Katarina Johnson-Thompson’s ‘One Small Thing’

Back in 2015, I blogged about the determination, resilience and passion of Katarina Johnson-Thompson (KJT as she is known). She had just crashed out of the Beijing Olympics heptathlon, having fallen from second place at the end of Day 1 to 28th, and fouling her best event, the long jump, 3 times. Despondent, frustrated and a little embarrassed, she told BBC Sport: “This is the last place I want to be right now.”

In my blog, I likened her feelings to those of a fin tech CEO I know, who was also facing headwinds and staring down his demons; determined not to let them get the better of him.

The intervening years have not been great for either of them.

For the fin tech CEO, it has been a rollercoaster journey. In 2015, I wrote that the rule book for trading financial markets had been torn up – in the years since, it has been obliterated further with the Brexit referendum (which shut down trading screens as soon as the Sunderland result came through) and Trump’s election. Hedge funds have had some of the worst years in over a decade, and plenty have closed. But the fin tech CEO and his team are still standing – and were recently shortlisted for a distinguished award, taking on far larger and more established funds in the process.

KJT also continued to face challenges. She faltered in the Rio Olympics, and despite a high jump performance that would have been good enough to take gold in the stand-alone high jump competition, she ended in sixth place in the heptathlon event. People were starting to wonder if the golden girl could hang on to her gold medal dream. She set British records in the high jump and long jump, but on the main stages, events conspired against her and snatched that medal from her grasp. It is understandable that she recently told commentators that she “didn’t enjoy anything in the last two years”.

I think KJT realised that she needed to mix things up in order to make a change. Continuing to tread the same path would not yield different results. So she took the very difficult decision to split from her closest ally: long time coach Mike Holmes, who had trained her since 2008. The self-confessed ‘homebody’ also made the brave move to Montpellier, France, to be coached by Bertrand Valcin’s team and join a training group filled with winning medalists.

While it did not give her overnight success (she finished in 5th place in the 2017 World Championships), the ingredients had changed. Her focus was sharpened, and she was learning from the best in the game.

So I found myself holding my breath as KJT once again put herself through a gruelling heptathlon event in the World Championships in Doha. Just like in the 2015 Olympics, she had a spectacular performance on Day 1, achieving lifetime best performances in the hurdles and shot-put. And this time, she didn’t falter on Day 2, strengthening her position further with another lifetime best performance in the javelin.

Surely this had to be her moment?

Whilst her nerves were not apparent at the time, we now know that she was constantly beating her demon doubts into submission. Standing on the start line of the final event, the 800m, she had only to finish the race in order to take the gold. All she needed to do was hold her line in order to avoid being disqualified – the only thing that could snatch the gold out of her hands.

At the same time, she was battling with the temptation to go for broke in this final event. If she pushed it, she had the opportunity to score 7,000 points – an aspiration few heptathletes ever achieve.

But even as the lights in the stadium darkened for the pre race light show, KJT stayed laser focused and decided to concentrate on the one small thing that could ruin her chance – holding her line. She knew that she had trained for the rest, and her body and subconcious would carry her through everything else.

And so she ran her race, put her demons back in their box and showed them (and the rest of the field) who was boss. She may have fallen short of the 7,000 points (finishing with 6,981) but she did bag a fourth lifetime best… and that elusive gold medal! 

What a victory on the track. But more than that – what a personal victory!

I said in 2015 that she had determination, resilience and passion. None of that has changed. But in 2019, she now possesses a strength of character and a maturity that was perhaps not as fully formed four years ago. She changed her set up to shift the paradigm, and broke her challenges down into bite sized chunks. Now, she has a plan, and understands how to deal with challenges that arise. She has trained to the point that her subconcious can carry her through the mainstream, which allows her to now turn her focus to that “one small thing” that can be the difference between glory and disappointment.

In a world where we face challenges every day, where life can be turned upside down by 3 fouls or a single vote, we have to be secure in the knowledge that we can handle the ‘mainstream’ – the everyday events – as if we are on autopilot. In doing this, we create that essential space to focus on the tiny variables that can make the crucial difference. Businesses have the ability to automate much of what is needed to handle these everyday events at relatively little cost, yet so often management, boards and shareholders are reluctant to make that investment, preferring to chase top line performance results.

And so often, we are so sure that the path we are following is the right one, that we fail to see the “one small thing” that we must change in order to grab that gold medal. Making that change takes courage, especially when victory is almost in our grasp.

But as KJT has proved – we ignore these things at our peril. In retaining manual processes, failing to invest in the communication tools that empower our staff, and continuing to tread the same path, we make ourselves susceptible to the curveballs that can be thrown our way at the most inopportune moment. If we are brave enough to make the changes in our set up and take the time to ensure that the mainstream process is well embedded, we don’t even have to give them a second thought when the chips are down. We can simply focus on that “one small thing” that will lead us to victory.

KJT has now lifted her gold medal. Surely she will also be lifting her OBE/CBE and perhaps a sports award of the year?

I have every confidence that my fin tech CEO and his team will also lift their gold medals this year.

And yes, both will go back to their tracks and start over, ever seeking the next marginal gain and the next “one small thing” that will set them apart from the rest. It is this relentless drive for better that will ensure that they are always at the pinnacle of their chosen fields.

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