Startup founders: learn from the innovation mindset of Dick Fosbury

We said farewell to innovator Dick Fosbury who died last week, the Olympic champion who revolutionised high jumping forever with his backwards ‘Fosbury flop’. Fosbury used his technique to win a gold medal at the 1968 Mexico Games, having begun to experiment during his time on the Oregon State University athletics team just five years earlier.

Fosbury was one of sport’s great pioneers, his ‘flop’ technique has endured as the blueprint for high jumpers ever since. Like the great leaps in science and business, his progress came from trial and error and an experimental mindset. This was the approach that started the Industrial Revolution, the jennies and looms that transformed Lancashire cotton-spinning were invented by tinkering craftsmen with ‘hard heads and clever fingers’.

Prior to Fosbury’s revolutionary development, high jumpers had rotated through a variety of orthodox methods including the ‘scissors’, the ‘Western roll’ and the ‘straddle’. His ‘flop’ was born from curiosity and necessity, after he struggled as a 1.54m jumper with the preferred barrel-roll style and getting his long legs over the bar.  His solution was to curl his run up to the bar before twisting and launching a jump that saw him clear the bar backwards with an arched back.

By 1964 as a 17-year-old his move as ‘the Fosbury Flop’ was winning attention. Fosbury flops over the bar like a fish into a boat ran the headlines. It was alliterative, descriptive, and I like the contradiction – a flop that could be a success.

Fosbury started tinkering with a new technique as a teenager at High School. He spent two years practicing his new technique on his own. Among his discoveries was a need to move his take off point farther back for higher jumps. Most jumpers planted a foot and took off at the same spot regardless of the height. His method was to sprint diagonally towards the bar, then curve and leap backwards, which gave him a much lower centre of mass in flight (it was actually below his body) than traditional techniques.

High jump rules stipulated only that competitors jump off one foot at take-off, there was no rule governing how a competitor crosses the bar, so he began to experiment, gradually adapting his unique technique it to make himself more comfortable and to get more height, such that by his senior year he had begun to go over the bar backwards, headfirst, curving his body over the bar and kicking his legs up in the air at the end of the jump.

Having previously failed to jump beyond 1.6m, he broke his high school record with a 1.9m jump, and the next year achieved 1.93m using his now recognised ‘Fosbury Flop’. He won the argument when he cleared 2.08m. Fosbury continued to refine his technique by studying ergonomics, developing a curved, J-shaped approach run. This allowed him to increase his speed, while the final curved steps served to rotate his hips. As his speed increased, so did his elevation. His flight through the air described a parabola, giving more ‘flight time’ so that the top of his arc was achieved as his hips passed over the bar.

Next Fosbury moved his take-off farther and farther away from the bar and the pit. By way of comparison, Straddle jumpers planted their take-off foot in the same place every time, less than 30cm away from a line parallel with the bar. Photographs of Fosbury attempting heights above 2.1m show him taking off nearly 1.2m out from the bar. 

Fosbury reengineered all aspects of the event – the direction he commenced his jump relative to the bar, his distance of approach to the bar, the angle of initial leap into the air, the movement of body in the air, and how he angled his body in flight over the bar. He literally turned his back on the sport.

But there was more attention to detail beyond that. He wore mismatched Adidas trainers – a white light weight sprinters shoe with track spikes on the right foot, and a blue one with a flat sole on his left use by distance runners. This he said, gave him better traction and pace on his run-up. His mental preparation was also special. Before a jump, Fosbury would clench both fists and rock back-and-forth, sometimes more than forty times, as he visualised clearing the bar in a ‘perfect arc’.

Let’s relive the Mexico Olympics final, because like any innovator, making it happen when it matters counts for everything. One by one, the competitors fell away as the bar moved over two metres. At 2.2m, it was down to Fosbury, his American teammate Ed Caruthers and the Soviet Union’s Valentin Gavrilov. They all cleared.

At 2.23m, Gavrilov failed in three attempts. Caruthers made it on his second. Fosbury was over on his first go. The bar was nudged to 2.24m, a new Olympic record. Caruthers was out after three failed attempts. Fosbury missed his first two. For the third and final jump, he rocked on his heels thirty-nine times. On the fortieth, he took off on six loping strides and then leaped. The bar never rattled. A clean jump. Fosbury sat for a moment on the landing cushion. He raised his left hand as he jogged away. He tried for the world record at 2.29m but failed.

