In between meetings, filming, rehearsals, and events (this past week), I had the chance to listen to the first episode of a fascinating podcast, “Legacy of Speed,” hosted by one of my favorite authors, Malcolm Gladwell. In the episode, Gladwell talks about Bud Winter, an iconic track and field coach whose philosophy on running and approach to coaching can inspire us all. (He also happened to coach at my alma mater, San Jose State University.)
Winter is known as the inventor of modern sprinting, and he achieved that title by taking a completely unconventional approach. To skip to the end of this story, it worked. He coached 102 All-Americans, 37 world record holders and 20 Olympians during his incredible career. Two of those athletes were Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who famously raised black-gloved fists—the Black Power salute—during the 1968 Olympic medal ceremony in Mexico City. This iconic gesture against the poverty and discrimination of the Black community would become one of the single-most influential moments of protest in sports history.
To understand a bit more about Smith and Carlos’ mindset at the time, you’d have to go back to their coach, whose philosophy was about cultivation over exploitation. Winter taught athletes to find their calm and in turn, empowered athletes to find themselves, too.
Winter’s “lightbulb moment” happened while attending a psychology class at San Jose State. The professor was discussing how to help fighter pilots combat extreme nervousness. Because they were so nervous, the fighter pilots were making critical (and dangerous) errors, but a new psychological approach held promise for the problem: relaxation.
Psychologists theorized that if these pilots could simply relax, they’d perform with fewer mistakes and more technical expertise.
Coach Winter realized if he could get his track and field athletes into “relaxation mode,” they’d perform better, too. The thought was as non-traditional as it was revolutionary. Before Winter, coaches stressed going as hard as possible. Athletes huffed and puffed across the finish line with so much intensity they could burst. Winter believed this was backward. He thought sprinters should be gliding with easy, relaxed movements.
His reasoning focused on the physiological reaction to stress. Any tense muscle in the body—whether it is our brain or our calves—uses up calories and oxygen. Stanford professor of neurology and neurosurgery Robert Sapolsky once told ESPN that chess grandmasters can burn up to 6,000 calories over the course of a tournament.
Here’s the science behind the theory: When we’re tense, we tap into a tremendous amount of energy, and it eventually drains us. But when we’re relaxed, we can contain stress and keep fatigue at bay.
This calm state is what Winter deemed “relaxation mode.” It can be achieved by keeping the muscles in the body relaxed and through controlled, diaphragmatic breathing.
As explained in the podcast, breathing controls the heart rate, which is one of the main indicators of stress. When the heart rate increases, it can impact fine motor skills, memory, and ability to perform. It’s why elite athletes and CEOs alike need to control stress by controlling their heart rate. Otherwise, an elevated heart rate can impact the skills necessary to win on the field—or in the boardroom.
It’s the same theory Bob Bowman applied to his swimmers—Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin to name a few Olympic gold medalists he coached. Bowman helped them relax in the pool during a race, and they were able to find those tiny advantages in a sport (like sprinting) where victory is measured in thousands of seconds.
So, what’s the message? A leader’s job is not to exploit a team; it is to cultivate every single team member, physically and mentally. Through Winter’s relaxation method, elite athletes like Olympians Smith and Carlos were able to execute peak performances and earn their rightful place atop the victor’s podium, where in 1968 they would make a historic statement that would forever change the world.
This article is adapted from Blefari’s weekly, company-wide “Thoughts on Leadership” column from HomeServices of America.