Every four years when the Olympics comes around, the media poses some version of this question: How—or why—do Olympians keep getting better? One report, published this year at the start of the Tokyo Summer games, framed the matter starkly: “Since 1896, athletes have repeatedly smashed previous records at their sports in the Olympics. How?” The Paralympics, now under way in Tokyo, showcase feats of athletic improvement that are particularly impressive. At the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio, for example, athletes set more than 200 world records.
The reasons posited generally include the impact of technical innovations—as with material and design improvements to everything from shoes and swimsuits to boats, bicycles, and bows and arrows—and the fact that more people worldwide participate in sports, starting earlier and sticking at them for longer.
But the human mind also plays a critical role. A crowning element of an Olympic Frame of Mind is the willingness of athletes to continuously hone their techniques in pursuit of improvement. Indeed, for the best athletes, a given triumph or defeat is simply one step in a lifelong process of pushing toward their absolute limits. This orientation leads them to keep adjusting their performance—even if they are seemingly at the top of their game—and to do it without fear that such changes will hinder their forward progress.
Katie Ledecky, widely considered to be the best female swimmer of all time, is a good example of an athlete who constantly seeks to improve the mechanics of her swim in order to be faster. In the years before her first gold medal at the 2012 Olympics, Ledecky worked with her coach to change her stroke from a fairly typical, steady freestyle stroke, breathing to both sides, to a “gallop” or “giddy-up” syncopated stroke, breathing almost exclusively to the right. “My stroke changes. It’s a little bit every year as I get stronger,” Ledecky told a reporter during the runup to the Tokyo Games.
Of course, even when the best athletes (or organizations) adopt the best techniques to equip them for success, things don’t always go their way and they must change course. A dramatic example of an athlete who transformed his performance is the Hungarian fencer Pál Szekeres, who won a bronze medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and soon thereafter had a traffic accident that left him permanently confined to a wheelchair. Szekeres faced considerable mental and physical hardship adjusting to life as a disabled person. “When I became a wheelchair user, my career at the university and my personal life as well was broken,” he told the International Wheelchair & Amputee Sports Federation. “I had a full diary for four years, but after my accident, it was empty.” But Szekeres turned his despair into action and began rebuilding personally and professionally. “It was also a possibility to see progression and to find motivation from my accident,” he said. “It was important to be positive.” He took up wheelchair fencing and went on to win medals at all the Summer Paralympic games from 1992 to 2008. His ability to fearlessly transition to wheelchair fencing made him a hero and propelled him to a career in government and sport administration in which he has worked to provide equal opportunity to others living with disabilities.
A less dramatic—but highly instructive—example of a willingness to change course comes from Pratham, a social sector organization founded in India in 1994 with a simple, powerful mission statement: “Every child in school and learning well.” Pratham specializes in evidence-based, low-cost, replicable education interventions using a community-driven approach that engages thousands of volunteers. Its flagship program is Read India (for ages 6-14), and it pioneered a pedagogical approach called Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL), which involves grouping school children by ability rather than age or grade. TaRL was the basis of Pratham’s Read India model, which was usually offered in short-term learning camps or through government schools.
Pratham was pleased with TaRL’s proven results—as measured by the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), a global research center that conducts gold-standard randomized evaluations, —which showed that it “consistently improves learning outcomes when implemented well and has led to some of the largest learning gains among rigorously evaluated education programs.” Nonetheless, learnings from the programs led Pratham leaders to ponder deeper issues, such as how to mitigate India’s learning crisis and build foundational knowledge from the start. Pratham thus began experimenting with content for preschool programs and early primary grades in the hope that earlier intervention would diminish the need for remedial intervention later. Indeed, it created a new approach called the Early Years, aimed at improving learning by engaging with mothers and introducing interactive content in preschools and Grades 1 and 2. If proven effective, Early Years would disrupt Pratham’s successful TaRL model—but the willingness to fearlessly adjust is as essential to great organizations as it is to great athletes.
Indeed, even after Pratham began building its early childhood programming, Covid-19 lockdowns and school closures necessitated additional adjustments. Within days of the first lockdown, the Pratham team began direct outreach to parents of young children through digital channels like WhatsApp and SMS. By providing interactive, fun, daily content—from short activities to songs to stories–Pratham was able to help parents engage their children in lessons that built foundational skills. While digital content was previously a small part of Pratham’s model, the pandemic accelerated its growth and expansion—particularly when the Ministries of Education in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Maharashtra asked Pratham to support their remote learning efforts through radio and television. Today, Pratham’s content is accessed by millions of people throughout India across a broader array of platforms than was previously imaginable.
Perhaps the most common reason to change course is failure. Yet even here top athletes are distinct because they have figured out how to own their failures and, in effect, fail well. To do this, they first reframe failure and recognize that success is about the quality of the preparation process rather than the final outcome. Importantly, great athletes understand that failure happens not at the final buzzer, but much earlier in the game; identifying weaknesses early and proactively is thus a secret weapon that they can deploy.
While it is possible to preempt some failures this way, actual failures are inevitable. The Indian weightlifter Mirabai Chanu—who as a child developed her strength by carrying firewood and buckets of water for her family—performed poorly at the 2016 Olympics. She was unable even to complete her event. Afterward, she felt “completely broken,” fell into depression, and considered quitting the sport. Instead, however, she went back to the drawing board. “I changed my training method, worked on my technique,” she told reporters. “In clean and jerk, we identified what part we needed to work on and strengthened that body part and movement.” At the games in Tokyo this year, a triumphant Chanu won a silver medal in women’s 49-kilogram lifting. It was India’s first medal of the Games and only its second weightlifting medal in history.
“I completely failed in 2016,” Chanu told reporters on her victorious return home. “But I learnt a lot from that defeat, what needs to be done to win at the Olympics, which areas I need to get better. … That’s why I have improved and won.”
Originally published in Forbes