Growth mindset: day 29/30

Also Book 20/24: Jump: A Journey into the Mind of a Champion, by Lydia Lassila and Andrew Clarke.

Book 20 - Jump

One of the exercises in Carol Dweck’s book Mindset is to find out about the effort that your “hero” put into their accomplishments, rather than assuming they are someone with extraordinary abilities who didn’t have to work too hard to get to where they wanted to be.

I thought this would be a good exercise to do as part of my project, but I don’t really have a hero, so I decided to pick up a biography of someone who had achieved amazing things and learn how they did it. The next challenge was to find a subject. I was still thinking about this when I saw Lydia Lassila‘s book Jump: A Journey into the Mind of a Champion. The blurb on the back convinced me that Ms Lassila would be a good choice: a talented gymnast who reluctantly gave up the sport, and who then took up the challenge of becoming an aerial skier, without having skied before, and became an Olympic champion.

And that was pretty much all I knew about Ms Lassila, as aerial skiing isn’t a sport I know a lot about. Or anything, in fact. But I figured that people don’t become Olympic champions in a sport they took up at age 17 unless they have a growth mindset. So she’s my case study.

The book tells the story of how Ms Lassila grew up as a very talented gymnast, who had entered the elite program at a relatively late age, with a view to competing at the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics. Ultimately she made the decision to quit without having realised her dream, a decision that gutted her at the time, but that she knew realistically was the right one.

When one door closes another one opens (so they say) and in Ms Lassila’s case, she was contacted by the Olympic Winter Institute (OWI), which was experimenting with a program to recruit ex-gymnasts into the aerial skiing program. This is something no other country was doing at the time, so I think it’s a good example of growth mindset within an institution.

Ms Lassila says that, even knowing nothing about skiing, she loved the idea, and the chance of being able to fulfil her childhood dream of Olympic success convinced her to give it a go. At the very least, she says, she’d learn to ski for free.

Obviously she did a lot more than learn to ski, and the book takes us on her journey from 17-year-old novice to World and finally Olympic champion in 2010. It’s the story of unwavering commitment and determination, in the face of potentially career-ending injuries, and of someone for whom winning wasn’t enough; who wanted to be the best female aerial skier who had ever lived. (In the 2014 Olympics she had a good chance of winning performing “safe” jumps but it was more important to her to do a jump that no female skier had performed before in competition, which she did, just missed the landing and took out the bronze medal.)

Her mindset at the start was that the sport was a challenge, and she wanted to conquer it. “I was pretty sure of myself,” she writes, “in the early days that I had what it took to be successful in aerial skiing. Initially I felt intimidated because I knew I was at a development stage and that I wasn’t good yet, but inside I felt that one day I would contend with the best.”

She had always wanted to jump like the men – she notes very early on that there was a big gap between men and women in the sport and that she was determined to change that one day – and this was before she had even mastered the basics of the sport. “I din’t feel like there were any barriers except for myself. I knew it would be difficult, but not impossible.”

Ms Lassila’s career, up to the point the book ends, can be divided into two stages: pre-2006, and then how she changed her approach after the events of that year.

Before the 2006 Olympics, she had been a successful jumper, who had her fair share of injuries. Probably more. She’d had a serious shoulder injury as well as having her anterior cruciate ligament replaced in 2005, which had been a huge blow as she’d been on track to compete in the 2006 Winter Olympics. She had just seven months to recover from a knee reconstruction so that she could compete, and describes it as “a desperate, rushed and ill-prepared campaign”.

She made it to the 2006 Olympics, but her dream was shattered as her ACL ruptured on landing one of her jumps in qualifying. I can imagine some people would have quit at this point. However, she was determined to achieve her goal and the thought of quitting never entered her mind.

The difference between coming back from injury this time and what she’d done previously stands out for me as a wonderful example of a commitment to learn, to ask for help, to act on feedback and to never give up.

