Leadership, Our Thinking

Facing Fears


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I was three and a half years into my London 2012 Olympic campaign and on track for my best ever performance. It had taken total dedication to the cause and 70,000m of swimming every week. And then… three months before the Olympic Trials I suffered my first ever performance disabling injury. Two bulging disks in my lower back resulting in back spasms and a complete inability to swim.

It was a pivotal moment in my swimming career. It could so easily have been a traumatic and emotional ordeal with sleepless nights and endless stress and anxiety of worst case scenarios.

Fortunately my team and I had foreseen it. Part of our planning process was to anticipate potential risks to our performance and my lower back had a high risk profile. We put in place as many countermeasures as possible to reduce the risk and yet it still happened.

As soon as the injury happened the team and I instigated a plan, which had already been devised, and executed the process.

The result was not only a return to fitness in time for the Olympic trials but actually the change in approach meant that I improved my best ever performance by a significant margin. My biggest fear had come true and yet it improved my performance because we were confident in our approach.

We had used an approach the Nobel Prize Laureate Daniel Kahneman calls a pre-mortem. By running a pre-mortem he says “It legitimises decent and rewards people for finding flaws in the current plan”. This process actively encourages teams to consider and identify potential negative outcomes and events with the purpose of creating a more robust and considered approach.

Absence of considering the potential for error and “making decisions based on delusional optimism rather than on a rational weight of gains, losses, and probabilities” means that projects based on optimism will ultimately fail.

The result of this approach is an increase in the collective confidence to perform, especially, when in reality, you are faced with previously identified and considered challenges.

The exercise we will utilise identifies the major fears (risks, barriers or hurdles) and you’ll then identify both causes and consequences of the fear coming true. By doing this we are subsequently able to support the creative design of mitigating against it ever coming true or minimising the consequences if it does, as we did in my Olympic campaign.

For further reading on this topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MzTNMalfyhM

Reference : Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow by Daniel Kahneman

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