I can’t wait for Friday night’s “Must See TV”: the opening ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics. I love hearing the stories behind the athletes, and watching the record breaking performances, and the medal ceremonies. But most of all, I can’t wait to see U.S. swimmer Natalie Coughlin in the pool again.
As you may recall, Natalie Coughlin had to stay on the sidelines for 2000 after a shoulder injury, and came back to win five medals in the 2004 Olympics—two golds, a silver and a bronze. I’m impressed by her perseverance to recover from her injury, and her record-breaking performances in the 100-meter backstroke and individual medley. But more than that, I’m inspired by her ability to respond to feedback and the suggestions of her coaches.
I first learned of Natalie Coughlin in a 2004 New Yorker profile entitled “A Feel for the Water.” According to a former stroke coach, Milt Nelms, Coughlin’s point of differentiation from other world-class swimmers is her “uncanny ability to connect coaching suggestions instantly to that feel—as though there were a direct route from her ears to her muscles and nerve endings, with no detour through the thinking brain.”
Nelms recounts giving Coughlin suggestions with her coach, Teri McKeever, as they told her to “ease up on the aggressiveness of her arm stroke, soften the angles, make certain to breathe on both sides rather than turning her head in only one direction.” Following the feedback, “she jumped into the water and swam as though she had absorbed everything… completely and all at once.”
When most of us receive suggestions for improvement on multiple fronts, it takes us a while to incorporate feedback—and to make sustainable changes. For example, if you are a golfer, and you are advised to change your grip, widen your stance, adjust your shoulder position by ten degrees and speed up your swing—chances are good that it will take you more than an afternoon to integrate all of the suggestions in concert.
The same is undoubtedly true, of course, with respect to feedback received from others relative to your performance on the job—and your job search. With that in mind, here are three strategies for working to incorporate feedback that we can glean from Natalie Coughlin:
- Don’t try to excel at everything—decide what to focus on first. After coming in fourth at the 2000 Olympic trials, Coughlin gave up the individual medley (IM) event for seven years. This year, she surprised everyone when she decided to compete in the IM a week before the U.S. trials—then went on to set a new world record in the qualification round.
- Find a coach or mentor who is supportive and challenges you to move beyond your comfort zone. This individual should be someone you can share your weaknesses with—and who can help you decide how to play to your strengths. According to one media account, McKeever advised Coughlin that she could handle the IM event for Beijing, but made it clear that it was Coughlin’s decision to make.
- Push yourself—but know your limits. This year, Coughlin could have participated in eight Olympic events—but she’ll stick to six instead to avoid the risk of burn out. In her time out of the pool, Coughlin enjoys non-traditional workouts for swimmers including yoga, pilates, and surfing—and cooking.
Enjoy the Olympics, be on the lookout for Natalie Coughlin, and think of all the coaching and practice behind each athlete’s performance. What lessons do you take away from the Games?