In case you haven’t heard, the world cup is going on in Russia. Over 2 Billion people are tuning in to watch the best soccer players in the world compete on the world stage. We’re amazed at the athleticism and the incredible skill on display. Many people are thinking “I could never be that good!”, and while that may be true for soccer, golf, or basketball, there are important lessons we can learn from professional athletes to help us be top professionals in our own careers.
Most people assume that pro athletes are born with ‘god-given’ talents and innate gifts that allow them to perform at a level that the amateur player will never experience. Malcolm Gladwell’s popular book Outliers argued that there are many more factors that determine success at an elite level of performance including, meaningful hard work and practice, opportunity, sheer chance, and your general surroundings. Not only is this true for professional athletes like Lionel Messi, Tiger Woods, and Lebron James but it’s true for the rest of us pursuing success in our professional careers as well.
Basketball fans of a certain age remember the press conference where Allen Iverson ranted about practice. The reality is that the top performers in any sport or profession put in an incredible amount of practice to perfect their skills. They don’t practice until they get it right, they practice until they can’t get it wrong! Take the golfer with the most majors of all time, Jack Nicklaus, and observe his daily practice routine when he was in his prime:
Jack’s practice routine should enlighten anyone who thought pro golfers aren’t fantastically prepared to compete. It shouldn’t be any different for the rest of us. If you manage a design team, how much time is spent improving the skills of your key contributors? What about you as a coach/manager, how much time do you spend on meaningful skill development? If you’re smart, you’re already dedicating time to learning and improving because you know it pays off and will draw better performance from your team. But how do you know what to improve?
The best in the world are honest with themselves about their skills–where they excel and where they are deficient. They use this information to become better competitors. Instead of letting weaknesses slow them down, they use them as motivation to improve. Take LeBron James for example, most would think it’s nearly impossible to find areas of improvement for arguably the best basketball player in the world, but LeBron found them. This past year he saw a weakness in his game: the mid-range jump-shot. He worked diligently on this part of his game and in the postseason it paid off. At one point in the playoffs he was hitting mid-range jumpers 9% better than the league average, which helped lead his team to the finals yet again.
So how do you assess your team? You see the value of skill development and improvement within your design group, but how do you know where to focus training? SolidProfessor offers a skills assessment that will identify weaknesses related to SOLIDWORKS, Autodesk, and other engineering and design best practices. Another valuable assessment tool is the current output of your team. Where have you fallen short recently? Are designs behind schedule? Are the number of redlines on your team’’s designs increasing? These are all indicators that a focused skills improvement effort could benefit your team.
Coach ‘Em Up!
Many agree that there’s no better football coach than Bill Belichick. He’s known for being fiercely competitive, extremely well-prepared, and for always reminding his players to “do your job.” Football, like the other football (soccer), is an interesting sport because it requires all players to execute their individual roles in sync so that the overall team is successful.
An engineering team is similar in a lot of ways. In order for an engineering team to have success and provide value to the company, the players need to function in harmony and follow the direction of a good coach. Often times, individual players may not see areas of weakness and need a coach to identify gaps and help correct. In the NFL, coaches study game film and observe players in practice. For an engineering manager, looking at CAD drawings, product simulations, or prototypes help determine if the team is on the right track.
Never Too Good to Improve
Even the best players in the world know they can get better; they’re always looking for an edge over the competition. As an engineering team, what are the areas you can improve? For many, an obvious place to look is not some new and expensive technology but rather in the fundamentals. Professional athletes are constantly checking their form and technique to make sure they are fundamentally sound. It should be no different for your design team. Are you utilizing the design tools your company has invested into the best of your ability? What would it mean if your team could improve proficiency 10%, 20% or even 30% with the tools you already have? For most teams, the upside for improving the fundamentals is substantial while the barrier to realizing these gains minimal.
Be a Pro
I admit, I’m amazed when I see a mind-blowing goal by Messi, when I witness an incredible behind the back pass from LeBron, or when I watch a 225-yard stinger iron shot from Tiger Woods that lands 3 feet from the pin. There’s no doubt that these are incredible physical acts. Just as impressive though is how a team of engineers works together to create innovative products to redefine the world around us. In both cases, the greatest success comes to those who dedicate themselves to meaningful practice, assess their performance honestly, leverage insightful feedback, and never stop looking for areas of improvement.
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