Olympian Marilyn King On Using Visualization

Wendy Hanson
BetterManager Executive Coach

May 22, 2018

Wendy:                  Hello. I’m Wendy Hanson, and I am co-founder of BetterManager. Our mission is to help managers make a positive difference in the lives of the people they work with and their organization. And so I wanna to bring you people that will give you ideas, and fundamentally, give you things that you can take action on. So I am really lucky to have with me today, my friend and colleague, Marilyn King who is an Olympian. She’s an amazing woman and has a great story to share. Let me tell you a little bit about Marilyn before I have her jump on the scene.

Wendy:                  Marilyn is a two-time Olympian, Munich in 1972 and Montreal in 1976. She was in the grueling five-event called the Pentathlon. Her 20-year athletic career includes five national titles and a world record. Marilyn King has been featured in numerous articles and books, including Dream Makers and The Spirit of Champions. Marilyn King also has appeared on the PBS program NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. She is a leadership and peak performance expert, and has agreed to be able to share some of her history, how she’s come to be where she is today, with us. So thank you, Marilyn. Welcome.

Marilyn:                 Oh, thanks Wendy. I’m really delighted to be here, because, you know, you’re like one of my all-time, top favorite coaches because of how pragmatic you are. You’re always looking for, “How do we apply this?” And I love that.

Wendy:                  Yes. And you have such a great story that I think all of our managers and people that wanna be managers some day, can really learn from. So your story comes … It’s a two-part story about vision. Because I work with managers on vision all the time … so if everybody can get the context … Like when we’re working as a coach, I’m always asking, “Where do you wanna go? Where do you set your GPS for?”

Marilyn:                 Yes.

Wendy:                  And when people are stuck in coaching I might say, “In December, if things were going really well, what will have happened? Tell me as if we’re there and you’re telling the story backward.” So what you’re gonna share with us today is gonna give people new insight into how the brain works-

Marilyn:                 Exactly.

Wendy:                  … and how this all happened. So please, get us started. How did the first part of your story begin, Marilyn?

Marilyn:                 Yeah, well, it’s … I playfully tell people it happened to me by accident, and now we can do it by design. And so, the part of what I share now that has to do with vision, actually came about, because when I was a kid, we moved all the time as a military brat and I didn’t do very well making friends. And I realized if you went to sports after school, it was really a good way to meet people and easier to make friends. And so every time we moved, that’s what I did. I joined the after-school sports teams, and I was like a B+ athlete. And that was fine. I got to play.

Marilyn:                 And then one day, I was at a track meet, and they invited someone I had beaten to go to the Olympic Training Camp. And that was like, “What?” [inaudible 00:03:09] beat somebody who had a bad day, but I beat this person, I knew I was a better athlete than she was. And the Olympic Committee thought she could go to the Olympics. So what do you think happened in my mind? If the Olympic Committee thinks she can go to the Olympics and I’m better than she is, that means I could go to the Olympics, which was like-

Wendy:                  Oh my god.

Marilyn:                 Absolutely crazy. But we know now, that in terms of thanks to neuroscience, the neuroscientists call this cognitive dissonance. The mind can’t hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time. So it tries to come up some ideas to bridge that gap, and that’s exactly what happened to me. I knew I’d have to move back to California. I’d have to get a better job. I had all these things I had to do if I was gonna be in the Olympics. But those were new thoughts that led to new behaviors, that took me to my first two Olympic Teams.

Wendy:                  Wow. That must have been such an amazing epiphany. And the fact that you didn’t step over it. Some people may have said, “Ah, that will never happen to me,” and just walk away. But you didn’t do that.

Marilyn:                 Well, I can’t take credit for it, because inside my head are the same two voices that you were saying. One side’s going, “Wow, I could be in the Olympics,” and the other one’s going, “Don’t be an idiot.” You know people … And this was the logic, evidence-based part of my mind, but then I couldn’t let go of this other idea, and that’s why it’s cognitive dissonance. I couldn’t let go of the Olympic Committee part, but I also knew that there were a lot of people better than me. And that’s why my mind started to create these new solutions.

