Olympic Medalist Dick Fosbury and the Power of Being Unconventional

Dick Fosbury took a moment to meditate as 80,000 people looked down at him from their seats in Mexico City's Olympic stadium. The fans at the 1968 Olympic Games didn’t know it at the time, but they were about to witness not only the setting of an Olympic record, but the complete revolution of a sport.

Just three or four years earlier, nobody in the world of athletics had even heard the name Dick Fosbury. As a long and lean teenager from Oregon, Fosbury was just another kid interested in track and field. He wanted to compete in the high jump, but he had failed to clear the height required to participate in a high school track meet during his sophomore year. Shortly after, Fosbury had a stroke of genius.

You see, the high jump is a simple event. The athletes jump over a bar and whoever jumps the highest wins the event. Usually, each athlete will toss their body over the bar and crash onto a padded landing pit on the other side. Like most schools in the 1960s, the landing pit at Fosbury’s high school was made of wood chips and sawdust. Before his junior year, however, Fosbury's high school became one of the first to install a foam landing pit and that gave him a crazy idea.

What if, instead of jumping the conventional way with his face toward the bar, Fosbury turned his body, arched his back, and went over the bar backwards while landing on his neck and shoulders? 1

The “Fosbury Flop”

Fosbury’s new style was criticized at first. One local newspaper said that he looked like “a fish flopping in a boat” while another called him the “World's Laziest High Jumper” and ran a photo of him sliding over the bar backwards. 2

By 1968, however, Fosbury was the only one laughing as he used the unconventional technique to win the NCAA championship and qualify for the Olympic Games in Mexico City. By the time the games were finished, Fosbury not only set a new Olympic record by jumping 2.24 meters (7.35 feet), but also changed the entire philosophy of the sport. Within 10 years his technique became the de facto standard for high jumpers everywhere. Nearly every gold medal winner and major record holder in the last 35 years has used the “Fosbury Flop.” 3

Dick Fosbury
Dick Fosbury using his signature “Fosbury Flop” to set a new olympic record in the high jump at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. You can watch a short clip of Fosbury's jump here. (Image Source: International Olympic Committee.)

Different Environment, Same Approach

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Fosbury's story offers two lessons that extend far beyond the world of high jumping.

First, his success came during a period when the environment of the sport had changed, but everyone was still following old patterns of behavior. Even though the switch to foam landing pits allowed athletes to experiment with a wider range of jumping techniques, everyone continued to do the same old thing until Fosbury came along.

This is exactly why you see startups completely disrupt established industries. Take the transportation company Uber, for example. Taxis were the standard way to get around town for decades. At some point, mobile phones and constant internet access became the norm in our daily lives, but everyone continued to flag down taxis and pay for them the old fashioned way. The environment had changed, but the behavior stayed the same.

Then one day Uber came along and said, “Use your phone to request a car, we'll pick you up wherever you are at, and you can easily pay through your phone.” Today, Uber is the biggest taxi company in the world. (By the way, if you're new to Uber you can get your first ride free by using this link.)

This is lesson one: When the environment around a task changes, a new and better way to do things is usually possible.

Right Approach, Wrong Environment

The second lesson that Fosbury's story reveals is that even great strategies require appropriate environments.

About three years before the Fosbury Flop began its rise to fame, there was high jumper named Bruce Quande from a little high school in Montana who was experimenting with a backwards jump technique.

Why has no one ever heard of Bruce Quande? Because he stopped competing in the high jump shortly after trying his new technique. Maybe he lost interest. Maybe his school didn't have the right landing surface. The only reason we know he tried is because someone discovered an old photo of him going over a bar backwards 50 years after it happened.

There is no debate that Fosbury's technique is best approach to the high jump. It immediately out-performed every other method and it has been the standard in modern high jumping for decades now. But even though Bruce Quande had the right idea, he didn't have the right environment to turn that idea into a success.

Good ideas are like seeds. Plant them in fertile soil with the sun and water they need and a little idea can explode with growth. Toss them on rocky ground and even the best strategies will struggle to take root. Environment matters. If your methods are constantly fighting your surroundings, then progress is difficult.

That is lesson two: You can’t expect a great strategy to work well in the wrong environment.

Find Your Own Flop

I'm a big believer in the power of personal science. Simply put, you have to be willing to experiment with new ideas if you're serious about discovering what works best for you.

Dick Fosbury found success because his sport had switched the landing material and he was willing to experiment with a new jumping style. Let's consider some common situations where experimenting with new approaches would serve us well.

For example:

  • A smart high school student gets good grades without studying. When they go to college, however, the environment changes and the workload increases. To find success in the new environment, they need to change their study techniques.
  • An athlete stops playing sports, but continues eating as if they are still training each day. If they want to avoid gaining weight, they need to adjust their eating habits to match their new lifestyle. The situation has changed, so they need a new approach.
  • A busy parent takes a new job with a longer commute. They try to squeeze in their workout routine just like before, but they end up feeling rushed and drained. The environment has changed and they need to find a new method to keep exercise part of their life.

We all face changing environments at work, at home, and in our relationships. The key is to be aware of when the landing material changes, so that we can experiment with new jumping styles and discover what works best.

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Footnotes
  1. The changes to the high jump landing pit are covered on page 76 of “Something in the Air” by Richard Hoffer. He writes, “During Fosbury's sophomore year, the landing pit was only a pile of wood chips and sawdust. It was safe but not comfortable. By his junior year, though, his school had installed a foam pit and the idea of a head plant, while still daunting, was a bit more agreeable.”

  2. The unflattering descriptions ran in a 1964 edition of The Medford Mail Tribune in Medford, Oregon, where Fosbury went to high school.

  3. Before Fosbury came along, the majority of high jumpers used what was called the straddle technique. With this method, the jumper crosses over the bar face down with their legs straddling the bar. It is a strategy that is rarely used today.