Secrets of Elite Athletes (Kenn Dickinson)

Kenn Dickinson giving a Ted Talk on the secrets of elite athletes
Former professional basketball player and business coach, Kenn Dickinson

I’ve been a big sports fan for as long as I can remember. Sports, for me, are a source of relaxation and entertainment. They promote mindfulness in ways that few other activities can. But what I like most about sports is the real world analogy. Many of the skills and character traits that go into making successful athletes and successful teams translate into other areas of life. And so sports are a metaphor for life. They’re as entertaining as they are instructive.

Kenn Dickinson is the President of Fast Break Executive Coaching. He knows a lot about sports from his days as a professional athlete. Dickinson gave a powerful TedTalk at a local TEDxSnoIsleLibraries event in which he talked about the secrets of elite athletes. As he likes to joke, “he had a front row seat. . . at the end of the bench, watching, and observing, and learning from these world-class amazing kind of athletes.” Dickinson concluded that two primary habits were responsible for their success: visualization and deliberate practice (or what he termed specific work). The inspiring takeaway is that anyone can apply these tools to build better families, careers, businesses, relationships, and lives.


I want to introduce you to a friend of mine: Mr. Wilson. No, not Russell Wilson from the Seahawks. He plays with this oblong ball, and it doesn’t bounce very well. But Mr. Wilson and I have been friends for a long time. We go way back, and he’s been by my — I mean, I first met him when I was — at Christmas time. I was about four years old, and there was this big box in front of the Christmas tree, and I just dove in and opened it up, and there was this big orange ball. And he’s been by my side ever since. When I walked down the street or went to school, I always had Mr. Wilson with me. And then I went on to college and obviously played college basketball. Then I went on to play professional basketball, and he’s been actually a part of my life in my business career. So we’ve been on this journey for a long time, and it’s been an interesting journey.

And one of the things that we’ve been able to do is meet some amazing people. Those amazing people are elite athletes; not just your regular athletes but your elite athletes. Now, a lot of you are going to say, “I can’t relate to these people. “They’re superhuman, these men and women.” I’ll give you a little secret: they’re just like you and me. I actually had a front row seat. OK, I was at the end of the bench, watching, and observing, and learning from these world-class amazing kind of athletes.

But what I want to give you today is a window into that world that a lot of us don’t have an opportunity to. And a lot of us think that these amazing athletes are there because of their talent, but Mr. Wilson and I realized it’s really not. It’s about a competitive mindset. They actually see, and think, and behave so much different than we do. And that’s what I want to share with you: some two key points that we saw that maybe you could use in your daily life or in your business.

The two points are visualization and deliberate practice. Let’s start with visualization. A lot of us think that visualization is about seeing a goal ahead of us. But actually these people travel in time. They actually take their emotions, their senses – seeing, hearing, touching – and they go into the future. What they’re doing is defining their own reality, their own future, and they’re living there. And then they come back, and then they have already created an imprint, a blueprint of what success is going to be for them.

Let me give you an example. I used to be a really good shooter, and I used to shoot a lot of free throws. Before I shot a free throw, I would actually– and you can take the time if you want to follow with me –is close your eyes, and I would think about how I was holding the ball, I would think about the arc of the ball, I would think of a really good backspin, and it goes right through the net. And what was really cool to me if I could make the net flip up onto the rim. Then all I would do was open my eyes, take a couple dribbles, and I would just let it go. Nine out of ten times, I would make it, 90% of the time.
What I didn’t realize at that time was with neuroscience today when you actually visualize what I was doing, you’re actually using the same part of the brain as if you were doing it. And it’s so powerful today. Even Jordan Spieth, the number-one golfer in the world, you’ve probably heard now with technology their communication with him. Michael Geller would say to Jordan Spieth, “Paint a picture.” Well, what he’s saying is, “Look at the flight of the ball. Watch it hit the green; watch it roll onto the green. How is it going to react?” Jordan would say, “Got it,” and he says, “Make it happen,” and so he does.

One of the most powerful one of these visualizations happened with a gentleman named Colonel Nesmeth. He was an average golfer, shot around 95. But something happened in his life, tragically. He became a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. He was a prisoner for seven and a half years in a solitary confinement of a cell no more than 5 feet by 5 feet by 5 feet. What would you do if you were in that situation? Well, he didn’t want to give up hope. He wanted to overcome this, so what he did is he actually played golf. He didn’t think about golf; he was actually playing golf. He visualized it. So what he would do for four hours is play his golf course back home. He would put a tee in the ground. He would hit it, watch it go down the fairway, put the club back into the bag, and start walking down the fairway. He would hear the birds. He would hear the clippers of the mowers. He would feel the wind on his back, and he would keep on walking along. He would come up to his ball, and he would repeat it again, and he would feel the club in his hands.

At the end of seven and half years, he was finally released. But he did this every day. Now remember I said that he had a shot around a 95. That was his handicap, or his strokes. What do you think he did when he came back
after not touching a club for seven and a half years? You would think he would at least shoot a 95, but probably higher. The amazing thing is, he shot a 75, 20 strokes less than what he did, by just doing visualization. This is a more powerful tool that we can use in our daily lives. If you’re a sales rep, visualize your sales presentation. If you’re going to a job interview, visualize what’s going to happen in the job interview. How many of you want to lose weight? A lot of us want to lose weight. Visualize what you’re going to look like when you lose your weight. Put on the dress, see yourself in the mirror. Eat the food that you need to do, because when you come back, you’ve already created an imprint of what success is going to look like for you. Jack Nicklaus had a saying, “I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp in-focus picture in my head.”

