“…she said we were to keep clear of the Sirens, who sit and sing most beautifully in a field of flowers; but she said I might hear them myself so long as no one else did. Therefore, take me and bind me to the crosspiece half way up the mast; bind me as I stand upright, with a bond so fast that I cannot possibly break away, and lash the rope’s ends to the mast itself. If I beg and pray you to set me free, then bind me more tightly still.’”
Homer, The Odyssey (Book XII, translated by Samuel Butler)
The Odyssey tells the story of Ulysses and his 10-year homeward journey following the Trojan War. Vengeance, perseverance, and cunning are major themes woven throughout Homer’s epic poem. But so too is The Odyssey a cautionary tale of succumbing to temptation.
With only 110 days before the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympic Games in London, I can think of no better lesson to share.
Earlier this year, I spent an entire week in London working with the remarkable USOC International Games staff and the equally awesome team leaders who will represent all of the various sports which will participate in the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. We spent a great deal of time talking about the detailed logistics that are required to support a massive delegation of coaches, athletes, and support staff.
Echoed throughout the week was a simple, single, and resonating theme: Execute the Plan. Great idea. But, sometimes, that’s way easier said than done.
The fact is, we are living in an era of 24-7 cable news and the ubiquitous internet. We are ever more connected by and dependent upon our smartthings. And, as a result, we are constantly bombarded by email, Status Updates, and Tweets.
But for all the benefits and conveniences these technologies have afforded, it has never been easier to become distracted. Distracted by shiny things. By noisy things. By pundits and by gurus and by the flavor(s) of the day.
Distracted by things that seem important…but are not
In the nearly 7 years I’ve been with the United States Olympic Committee, there has rarely been a week in which I haven’t received some kind of “lead” for some new technology or supplement or treatment that will “revolutionize” athletic performance. A few have panned out. Very many more have not.
Last month I experienced another.
The Wonderful WIDGET X
For the sake of protecting the innocent and focusing on the issue at hand, I will not disclose the name of the “thing” and will simply refer to it as WIDGET X. But, man, was it shiny.
WIDGET X caught the attention of coaches and athletes alike and rapidly became the single most important thing on everyone’s mind. Conference calls were held. Letters were written. I’m pretty sure school girls cried. In a YouTube-ism, it went absolutely viral.
In this particular case, WIDGET X appears to be a measurement and training tool. It purportedly measures aspects that I believe are critically important to athletic performance, particularly in high-stakes, high-stress environments like the Olympic Trials and Olympic Games. Results are presented to athletes in very pretty and very cool graphs which seem to closely align with athletes self-perceptions. Upon seeing their first WIDGET X report, several athletes have reacted with utterances like, “That’s totally ME!”.
But is it? And even if it is, is NOW the time to be thinking about it?
One of the problems associated with WIDGET X is that nobody, including the super-smart scientists who developed it, knows whether their statistically derived outcomes have anything to do with athletic performance where it actually occurs – on the field of play. In layman’s terms, this issue is known as transferability and generally describes the extent to which things that work in a controlled laboratory setting actually work in a messy, complex, real-world environment.
Regardless of it’s merit, I admit that WIDGET X presents an interesting conundrum.
On one hand, it is an unplanned distraction. As late as January, 2012 nobody I knew or worked with had ever heard of WIDGET X, let alone used it. It was not part of the plan. And, as such, it has presented a potentially dangerous distraction. Not the kind that might hurt our athletes, physically or emotionally, but the kind that pulls attention away from the things that matter most and provides a false sense of security. I can only image the thoughts of those who have fallen under the spell:
“If I use WIDGET X, I can’t possibly fail! And, besides, if I don’t and one of my opponents does, I’ll be at such a disadvantage I can’t possibly win.”
Remember, WIDGET X is REALLY shiny!
I’d love to stop here and just issue a firm decision that NOBODY should or will use or even think about WIDGET X until the last medal has been hung around an athlete’s neck. It IS NOT part of the plan. It never has been. Besides, NOBODY knows if the damn thing really works. So, knock it off and focus already!
Unfortunately, there is another perspective worth considering. For those who have already fallen prey to the Siren’s song, the uber-shiny WIDGET X, is it best to leave them be, or to pull them, kicking and screaming, back to the safety of their plan? And, even if you COULD pull them back, to what extent would they be able to return their focus to the plan and eliminate the thoughts of what they can no longer have? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but they have been ones I’ve been forced to consider.
I can appreciate the argument that those already lost may be beyond saving and that any effort to bring them back may be more damaging than leaving them alone. Perhaps it is true that those most vulnerable to the allure of WIDGET X would have been lost to something else whether that was WIDGET Y or the pressures of performing in the most important competition of their lives.
I am also well aware of the placebo effect and the powers of belief. With such little time left, I can only hope that avoiding the negative effects of telling them NO are marginally better, or at least less worse, than the perceived or real “benefits” they will derive from the magical, mysterious, gloriously shiny Widget X. I suppose only time will tell.
Reassuringly, there are those who have held firm. Many have made this treacherous journey before and whether by experience, instruction, or shear will, they have waxed their ears and stayed true to their plan. I am comforted by this but in no way am I complacent.
Our coaches and athletes have dedicated years of their lives pursuing the Olympic Dream. It is not the time for Sirens. And believe me, they’re out there. Waiting. Wanting nothing more than to lure them away from the task at hand, singing them to shipwreck.
In the end, I’m going with Homer. I think this is the time to bind ourselves, ever more tightly, to the masts of our plans.
Trust the plan.
Execute the plan.
WIDGET X will be around when you’re done.