Instead of trying to rush her recovery as she had done previously, Ms Lassila decided to take a year off to completely recover from the injury. She learned to listen to her body, and also began to change her mindset. She teamed with a sports psychologist to reframe her mind and help her set out a plan to achieve her goal of becoming the best in the world and winning Olympic Gold in 2010. She learned about the concept of “delayed gratification” so that she would sacrifice some of her immediate goals to focus on the one she really wanted. She writes that she had to change her focus from outcome to process, by developing an action plan of all the steps she needed to take to put her in the best position of achieving this.

“I spent a good chunk of my career thinking I was seeing the picture, but . . .  I wasn’t really getting the concept. I’ve always set myself goals, but they were just destinations with no map, and I had a lot to learn about being patient and trusting there was a process I’m place to succeed. You need to be patient, which was clearly one of my biggest weaknesses. I was desperate to achieve my goals, but I didn’t really have a [detailed] plan for how I was going to get there.”

She set out a three year plan, and while she could have been out winning other competitions with safe jumps, her goal was a more difficult triple jump to win gold at the Olympics, so she writes she had to learn to trust the process that would lead her to this.

While she was on her enforced rest, Ms Lassila launched her own brand of ice pack, developed out of the frustration she’d felt about not being able to get an ice pack that worked satisfactorily for her injury. I think this is a great example of someone making the most of circumstances that they could have whinged and complained about – to see an opportunity for change and take advantage of this.

The book continues Ms Lassila’s story about how she made it to the 2010 Olympics (and got married along the way). She describes some of the problems the Australian team was having at this time with the coaching staff a situation that had deteriorated so badly she had considered leaving Australia and skiing for Finland, her husband’s home. I admired the way Ms Lassila stood up for herself and her team mates at this time, and took matters into her own hands to make sure that they could continue their preparation for the Olympics despite these issues.

Her support team (her A Team), including coaches, physio and psychologist, was starting to form, and she also began to work with her “silent partner” Jeffrey Hodges, founder of the Sportsmind program, who proved to be the final piece in the puzzle of her preparation for the Olympics. After having completed that program, and having some setbacks during the events she’d been competing in, she contacted him and asked him to work with her until the Olympics was over.

In another excellent growth mindset example, Ms Lassila says, “Because I had already done the Sportsmind program [Jeffrey] had to be pretty experimental with me and he created a lot of new ways for me to keep improving mentally.” Mr Hodges recalls, “I wondered if I had more to offer Lydia since she had already learned everything I thought I had to give. When she wanted to continue, it was a turning point in the whole journey because it forced me to develop a totally new program . . . This was a wonderful example of the student pushing the teacher rather than vice versa. The ideas had been there for many years within me, but Lydia forced me to bring them out and turn them into practical application.”

I love that!

There was one point during her preparation when she was in so much pain she wanted to quit, but a win in the vent she was competing in changed her mind and she continued in her lead up to the Olympics, with a clear vision of her future self, who had won the gold medal in her mind. “As the time drew nearer to the Olympics, I felt like I was becoming her… the future self I wanted to be,” she writes.

And here’s her future self, who had, when she first met her, seemed so very far away:

This was a fascinating book and I really enjoyed reading it. Obviously achieving Olympic Gold is hard work and requires persistence and dedication, but I don’t think I really appreciated how much until I read this book. The commitment Ms Lassila showed to achieving her goal was mind-blowing. She writes, “When I look at my gold medal I don’t see six seconds of jumping. I see a lifetime of hard work and dedication . . . I didn’t give up on myself and what I believed I could do. I surrounded myself with my A team who helped me change my mentality and consider the bigger picture rather than immediate results. I had to be active, rather than reactive and create the future I wanted instead of leaving it to chance, and I had to learn to control my thoughts and stay present. Developing this kind of awareness in myself has changed my life forever. It has also set me up with tools that I can use to tackle future challenges and goals”.

A key message for me is that what Ms Lassila has learned – to be proactive rather than reactive, creating her own future and staying present – is the kind of learning that I’m trying to use to tackle challenges and goals in my own life. So it’s kind of cool to see the level to which someone can take this.

And I’ll never look at aerial skiing the same way again!


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