Unordinary Thinking No. 26 – Doing it backwards

I don’t think I am being too controversial if I say that London 2012 has captured the imagination of the country.  Sure it helps that Team GB has done so outstandingly well (and not just in the ‘sitting down’ sports) but if you eavesdrop on the conversations going on in offices and bars, it is the way people are talking about sports which they previously had no interest in-the demure girl in my office explaining the intricacies of the boxing scoring system or my mother in law talking about triathlons.

My equivalent is the men’s high jump which I was captivated by last night.  I knew, with their slightly odd, bouncy run ups, that the bars they were clearing were pretty high. However it was only when the commentators explained that the heights these athletes were jumping over were the equivalent of an average house ceiling (take a look up) that it really struck me.

But it was not always this way.  Robert Grabarz, Team GB’s brilliant bronze medal winner, and his fellow competitors have a gangly, courageous, trailblazing American to thank for the heights they can now clear.

In the early sixties in Oregon, Dick Fosbury was a 16 year old high school athlete who was good, but certainly not outstanding at his chosen event of the high jump.  In those days, the status quo method of clearing the bar was known as the ‘straddle’, whereby the competitor cleared the bar by jumping facing forwards and downwards and where slightly shorter, more explosive athletes tended to have success.  With landing areas of sand or sawdust the jumper also needed to land on their feet in order to prevent injury.

Fosbury knew that if he wanted to fulfil his dreams and compete at the highest level he would have to do something different.  He could not effectively co-ordinate the movements needed for the straddle to clear the heights he needed to.  If he carried on doing the same thing everyone else was doing, he would fade into mediocrity.

So he began experimenting with his own technique.  Something which meant he decided to go over backwards when everyone else always went over forward.  Something which went totally against what his coaches had told him and which the leading athletes in the world were using at the time.  Something which leveraged his own skills, physique and attributes.  Something which invited ridicule from those around him, where he was labelled ‘the world’s laziest high jumper’ and like a ‘fish flopping into a boat’.  Something which leveraged the fact that American schools and colleges were starting to use rubber mats, enabling Fosbury to land on his back.  Something which became known as the Fosbury Flop and led to him setting an Olympic record, whilst winning the gold medal at the 1968 Olympics.

The Fosbury Flop is now the established and best technique for all high jump competitors.  But imagine going back to the early sixties where a young Fosbury was being told by established people that it was not possible and that he should keep practising harder on the way it had always been done.  Imagine his bravery, his hard work, his conviction, and the doubts he had to overcome.  It is something to be celebrated.  Just like the Fosbury Flop, many things in our daily lives that are taken for granted now, simply did not exist previously.  It took just one man with some unordinary thinking, using his own skills, and leveraging the latest technology to allow him to do something that was simply not possible before.  Imagine what such thinking could mean for us in our worlds.

I am off to the stadium tonight to watch the athletics.  Lucky me.  What chances that I will be able to say that I was there when Usain Bolt ran his 200m semi-final backwards?

Posted by Ajai Ranawat

Lexden is a marketing strategy agency which creates unordinary propositions to motivate customers and deliver commercial advantage for brands.

For more information on how we can help you, contact christopherbrooks@lexdengroup.com or ajairanawat@lexdengroup.com, or call us on T: +44 (0)20 7490 9123.  And you can follow us on Twitter @consultingchris.

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