He has done it. Mo Farah has entered the records books as the only British track and field athlete to win more than two Olympic gold medals. It was a fantastic performance by a man who comes across as being ever so slightly super-human. But he isn’t superhuman, and the lessons of his success can be learned by entrepreneurs, or indeed anyone with ambition to be successful in business. But at least one of the lessons may surprise you.
By the time you read this, Farah may even be a double, double Olympic champion, although as these words are written, the author is still recovering from watching Mo’s fabulous victory in the 2016, 10,000 metres Olympic final, which occurred in the early hours of the morning in the UK. A victory that occurred despite Mo tripping over, falling on the track, and suffering an abrasion to his shoulder.
Be under no doubt, Farah’s victory is down to hard work, phenomenally hard work, a degree of determination that is just incredible, and a will to succeed, that cannot be merely described as an iron will, there is more to Mo than that.
Yet, his final victory may have been down to something quite different.
“I can’t have a day off, can’t afford it,” he said in a TV documentary aired by the BBC: Mo Farah: Race of his Life, a couple of weeks before the Rio Olympics.
He even went for a five mile run on a day he felt ill.
Farah said: “Some people I used to compete against had more talent than me, but they didn’t train and make that crucial decision.” – What decision is that, you might ask? In the case of Mo, it was to dedicate his life.
As the narrator to the TV programme said “It is clear that at even at training sessions, Mo pushes himself harder than his training partners.”
Farah also learned to take advice from those in the know. As Sebastian Coe said: “I had watched Farah come through, and come through well, he raced well but had limitations, he was always going to fall short at the highest level. Then he found Alberto Salazar, a world class coach who could structure his programme.”
That’s two lessons: work hard, and take advice and follow it.
Mind you, when it comes to Farah, working hard takes on a different meaning. In the run up to Rio, when he wasn’t away at training camp at high altitude, he slept in an altitude tent – looks like a large transparent bag, covering his head. His poor wife, she would kiss him goodnight, through the material, a millimetre from his lips, the equivalent of several thousand feet of air pressure apart.
Another key part of Mo’s preparation for Rio was failure, after a rare defeat gave him extra motivation. Indeed, failure is an important part of any successful journey in business, as even Usain Bolt confirms.
But Farah’s weakness may have been that he was too determined, worked too hard, and appeared to have an allergy to the idea of taking a break.
“Mo’s biggest problem historically,” we were told in the TV show, “has been a tendency to over-train.”
Neil Black, Performance Director at UK athletics said “I don’t think I have come across anyone who is more stubborn on something he feels strongly about. Possibly he knows it is not the best thing to do, but he has to do it. The easy option is to do more, push harder and give yourself confirmation of how amazing you are. But sometimes the answer is to back off and just believe in yourself.”
Mo himself said: “People don’t have a clue how hard you train, some days you just want to get up and cry. There are days when you get up and you think how am I going to get through it, how is my body going to cope… I have put my body through hell,” he said.
But then at the Steve Prefontaine athletics meeting in Eugene, Oregon, back in May 2016, he scraped a victory in a 10,000 metre race. For anyone else, his victory would have been described as impressive. But for Mo’s team there was sense that it was not typical of him, that chinks in his armour were showing, he would be vulnerable come Rio.
The solution may surprise you. Mo was urged to take time off.
He took a week’s break from training, and allowed his body to recover.
The concept is familiar to business advisors.
Back in 2014, Sage conducted research showing that 30% of UK small business owners didn’t have a summer holiday in the previous year.
The Guardian quoted Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School as saying that: “It really is a big problem, and the smaller the business, the more likely it is. Ultimately, not taking enough time off can prove extremely harmful to the owner, their family and their business… There’s interesting respite research coming out of the US and Israel that suggests that people who take holidays return feeling healthier and psychologically more robust. This is good for their health, well-being and family relationships. Running a business often means not seeing loved ones as much as we’d like. Taking a break enables us to re-engage with them, otherwise marriages and family life can suffer enormously. Investing in relationships is as important as investing in your own health.”
The analogy with Mo is dead on; he often cited time away from his family as his biggest sacrifice.
But there may be an additional benefit from taking breaks.
Mo needed a break to give his body time to recover from training.
If you are working in business, you sometimes need to give your ideas time to recover. You need to question your ideas, your strategy, whether an approach you are taking at any one time is the right approach. You need to take a helicopter view, sit back, and look from a broader prospective.
Taking a break may seem expensive – expensive on your time, that is, just as Mo said, he couldn’t afford not to train. Yet a break in training may have made the difference between Olympic gold and silver. If you are in business, then not taking a break, and failing to at least consider re-setting some of your methods and ideas, can cost you dear.