The second thing I want to talk about is we all want to be successful. But nothing cripples success or performance than damaged confidence. So we see these athletes as being super confident because of their talent, right? But it’s not. There was a study in the UK that was extensive, and determined innate gifts do not determine success. So then what’s going on? It’s hard work. No, it’s not just hard work, it’s specific hard work. And that was discovered by Anders Ericsson from Florida State University. And he did a groundbreaking study determining about deliberate practice. What is deliberate practice by Anders Ericsson? “It is the activities that are explicitly intended to improve performance that reaches for objectives just beyond one’s level of competence.”

There’s four tenets that I want to share with you today. One of the tenets is: you have to make it personal, and you have to base it upon principles of fundamentals. A lot of us would practice shooting free throws by getting on the free throw line and doing it many, many times. What deliberate practice is is using something in your fundamentals to build upon. So I would actually go to the front of the rim and actually shoot straight up, because I knew arc was an important fundamental in shooting. Then it would come straight down through the hole, or the hoop. Did you know that two basketballs can fit through a hoop at the same time? That’s how big it is. So one of the tenets is basically working on something of your fundamentals and strengths.

Then the next is obviously repetition: repetition, repetition, repetition. So I would do this for 50 times, and then I would do it 100 times.
But then I would add the third tenet, which is stretch your abilities. Get out of your comfort zone. So then what I would do is then I would have to do it without the ball touching the rim. Think about how hard that could be. That is what makes deliberate practice so difficult, because it’s tedious and painful. But if you do it, you’ll be successful in what you want to accomplish.

The fourth tenet is something that we naturally should know but we don’t; that is you need feedback. How are you going to improve without beginning the feedback? A lot of us do things on our own, but guess what? Don’t these people have coaches? Don’t they have people, advisers, and people looking at them to give them the feedback that they need? So, now after you’ve seen deliberate practice, it kind of makes sense why they are so confident in what they do. Now, it’s not what they do or who they are, but it’s how they do it.

So the refresh is use visualization. That is the ability to create a new reality for yourself, determine it, live there constantly, and come back. And then your choices and your decisions are all based upon what you have just determined.

The other is deliberate practice. And deliberate practice, you have to work on fundamentals, and you have to work on the right fundamentals.
The next step after that is basically, “Am I building upon those fundamentals?” And a lot of us know what we’re supposed to do, but we don’t do it.

And the third part is: this is a journey for these people. It’s a constant progression in life. And they’re always asking one simple question, “Am I doing everything I possibly can?” Because they never stop; it’s a journey for them. So they’re always breaking down new barriers. They’re always creating new challenges for themselves. They’re always about winning. And a lot of people say, “Winning? Oh, my gosh.” No, it’s not about vanquishing an opponent. It’s about their way of ability to measure or benchmark where they are in this process, and it’s a process to them, so failure is not a killer to them. John Wooden once said, “Failure is not fatal, but failure to change can be.” So this is a journey that they’ve been on and are continually going.

Now, there’s a lady that inspired me, and it was a tremendous story. And I want to know: how many people have heard of Penny Chenery? Not very many people have. But Penny Chenery — you might know by her sidekick, Secretariat. Secretariat and Penny Chenery were on a journey. If you remember the story, Secretariat was not ever supposed to be a Triple Crown winner. It was a afterthought of a coin flip. But Penny Chenery had a vision, had visualized where her and the horse could be as a Triple Crown winner.
So they were on this journey for the years, and so they won the Kentucky Derby, they won the Preakness, but now came to the Belmont: the graveyard for horses. Here’s a horse that was overweight, was lazy, but they used deliberate practice on that last race and worked that horse in a specific way. They said it was crazy because he had no recovery time, but they challenged the horse. And if you remember, Penny Chenery walked up to Secretariat and said, “I’ve run my race, now it’s your turn to run your race.”

And boy, did Secretariat run his race. He left — most of the time when he leaves the starting gate, he’s always in the behind. But for some reason, in this race he went out in the front. And Turcotte, the jockey, didn’t do anything. He said, “I was here for a ride.” And by the quarter mile, no horse had run this fast ever, and by halfway through the race, it was only him and another horse called Sham. And everybody in the stands says, “No horse can do this. This is impossible. He’s going to kill himself.” But guess what? He kept on going. And he left Sham behind. And he said it was like a locomotive going down the back stretch and around the home curve. He won by 31 lengths. That’s unheard of in horse racing. That’s two seconds. Nobody’s even come close, not even American Pharoah this year, a Triple Crown winner. So it was an amazing feat for this journey for this lady and this horse. Did you know that in the 20th century, Secretariat was rated the 35th best athlete of all time? A horse!

Even on top of that, the Belmont was rated the second best sporting event of all time in the 20th century. The only event above that was Wilt Chamberlain scoring 100 points in an NBA basketball game. So this was a tremendous journey that Penny Chenery and Secretariat were on. I want to leave you with a quote that Penny Chenery had to say, “We will win if we can, and live with it if we can’t, but you never know how far you can go unless you run. You have to run your race. I don’t care how many times they say it can’t be done. I will not live the rest of my life in regret, and no matter what happens, we are going to live rejoicing every day.”

Mr. Wilson and I have been on this journey, and we want you to run your own race. And a lot of you will say, “I don’t want to be an elite athlete.” You don’t have to be. But why don’t you see how far you can go using visualization and deliberate practice? Thank you.

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