I recently came across David Epstein’s TED Talk of March 2014 in Vancouver, BC. As a sports scientist, he found an amazing way of visualizing the progress athletes have made in their performances in recent history. I wish to share this eye opening presentation not only because it manages to bring together two trending topics like innovation and sports, but mainly because it will make you realize how concrete innovation can be and what massive impact it can have. As a bonus, if you are interested in a demonstration of a flawless presentation, you won’t be disappointed looking at his style and the perfect interaction between the slides and his speech.
First off, he goes through a number of jaw-dropping examples that show how technology accounts for almost the entirety of the performance gaps over time. If you take the track surface in running, bike frames in cycling, suits, pool characteristics and new techniques in swimming, you end up with a surprisingly even playing field of results. One wonders: Have human athletes reached their physical limits and are we approaching the absolute performance? Can the single human athlete even make a difference at all?
Next, he considers the changing gene pool that has recently occurred in the sporting world. David argues that through the opening and accessibility of sports to the masses, more specialized body types, chosen from a much larger athlete pool, found their way into the different sports. A new of selecting athletes fosters performance by exploiting the inherent potential of “tall, small and weird” bodies. In addition to the lesson on Kenyan running tribes, now you also have a surefire method of finding yourself an NBA player.
Changing the mindset, tricking your brain as to allow you not only to take the extra step but to literally run where no one else has run before (see Kilian Jornet, but think also Felix Baumgartner breaking supersonic speed in freefall) completes the picture. The proverbial 110% to give in everything you do, to push yourself to break and go beyond your own instincts and sense of preservation, probably the most powerful of these three factors.
David summarizes factors with Innovation, Democratization and Imagination. Yes, these are the driving forces that push us and allow such immense performances. Personally, I have a slightly different way of summing it up, condensing it to one common denominator. I see in innovation more than the technological improvement, I consider it an underlying principle. To me, it is the innovation of what, the innovation of who and the innovation of oneself. The refusal of the status quo, no matter how deeply it is rooted in our methods, our beliefs, not only in sports but in every aspect of our lives.
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written by Riccardo Santoro (Managing Partner Germany)