Wendy:                  Yeah. I work with a lot of leaders who have this … They’ve gotten messages from people they work with, and from senior staff to say, “You’re gonna be the CEO, or running this organization someday.” And they have that same thing like, “I could go to the Olympics. I could be a CEO.” But it takes more than just … Then you have to do what you did. It’s like, you gotta take a plan of action then. What do I need to do? And how do I push forward?

Marilyn:                 Yes, and it also needs to be something compelling, because quite frankly, I wouldn’t wanna be the CEO of a company. It’s just way too much work, and way too many skills I don’t have, but I could be in the Olympics. So for someone, it’s like, “I could run this company.”

Wendy:                  Yes.

Marilyn:                 Right? And if that’s an exciting thing, you know your current reality, and you keep holding on to this exciting idea, your mind will do the same thing. It’ll come up with new thoughts that lead to new behaviors, that could increase the chances of that happening.

Wendy:                  Great. So you decided to go on this path and tell us a little bit more because this leads to part two of the story.

Marilyn:                 Yes. It’s a part of the story that a lot of people, now, know. So I was very fortunate. I wound up making the Olympic Team in 1972, went to Munich, Germany. I was like a spectator. I decided I wanted to go again and maybe actually compete. And so I was in 1976, which is when I decided I would go to one more Olympic Team in 1980. And I didn’t think I would ever win a gold medal, but I wanted to do so well, as a slightly above talented American female, that I would inspire really talented females to start to train.

Marilyn:                 So it’s like, “Okay, I might not win a medal, but I’m gonna make some people nervous, and I’m gonna inspire some younger people.” So I was training for my third Olympic Team, and I had taken a big chance. I took a years leave of absence from my head coaching position at UC Berkeley, in order to have, for the first and only time, 24/7, a whole year, to do nothing but train. And not have to work and go to school.

Marilyn:                 And so I embarked on my training in the fall. And then in November, my car was hit from behind by a truck. And it wasn’t a big, ugly accident. As a matter of fact, I walked away from it, but the next day when I started to warm up, my back literally went out. It was like someone just twisted something at the back of my neck. And it turned out to be a bulging disc.

Marilyn:                 It was misdiagnosed, but it shoots pain from the back of your head down to your heel, and guess what? You can’t do the six to eight hours a day of training that you need to do to be a world-class athlete.

Wendy:                   So you were like … you were on this path-

Marilyn:                 Yeah.

Wendy:                  … and like, “Oh goodness, yeah, now what do I do?”

Marilyn:                 Yeah, and now I got my money in the bank, and nothing else to do except this, and I can’t do it. And for some reason, I just got this idea in my head … Again, this was by accident, I thought, “Well, it’s just a tweak. I’ll be in the top three at the Olympic Trials in the summer. And I’m getting better every day.” And I needed to go to doctors, and I needed to go to physical therapists, and I was doing that almost every day with the same mindset. “It’s just a tweak. Be in the top three. I’m getting better every day.” Only, two weeks, three weeks, six weeks go by, and nothing has changed. And they still haven’t really figured out what it is. So I thought, “Well, I have to do something.”

Marilyn:                 So I got films of the world record holders in all five of my events, hurdles, shot put, high jump, long jump, and 800 meters. And I started to watch them frame-by-frame and slow motion, and imagine myself doing exactly the same performance as these world record holders were. So I did that probably for, I don’t know, maybe six weeks until I was so sick of these films I could just throw up. So I thought, “I have to do something.” So I went out on the track and I spent three to four hours a day, imagining my training, or imagining my performance, still envisioning, “I will be in the top three at the Olympic Trials, and I’m getting better every day.”

Wendy:                  Yes.

Marilyn:                 So if we-

Wendy:                  What year was that? What year was that, Marilyn?

Marilyn:                 … So this is … we’re now … It’s 1980. We’re getting ready for the Olympic Trials for Moscow.

Wendy:                  Right.

Marilyn:                 Except for-

Wendy:                  And in 1980, these were unique thoughts. Like now, we know that when Steph Curry goes on the court with the Warriors, he has already played this game, right? In his mind.

Marilyn:                 … that’s right.

Wendy:                  We know that now, but we didn’t know that then.

