Sport and business have many parallels, with lessons to be drawn from one to the other and back the other way.
There was barely a dry eye in the house by the time Anna Meares, one of Australia’s greatest Olympians, had finished her address during the MotorOne breakfast at the 2018 AADA National Dealer Convention & Expo.
The only Australian athlete ever to win medals at four different Olympic Games, Anna told the inspiring story of how she recovered from a broken back suffered just months prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
“Upon reflection, my career success has not been about remaining undefeated, but how I’ve handled moments of defeat along the way, because I have actually lost more than I have won, even though I am the world’s most successful athlete in my discipline,” she said.
Anna experienced a career-stopping heavy fall during a time trial at the World Cup in Los Angeles in January 2008, less than eight months out from the Beijing Olympic Games. She was thrown from her bike in a collision with other riders and sustained a hairline fracture to her C2 vertebrae. She was two millimetres away from being a quadriplegic on a respirator for the rest of her life. Her other injuries included a dislocated AC joint in her shoulder, heavy skin grazing, torn tendons and muscle tissue damage.
“It sent me down a very slippery slope, mentally and emotionally. I started to talk in the context of ‘what if?’ What if that two millimetres had not been there? There were really only two options: quadriplegia and death. So I started to be driven by the fear of those two outcomes,” she said.
After speaking to her coach, Martin Barras, Anna realised that she had to change the question she was asking herself from ‘what if?’ to ‘what is?’
Reframing the question changed her entire approach. Instead of being worried about what could happen, she focused on what she knew to be true – and went from there.
“When we think in the context of ‘what if’ we are driven by the fear and doubt of the things we don’t want to have happen. ‘What if I present to the board and they don’t like my idea?’ ‘What if I apply for the job and I don’t get through the interview process?’ ‘What if the coach puts me in front of goals and I miss the shot for my team?’, ” she said.
“All those things have not yet happened. Yet when we start to think down that path we have a physical emotional response to those thoughts. That physical emotional response can then start to dictate the choices we make going forward, steering us in that direction we do not want to go.
“When you think in the context of ‘what is’, you’re actually dealing with current, real, tangible information and decision-making. And for me, the ‘is’ of this situation was simply ‘that two millimetres saved my life’. My body was healing, and I was getting stronger and healthier every day.
The power of words can be seen by Anna’s statement that just changing that one word of a question altered her whole attitude and approach to her recovery.
“My end goal had not changed; the timeframe to deliver had not changed; however, the process and the steps I now needed to follow to make that happen had completely changed. That is why that constant reassessment of where you are with what goals you are striving to achieve is crucial,” she said.
Ten days after her fall Anna was back on the bike, albeit for all of a minute before requiring help to dismount. Later that day she got back on and pedalled for five minutes. Within a week she was pedalling for up to half an hour, and was allowed to get into the pool.
The pool was where Anna could shed her neck brace and bandages, and start to get some movement back. After a month she was allowed back into the gym, rebuilding the strength and power required of a sprinter.
Her previous performances were already enough to guarantee her selection in the 2008 Olympic Games team, however selectors insisted on a fitness test to determine if she was still capable of riding the kind of times required to be competitive at the level. They set her a time to beat, or miss out on selection.
“I would go to that fitness test. I would not only just ride the time they required me to ride, I would ride a personal best time. I would get my name on the ticket, I would go to Beijing, and seven months after I would trade my neck brace for an Olympic silver medal,” Anna told the enraptured audience.
“Many people said to me, ‘you’re courageous, you’re brave, you’re determined. Where do you get your determination from, even your motivation?’ And I simply say to people, ‘I didn’t know I was capable of achieving this. I didn’t know my strengths and weaknesses, my limitations, until I found myself at rock bottom and I had my back against the wall’.
“And the first question that’s hard to answer came to mind: ‘is it worth it?’ Is there value in that goal that I’m putting myself through this discomfort and this pain (to achieve) – is that worth it? To me it was worth it. The hard part was everyone has an opinion – and often it doesn’t coincide with mine, or yours; however the only opinion that counts and matters at the time is of the person chasing that goal. And for me, I saw the value and so I continued to chase it. Because I saw the value – even though my motivation was challenged, not just daily but three or four times a day – that was enough to help me push through the difficulty of that seven-month period.”
Anna’s remarkable comeback not only taught her much about herself and what she was capable of, but also how best to go about achieving her goals.
“Three things I learned: firstly, controlling the controllables. I realised that I wasted so much time, energy, effort, and sometimes even money, trying to pool my efforts into an area on which I could effect absolutely no change. So why did I do it? In this space I had no spare energy; I had very little time; I had very little money to my name or (in) my pockets, so I had to become very select as to where I put that and why. And so I actually learned about putting my efforts into the things where I knew I could affect a change on the outcome,” she said.
