business, our products and services are always being judged, whether we know it, like it, or not. Our brand, our product/service quality, our number of features and benefits are under the microscope every single day. Even our level of success (especially in New Zealand) is under scrutiny in the form of the 'tall poppy syndrome', which is alive and well. We need to prepare to be judged, and use that feedback loop in order to re-invest in our progress and growth.
Find a Great Coach
I have never met a competitive diver that does not value the feedback and expertise of their coach. Interestingly, though many diving coaches have had a diving career of their own, many do not. Performance as an athlete in any sport is NOT a prerequisite for great coaching. Mostly it requires investment of time and talent in understanding the sport (physically, emotionally, mentally) and developing strategies and training techniques to accelerate the athlete's progress. Coaches provide invaluable feedback about every dive they witness in their athlete - feedback that the diver cannot glean on their own, as they are too busy performing the dive. The diver also may not know or understand what to change about their technique in order to perfect the dive. A great coach is essential to exceptional performance.
Business coaching as a profession remains in its infancy, but in a way, has been around for centuries in other forms. Finding an experienced mentor who has travelled the road you hope to experience is a tried and tested way to achieve your goals. Similarly, many business leaders count on their Board of Directors, not only for governance, but also for guidance and coaching about how to steer the company successfully or manage the most challenging risks and opportunities facing the business. Entrepreneurs also commonly create a Mastermind Group, a formal or informal group of peers/advisors who can offer value and advice as the startup grows from small, medium to large organisations. It is fascinating (and validating as a business coach) that the Trillion Dollar Coach by Bill Campbell has recently been published. It profiles the contribution that coaching has had on some of the massive success in Silicon Valley, including Google and Apple. It seems that every great business needs a great coach, however you might describe them.