Marilyn:                 No.

Wendy:                  So you kinda made this up, at that point.

Marilyn:                 That’s right. That’s why I say, it’s kinda fun to have, now, the opportunities to share with people who have something they care about because back then, sports psychology was in its infancy.

Wendy:                  Yeah. Yeah.

Marilyn:                 So I went to the Olympic Trials for the 1980 Moscow Games. I had them give me a facet block, which is like a Novocaine injection. And I placed second at the Olympic Trials without physical training for almost seven months.

Wendy:                  Wow. What was the response to that? Because people must have been shocked if anybody knew the background story when you showed up at Trials.

Marilyn:                 Well, if you know good psychology for competing in athletics or anything else, you certainly don’t wanna let anyone know about any weaknesses that you have. So I did not tell anyone, and people could not figure out why Marilyn was not showing up at track meets between November and June.

Wendy:                  Wow.

Marilyn:                 And I didn’t tell anybody. I just showed up.

Wendy:                  Yes.

Marilyn:                 Yeah.

Wendy:                  Wow, that’s amazing, that’s amazing. And what was your big takeaway from that? Like it must have been amazing that you even thought of that, “I should visualize myself going around the track doing all these things.” And then showing up there. What was happening then for you?

Marilyn:                 Yeah, and it wasn’t … The word visualize, wasn’t in my vocabulary. I just said, “Well, I have to do something, so why don’t I watch the best.” That’s where the films came from. And then I thought, “Well, I’m getting better every day, but I’m gonna stand on the track.” And I know that my body can kind of feel the rhythm, even as you’re standing there, and you can’t even hop from foot-to-foot. So it’s not like, “Oh, here’s what I’m going to do in the interim.” It’s like, “No, I’m getting better every day, and next week I’ll be training.” I mean, of course, right?

Wendy:                  Right. Right.

Marilyn:                 So I actually think it was a blessing that it was misdiagnosed, because if I had taken in the information about a bulging disc, what you find out is, they don’t heal. So I was not going to be able to compete.

Wendy:                  That’s why you should never get medical advice on the internet, right? Because you get things that are too bad, and then you cannot shift your belief system.

Marilyn:                 That’s right. Then I saw a cute quote that said, “Never stay with a doctor who says you can’t get well, or you won’t recover.”

Wendy:                  Exactly, exactly. Walk out of that office real quick, yeah.

Marilyn:                 Outta here.

Wendy:                  Outta here, right? So, you’ve taken that learning, and you have moved it to a lot of work that you’ve done over the years with companies.

Marilyn:                 Yes.

Wendy:                  Because it’s very similar, isn’t it? When we have to figure these things out like, “I can do this,” or “I can’t help my team do this.” What’s been some of your experience in that realm? Because you’ve taken what you knew back then, which was brand new, and now we know this. But you’ve made it real for companies.

Marilyn:                 Yeah. It was life-altering for me, in that I knew I was just like a slightly above average athlete, and I hadn’t trained, so what had happened was impossible. And I followed my intuition, and my intuition said, “Something extraordinary has happened, and it would be really good to figure out what it is.” So I quit my coaching position at UC Berkeley, and never went back. And started to explore the field of exceptional human performance. And out of that, I discovered a framework, which you’re familiar with, that I call “olympian thinking,” which demystifies exceptional human performance. And it basically says, it’s passion-powered, right? That’s where the energy and juice come from. That’s like, if you don’t want to be a CEO, this isn’t gonna work for you, right? But I could be in the Olympics.

Marilyn:                 And then there’s the vision part, which is hugely aided by neuroscience these days, but it’s about what and how you think. And the third component is, you’ve gotta have a game plan, daily practices, and feedback. So there are things in the action domain. But today, we’re pretty much focusing on the vision aspect of what I discovered and what I teach. And you know we could talk … Wendy, you know we could talk for hours.

Wendy:                  Yes. And we’re probably gonna have to have another one of these.

Marilyn:                 Alright.

Wendy:                  But I gotta ask you about mindset matters.

Marilyn:                 Yeah.

Wendy:                  Because I use those words all the time, and they mean so much to me since I always hear you, you use them.

