How Olympians Become Olympians and What This Means for Salespeople

Have you ever wondered why some people get really, really good at something while others stagnate? Is it natural athleticism, or some inherent trait that makes them better? Have you ever wondered why you have been playing golf or tennis for years and have gotten to a plateau? It is very common to find recreational golfers, tennis players, and skiers who have not improved their performance after years, or even decades of regular experience. Similarly, there is a weak correlation between performance and length of experience after individuals have gained their initial experience during the first year. What do Olympians do differently than the rest of us? Because the Olympics are on our doorstep, it is a good time to explore the topic of expertise and how it is best attained.

It is not Inherent Abilities that Lead to Expertise

Expertise research Dr. Anders Eriksson, professor of psychology at Florida State University, has studied expertise more than any other researcher and he has made some interesting discoveries. Eriksson dispelled the notion that natural athleticism or superior intelligence are required for expert performance. This position is in direct contrast with common sense. Most of us think that the best athletes are just more athletic. The best musicians are just more naturally gifted. While athleticism and being gifted may be helpful, they are not the secret sauce of expertise.

Why Amateurs Remain Amateurs

When we are learning a new skill or sport, the early stages of learning consist of avoiding mistakes. The more experience, the fewer mistakes. This makes sense. Learning no longer focuses on achieving an “acceptable level” of performance. What happens is that as tasks – like golf, tennis, and even selling, become automated, we stop thinking so much about them. Anyone who has been driving for more than a week knows this is true.

Once a task has become automated, more experience does not typically lead to better performance. This is why there is a very low correlation between experience and expertise. Getting better at a task – whether it is golf, tennis, or selling – requires deliberate training activity that takes individuals beyond their current comfort zone and challenges them to improve performance. The figure below shows the difference in expertise gained over time with and without the use of deliberate practice.

Deliberate Practice Makes the Difference

So, lots of words about experts. What does this mean for Olympians? How do Olympians practice their sport in a way that allows them to move past novice to expert? According to Eriksson, experts engage in deliberate practice. They practice in a way that inherently leads to better performance. They practice highly specific tasks related to their domain in a very deliberate way. In addition, no individual reaches elite status without the help of coaches and teachers. Those coaches and teachers help structure practice to ensure consistent improvement. Coaches and teachers structure practice so that further improvements to performance are achieved through continuously increased challenges. This method of practices raises the performance beyond its current level.

Deliberate Practice Incorporates the Following Four Elements:

Experts are Better Decision-Makers

According to Eriksson, expert performers have acquired mental models that allow them to access relevant information that supports flexible reasoning about a task or situation. This advantage experts exhibit is about anticipatory skills rather than innate abilities. They know what to look for, and what to do when they find it. It is about equipping oneself with a decision-making model to internally monitor what is happening and compare it with the goal. This internal monitoring is highly task-specific. These decision-making mechanisms displayed by experts allow them to transcend the limiting factors present in an amateur’s performance and avoid the arrested development associated with automated tasks.

Expert Sales Managers and Salespeople are Better Decision Makers

Recent research indicates that high-performing sales managers and salespeople are better decision makers and that the quality of their decisions leads to better performance. How does this work? Well, let’s start with sales managers.

Our management practices research, published in our book Crushing Quota, indicates that high performing managers do not do “more” than their lower performing peers. They do things differently. They coach fewer hours, for longer durations, and discuss fewer topics. What do they coach? The activities that are most critical for achievement of their KPIs and associated quotas. They are maniacal about prioritizing what matters most and attending to those priorities in very structured, effective ways. These managers make better decisions about “what” to coach and “how” to coach. The better decision making ultimately leads to better coaching and better coaching outcomes. But what about salespeople?

Research into high performing sellers (originally conducted by Florida State University’s Sales Institute and expanded by VantagePoint) found that high performing sellers are agile. They adjust their sales approach based on the buying situation they face. In other words, they evaluate the situation they are facing and choose the optimal path forward. They don’t use a one-size-fits-all approach. High performing sellers spend more time than average sellers assessing their buying situations PRIOR to selecting and executing an appropriate sales strategy. It is the quality of these decisions that leads to better execution and better outcomes.

Implications for Sales Enablement

If we take into account the research findings for high performing sales managers and salespeople, we can tie their behavior to deliberate practice that can be implemented within the sales enablement function. Sales managers can be trained in ways that educate them on better decision making that replicates high performer behavior to assess the situation they are facing (which seller, in which situation), select the best type of coaching (which high impact activity to coach, within which frequency, duration, and topics), and then apply that rhythm over time.

Salespeople can be trained to identify the buying factors that most significantly impact their buyers, determine how those factors align into unique buying situations, and then choose and execute the best sales strategy to lead to a win. This is in sharp contrast to the way most salespeople are trained. Most sellers are trained in an individual methodology and instructed to use that approach in every buying situation. This takes the decision-making, and overall effectiveness out of the enablement effort.

Effective sales enablement involves:

  • Identifying which behaviors lead to the highest performance
  • Structuring training activities around those behaviors
  • Monitoring trainee performance against standards
  • Providing increasingly challenging practice and feedback over time as performance improves.

This implies a long-term approach to sales enablement compared with the more traditional episodic approach to training. For this reason, most of our clients realize the need for more robust enablement over time and are choosing to engage with us for multiple years. Expertise in sports and in selling is an ongoing endeavor. Maintaining expertise requires ongoing practice, feedback, and coaching.

For a short video by Anders Eriksson on expertise in the business area, go to the following link:

For more information about creating an agile sales force, read our article How to Build an Agile Sales Force
Or contact me directly at mvazzana@vantagepointperformance.com.

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