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  • Writer's pictureDavid Nagai

The Fosbury Flop

Updated: Aug 21, 2021



In the early 1960s there was a high school freshman named Dick Fosbury living in Medford, Oregon in the United States. Fosbury joined his school’s track and field team as a high jumper.


But... there was one very big problem.


Despite his desire to jump high, he was really, really bad at the high jump. He struggled to even jump the minimum starting height. From the very beginning, Fosbury’s high jumping career looked like it would be a complete failure – a major flop. (See red word explanations below).



The track coaches taught traditional methods of jumping over the bar. For example, the upright scissors method, in which the jumper would kick their feet like a scissors as their L-shaped body floated over the bar.


Or the straddle method, where the jumper jumps facing down toward the ground as they tumble or roll over the bar. Fosbury tried to improve using these methods, but just couldn’t make them work.


So Fosbury decided to take matters into his own hands (take responsibility/control).


He started experimenting with his own techniques and tried whatever he could to make progress. People watching him thought he was strange since he was adjusting his form in weird-looking ways and still failing. So Fosbury was not only failing, but standing out as a strange failure.


But Fosbury kept failing forward until he steadily improved.


In fact, by the time he finished high school, he had not only regained his dignity (self-respect) – he had set a new high jump record for his school.


And he didn’t stop there. He glided to new heights in university as he again set a new high jump record for his university.


At the top university track and field competition in the United States, Fosbury even managed to reach the top as the winner in 1968.


This opened the door for him to be selected to represent the United States at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.


At the Olympics, Fosbury, at twenty-one years old, jumped his way to the finals.


With the bar at 2.24 meters and the crowd on the edge their seats (expectant, excited) with excitement, he made his first attempt but knocked the bar down.


On his second try, he failed again.


Finally, on his third try, he just barely squeaked (narrowly/barely succeeded) over the bar.


And what did this mean?


It meant that Dick Fosbury not only won the gold medal, but also set an Olympic record!



So how did a freshman high jump failure set an Olympic record just a few years later?


In order to understand how, let’s take a look at some more details from his journey...


As we mentioned before, Fosbury created his own technique. The technique eventually became known as the “Fosbury Flop” because he looked like a floppy fish when he jumped backwards, head first, and arched (curved) his back over the bar. He also made his jumping off point farther away from the bar than most people, giving him an advantage of momentum (speed, power).


Most jumpers, using traditional methods, had always landed on their feet or feet and hands. This was because the landing pit on the other side of the bar was simply sand or sawdust (tiny powdery pieces of shaved wood). Safety had to be maintained during the landing, which influenced the way a jumper jumped.


But in the 1950s and 1960s, the landing material changed. First with soft rubber material tied up in a net, and eventually into a foam rubber and plastic mat that was around one meter high. The softness and height of the evolving landing mat rendered (caused) landing safety nearly irrelevant.


As an underdog (weak competitor) who was desperate to make progress, Fosbury was forced to innovate his technique. It was a combination of failure, desperation, and the change in landing mat material that was the perfect combination for his eventual success. The impeccable (perfect) timing turned this unlikely concoction (mixture) into a recipe for success.


So what can we learn from Fosbury’s inspiring story?



Don’t just blindly trust traditions.

Most people would have obediently followed the tried and true (reliable) techniques that were promoted by coaches and top athletes.


Traditions and existing wisdom are important, of course.


But hasn’t all progress in history resulted from people who experimented with new ways of thinking and being in the world?


Sometimes traditions are helpful, sometimes they are harmful, and sometimes it’s most useful to mix various traditions in a way that is synergistic (having synergy) and overall better.


Examine yourself.


Fosbury critiqued his own jumping form. He looked at how he held his body and where his jumping off point was and asked how he could improve himself. This self-awareness was crucial for him to discover his personal potential.


Observe your environment carefully and critically as it changes.


It’s easy to stop paying attention to things around us in life or work because we take it for granted (stop appreciating it).


But things are always changing, and that means that one change might influence something else to change.


Or, like high jump mat material allowing for a better jumping technique, one change could immediately open up the opportunity for something else to emerge (become apparent, become known) that was never before thought of as possible.


Experiment even if you look strange and don’t succeed fully at first.


Fosbury was a nobody (unimportant person) when he first started experimenting. He probably tried some really bad techniques that made him jump lower, fall down, and get laughed at.


Quick experiments with absurd (ridiculous) new ideas are a pathway to novel and valuable results if we can ignore all judgment and suppress (repress, control, stop) our need for overnight success.


For us to put all these ideas into practice, we need courage.


Imagine Fosbury’s courage. He was the first person to jump backwards and head first over the bar. It sounds so dangerous! But that leap of faith was essential.


So we need to have courage. Courage to fail. Courage to look stupid. Courage to push against people or ideas that are holding us back.


It’s one thing to know these concepts in our head. But it’s another thing to take action.


So if we can muster up (gather, mobilize, assemble) the courage to take action, where do start?


Well, maybe we can start by stopping.


We can take actual time to stop and reflect. We can reflect on our self. And we can reflect on the situations around us with new eyes and ask if something better is possible. We can turn our questions into small actionable experiments that we can conduct and then adjust quickly as we try it a slightly different way again and again.


We’ve learned that Dick Fosbury was not the “failure” type of flop that he seemed to be when he started out as a high school freshman. No, he turned his struggle into the “Fosbury Flop” that has become the global standard high jump technique today.


Maybe as a freshman he had fresh eyes.


So our invitation is to ask this question:


What struggles and failures can we transform into our own “Fosbury Flop?”

 

Flop ­– To collapse, hang loosely, or dangle. If I collapse onto my bed I can say I flopped into bed. Flop can also refer to a failure or not having success… “The new film flopped because theaters had to close for the pandemic.”


Straddle – To sit on top of something with your legs on both sides. Straddle can also mean that you are undecided about something, so you are in the middle with preferences on both sides of the decision… “The cyclist straddled his bicycle.” … “I was straddling the issue of whether or not to travel during the pandemic.”


 


 

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