Marilyn:                 Yeah, mindset matters, absolutely. Because I think people can easily grasp the notion that, what you do is dictated by what and how you think. So as long as I was thinking that, “I’m just here to make friends, and try to run on a relay team maybe at Nationals,” I behaved in a certain way, and I thought I was training really hard. But as soon as I had this idea that maybe I could be in the Olympics, my brain went into cognitive dissonance and had these other new thoughts. And I started just doing all these things I would not have conceived of. So that notion of cognitive dissonance happened to me by accident, and now we really can do it by design.

Marilyn:                 And if you think back to one of those, I dunno kind of things, that went through the corporate world, where they called BHAGs, big, hairy, audacious, goals. People didn’t really understand that if you use that properly, it is a form of cognitive dissonance. Because you’re setting some kind of a goal that makes you go, “Holy moly, how are we gonna do that?” Well, if it’s something that you care about that you’re motivated to do, you are putting yourself into a state that will give you new thoughts, that lead to new behaviors to help to achieve that.

Marilyn:                 So neuroscience is wonderful because it’s starting to teach us these things. But unfortunately, people wind up misunderstanding and misapplying it. So I hear people being interviewed or saying something about, “Oh, cognitive dissonance is,” like, “Wow, they really don’t get it.”

Wendy:                  Yeah.

Marilyn:                 So, that’s part of what you do. You create cognitive dissonance by design, whether or not you’re using the term at that moment with them, but it’s what you do naturally, Wendy.

Wendy:                  Yes, and what I know too is that BHAG goals, now we call them stretch goals a little bit. If you try not to always … not everybody calls them … A lot of my clients still call them BHAG goals, but if you don’t set your sights higher, you’re never gonna get there. Like you have a low bar. So it’s really about how do you set your bar and then get that gap there, that dissonance, that you need to work towards? That’s sort of makes you … that makes it exciting. But as you said, it’s gotta be like, “I don’t want to be an Olympian.” So that wouldn’t turn me on, you know?

Marilyn:                 Right.

Wendy:                  Right. But whatever it is what you wanna be, to be able to set that up there, that’s the beautiful thing. And it empowers your brain to know what to look for. That’s what we know these days, is our brain looks for evidence, good evidence, instead of negative evidence.

Marilyn:                 Well, it also brings … Who knows what percent were actually using, but moving into that cognitive dissonance state is engaging the innovative, creative parts of the brain, that when I was saying, “I’m just here to make friends, and maybe run on a relay team,” my brain could see the things I needed to do, to do that. When I said, I could be in the Olympics, it’s like, “Whoa.”

Wendy:                  Yeah.

Marilyn:                 Yeah.

Wendy:                  Right. One of our consultants to BetterManagers is Dr. George Woods. And Dr. Woods always says like, “The brain loves novelty.” The brain can get bored. So we gotta keep things, like moving fresh and setting new goals and things we’re gonna do differently. Wherever it is you are, wherever you start, to be able to have those high goals.

Marilyn:                 And the thing I think is important to be careful of, for people who are managers, is there … It’s like an art and a science when you’re setting stretch goals or BHAG goals, because if you’re just putting these on the top of last year’s, and people were stressed last year about it, now you’re dumping another one on them, that’s not like a, “I could be in the Olympics,” moment, that’s an, “Ah, no.” You know, these guys … And then they’ve got this, excuse me, the crappy little story going on back here, that is not gonna create a cognitive dissonance state. That is not a high-performance state.

Marilyn:                 So there’s the art and the science that you are so good at, about it’s not just, “Okay, let’s double what we did last year, and dump that on people.” It’s like, “Why would anybody wanna be a part of this team? Why would anybody wanna be a part of moving to the next level of what we’re up to?” That’s where the managers and the leaders, I think, can create the kinds of goals and engagement, and spark the creativity that’s required if you’re gonna be competitive out there.

Wendy:                  Yeah. Oh, well said, well said. I think this is a good place for us to stop for today, but-

Marilyn:                 Alright.

Wendy:                  … come back and join us again.

Episode Transcript

Posted on

May 22, 2018