There is a lot written about what we can learn from how the best in the business go about being so successful. But what about learning from what they get wrong? I recently spent two weeks in Taiwan, watching four World Champions being crowned in a sport that is not much known in India, but which is one of my passions, surfing. I say it’s not much known in India, but there have been some amazing things happening with surfing in India, being led by some adventurous, entrepreneurial and out-there individuals. Already cricketers like Rahul Dravid and Sanju Samson have stood up and ridden waves in India, overseen by these intrepid crews of Indian surfers.
But this is not about surfing as much as learning from the best. And not from what they have done well, but from what they have got wrong.
The first event I attended was the World Junior (U18) Championships of surfing, where the top 24 male and top 18 females were competing for the title, and in which they surfing high-performance ‘short-boards’, averaging about 165cm in length. Immediately following this contest and at the same venue, was the World Longboarding (adult) championships, in which surfers use much bigger and heavier boards of about 3m in length, riding them much more slowly and gracefully than short-boards. Shortboard surfing is about as different from longboard surfing as T20 cricket is from Test cricket.
Over the course of approximately two weeks, I not only watched four world champions being crowned, but also watched some world class athletes make some fundamental errors that might have cost them the title. Here are some lessons from their mistakes.
Be on time
I watched two competitors rushing and in a flustered state in the moments prior to their 25-minute heat, which reminded of watching VVS Laxman padding up when he was next in to bat. Both of them ended up being late for the start of their heat. The difference was that VVS would deliberately pad up at the last minute, which I’d guess was to put a little more pressure and stress on himself, because pressure brought the best out in him. But these two surfers were different, their lateness meant losing about 2 precious minutes, and being visibly unsettled. I asked their coaches how come that happened in a world title contest, and both coaches said it was a mistake – they were not aware of the time! If something is important, be there early. And if it’s not that important, then at least be there on time.
Surfing takes place in a very unpredictable ocean environment. No wave is the same as the previous, they do not break in the same place, and they are significantly affected by wind and the ever-changing tides. Most environments in which we operate today are increasingly unpredictable – in what business calls a VUCA world, meaning Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. An error that a number of competitors suffered resulted from not taking time to study the changing environment. Some neglected to study the environment sufficiently, relying almost exclusively on their in-the-moment instincts, whilst others relied on observations earlier in the day, but which had changed by the time their turn came. It’s like a batsman having a plan against a bowler, but then the ball starts reverse-swinging, yet they go out to bat with the plan they made before the ball started reversing. Not smart. Before going into any important situation, be diligent in studying the the people you will be interacting with and the environment in which you will need to perform at your best.
The one thing that most surfers got right, barring a small few, was that they followed very deliberate pre-competition routines. This included what they did the day before, the evening before, and their preparation immediately before going into the water. Most used music in the moments before competing. This is a very good idea for most because music helps get you out of your thinking brain and into your instinctive brain. It’s better to rest the brain immediately before the big event, rather than be frantically doing last minute mental calculations. And has been said many times before, it’s critical that you plan to play to your strengths – success comes from doing what you’re best at, most of the time!
Have a clear yet flexible plan
We’ve all heard the saying ‘if you fail to plan, then plan to fail’. In this regard, again these world class surfers made mistakes that offered valuable lessons. There were three main categories in what I’d call planning or strategy errors, i) getting stuck in an inflexible plan, ii) being too quick to go outside of their plan, and iii) forcing their plan, which was visible in forcing or rushing, rather than moving in flow.
The first departure point is to have a plan. It should consider all the elements that might be encountered during whatever your important event might be, as well as catering for unexpected and unpredictable events – like the power shutting off during the presentation you took hours to prepare, a flight being delayed, and in the case of surfing, breaking your board in the middle of a heat.
This plan should be flexible enough to allow in-the-moment changes and adjustments to be made. In our VUCA world, it’s almost impossible to come up with a plan that we stick to throughout an event – it often needs minor adjustments as things unfold. I observed some surfers chose to sit in one position to wait for their waves, yet despite it being clear to all outside observers that conditions had changed, they stubbornly stuck to their plan. These competitors ended up catching no waves and losing their heat. In surfing, if you lose a heat, you go home. There were also others who had a plan for where to wait for their waves, and after only about 5 minutes in to the 25-minute heat, no waves came through that spot, so they paddled to sit in another place. Yet no waves had come through in that other place either. They made the mistake of being too quick to abandon their original plan.
So how long do we stick to our initial plan before we move to change it? This is a very tricky question, and one without an exact answer. In T20 cricket, when is it time for a batsman to attack versus take another ball or two to settle and find the rhythm of the game? Only the person in the middle will know, and awareness is the primary key to the answer. Only you will know if you’re being stubborn in sticking to your plan too long, or being impatient by abandoning it too early. Tuning into your present moment awareness and intuition will reveal the answer.