“Secondly I learned how important it is who you surround yourself with and who you choose to bring into your life. And the most important word in that sentence is simply ‘choice’. You choose who’s in your personal space at home, in your private life, who you work with. In this space I was really reflective of the energy and the attitude that people brought to me. If they were negative, irritable and unhappy, I started to adopt a really victimised mentality. ‘Why me? Poor me. This sucks, it’s not fair’. But when I was surrounded by people who were driven, positive, motivated, my focus was not on the severity of the situation or how I felt about it, it was simply on the task I needed to achieve each day. So I started to become very selective about who I welcomed into my home, and with whom I spent most of my time at work. If they did not fit into that category, they weren’t welcome.
“The final thing I learnt was how important ‘now’ is. We can spend a lot of time looking to our past to learn from it, and looking to our future to plan for it, but often we overlook what we can do today to better set us up for tomorrow, to lead us into next week, next month and next year. We put off the small things – things we don’t think are important or significant, that we can catch up on later, eventually go to a list that ends up an A4 page long or we start to divvy that to someone else to do.”
Taking care of ‘now’ and looking after the small things are what Anna believes are the keys to success, because ‘now’ will look after the future and the little things will ensure the big things run smoothly.
“It will not be something big that brings you undone or causes you failure, loss or defeat. Everyone can see the big things. It will be the accumulation of those small things that we don’t think are important that will cost you,” she said.
Determined to ensure she looked after all the little things, Anna’s victory at the 2012 London Olympics over arch-rival and hometown favourite, Victoria Pendleton, was a triumph of planning, and execution of that plan, by a team of coaches, physical trainers, masseurs and psychologists.
Pendleton had beaten Anna for gold at Beijing and had been undefeated for six years going into the London Games.
“If I wanted to change my outcome from silver in Beijing to gold in London, I had to start to change my process and my application of how I wanted to go about making that happen,” Anna explained.
“No-one in the world had worked out how to beat her (Pendleton). And to do that, my team decided we needed more information to be able to make those decisions to help us with the strategy required for that success.”
Watching more than 300 hours of Pendleton’s past performances gave Anna and her team a set of data that would help them devise the best method of beating the British champion.
“You know what doesn’t come with data? Emotion. Emotion comes with people, and when that comes in a competitive environment it can bring you unstuck and incapable of making some really hard decisions,” she said.
“Change is also really hard and difficult because it takes you from what you know and are comfortable with and puts you into a space of what you don’t know and are uncomfortable with. But I had to face change; I had to get used to being uncomfortable; I had to feel discomfort for a long time in order to effect that change.”
Anna and her team’s forensic approach showed them that Pendleton preferred to ride from behind her opponent. Anna and her coach devised a plan to force Pendleton to take the lead by stopping her bike on the track, then balancing, stationary, and waiting until Pendleton could no longer hold her own bike motionless and would be forced to take the lead.
It worked. The tactic caught the champion by surprise and Anna won the Gold, the crowning achievement of her career.
“I honestly believe that the only reason I won this day was because I executed my strategy better than my opponent executed hers,” she said.
“In physical capabilities all that separated the two of us was eight-hundredths of a second; physically we were almost identical. So when you have two athletes, two products, two entities, whatever the case may be, what is it that makes one step up and succeed over the other? The execution of strategy, the ability to perform under pressure, the mental skills required in those environments.”
Quoting another coach of hers, Gary West, she concluded by saying: “You cannot guarantee outcome. But you can guarantee process and application. Gary never promised me gold medals. He never promised me that I would be world champion or Olympic champion. You cannot guarantee that – there is far too much out of your control to make that promise. However, how you choose to apply yourself and the process you follow – if you look after those two aspects the result will look after itself.”
Koch urges Dealers to set standards
At the carsales lunch, finance journalist, breakfast television host and Port Adelaide Football Club chairman, David Koch, reminded Dealers to invest in themselves and their own development in order to best lead the way for their businesses.
“You can talk about disruption, you can talk about innovation, but it’s all driven by you – you the Dealer-owners, the Dealer Principals. It’s how you approach it, because you are your organisation’s most important asset,” he said.
“Yes, customers are important; yes, staff are important, but you’re the dynamo. You set the culture. You set the direction of the organisation, and if you’re comfortable with coping with change, innovation and disruption, then your organisation’s going to flourish.
“I think we forget the importance we play in building within our organisations a dynamic that really embraces going forward. I’ve called it ‘The Start-up of You’, because that’s what you need to succeed in 2018 and beyond.”
Mr Koch covered the current economic climate, explaining that the fall in real wages had made consumers a little reluctant and urging Dealers to join ‘the campaign of optimism’ to stimulate growth.
He said the technological revolution we are currently in the middle of would have as profound an impact as the Industrial Revolution, and urged Dealers to keep pace or be left behind.