Fosbury never reached such heights again.  After a final lasting more than four hours, Fosbury did not compete at the Olympics again, but his technique swiftly came to dominate his sport. Four years later in the Munich Olympics, 75% of competitors used Fosbury’s technique, although gold medallist Jüri Tarmak used the straddle technique. Today it is the most popular technique in modern high jumping.  Javier Sotomayor (Cuba) is the current men’s record holder with a jump of 2.45m set in 1993 – the longest standing record in the history of the competition and the only human being to jump over eight feet.

Fosbury’s breakthrough took his sport to a new level. He did it not by working harder or developing bigger muscles than his competitors, but by recognising that a convention of his sport was not a rule. The same pattern is present in breakthrough innovations in business. Dramatic progress happens when entrepreneurs break rules that aren’t actually rules – in other words, when they rethink assumptions.

This is what psychologist Edward de Bono called ‘lateral thinking’. In most usual, real-life situations we assume certain perceptions, concepts, and boundaries. Lateral thinking is concerned not with playing with the existing boundaries and norms but with seeking to change this framework.

So how did Fosbury adopt this Lateral Thinking approach and convince himself to use his unorthodox technique?  What can we learn from this to aid the calling of an entrepreneur to forge her own path despite the obstacles? Here’s what Fosbury did.

Be prepared to experiment Fosbury built experimentation into his training. The science was clear regarding the ergonomics to reproduce specific athletic movements of the arch of the back and speed perfectly, and skill in getting the body and feet into a position to create an extra inch of height. He then practiced, over and over again.

Measure performance Fosbury kept a meticulous journal of the metrics of his performance. At the end of every training session or competition, Fosbury debriefed to both understand his performance fully, but also set targets for next time. It’s an attitude of constant improvement.

Train like a champion No matter how talented an athlete, champions train to perfect their skills and push for peak levels of performance. Continuing to dream is part of this, they never stop striving for that next big performance. This captures the essence of Fosbury, planning to compete at the highest level and putting in a shift, he planned out his training schedules to make sure he reached specific performance goals.

Don’t settle for ‘good enough’ Most of us lack the mental discipline that Fosbury had in abundance. One of the risks for businesses is being tolerant of sub-optimal results. When an athlete does badly, their performance is reviewed and analysed from all angles, and they work out how to improve. Be relentless on expectations of yourself. Choose your attitude and get the right mindset. Set the bar higher, literally.

Focus on what you do best Fosbury was a specialist. He competed in one sport. Other than in the pentathlon and decathlon, high-level sport is dominated by niche-oriented athletes who focus on just one field.  Increasingly, startup founders must recognise that the more they pursue a single niche, the more they will succeed. Understand the unique way you create value for customers where you stand at the top of the world. Keep getting better at that one thing. Go narrow, go deep.

Set your priorities When asked what he had sacrificed to get to where he is now, Fosbury replied by saying ‘nothing’. His accomplishments were because of a conscious choice he made – not sacrifices. He set his priorities and executed on them. He simply wanted to make his mark. As an innovating entrepreneur, never look for sympathy, learn from athletes like Fosbury and filter the noise around you, focus on the task, prioritise to be the best about the things that mean most to you, and ensure you are resilient along the way.

Self-belief Did you ever doubt it? Fosbury didn’t. He found his fire. Know where your fire is and follow it. Even though the switch from sand to foam landing pits allowed athletes to experiment with a wider range of jumping techniques, everyone continued to do the same old thing until Fosbury came along. You have to be willing to experiment with new ideas if you’re serious about discovering what works best for you. A startup is successful by spotting opportunities and winning by doing things differently.

It makes sense in most sports to reject the title ‘greatest of all time’ as ‘time’ has not yet run out, but the boundaries are always being pushed back, new peaks crested. Fosbury will always be in the Olympic pantheon, as his contribution is not measured simply in medals, but as an innovator. Like Fosbury, never underestimate your own capacity to come up with better answers.

People with an innovative mindset are forward thinking, creative and open to testing, making mistakes and trying again, progress loving. Innovation should break the status quo, lying somewhere between reality and imagination. Seek inspiration beyond what your own eyes have seen before.

Irreverence always trumps the dissemination of revealed truth. That is why innovation owes more to environment and serendipity – Newton watched the apple fall from a tree; Luis von Ahn hatched the idea for Duolingo when he realised what an advantage being able to speak English was in his home country of Guatemala; Archimedes ‘eureka’ moment came when sat in the bath.  

For me, Fosbury’s influence is equally profound, beyond the athletics track. We struggle to process such anomalous brilliance and disruptive thinking, but we all have to find our own flop to take our startup forward. As Thomas Edison said, the value of an idea is in the using of it.

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