McKinsey Quarterly

‘In the long run, consistency always wins out’: An interview with Olympic decathlon champion Dan O’Brien

| Interview

Dan O’Brien is one of the world’s most successful decathletes. In 1996, he won a gold medal for the United States in the decathlon at the Summer Olympics, in Atlanta, Georgia. His Olympic victory followed three consecutive decathlon titles at the World Championships in Athletics. In this interview with McKinsey’s Allen Webb, O’Brien describes the training mind-set needed to build skills in ten distinct disciplines, the competitive strategies different decathletes have pursued, the role of coaching, and the importance of consistency. Although his commentary focuses on athletics, not business, executives may find parallels between the competitive challenges he describes and those facing their companies.

The Quarterly: What is it that you, as a decathlete, have to do to be a multiskill athlete versus a more focused one? How does that change your training approach? Your mind-set?

Dan O’Brien: The decathlon is very daunting all the time—the amount of training that you put in, and then the competition itself. That scares a lot of people off. This is going to require a lot of time. This is going to require a lot of repetition, a lot of skill training. I’m going to have to push myself to limits I’ve never pushed myself to before, just to complete in the decathlon. You’re competing in events you’re not very good at in front of a large number of people. It’s very scary. And it’s not until you embrace this idea that you’re willing to go someplace a lot of people aren’t willing to go that you truly embrace the decathlon.

We all want to be single-event athletes and run the 100 meters and, you know, be in the glamour events. But it takes a different kind of person to grind it out behind the scenes, day after day after day, for little or no recognition, almost more for an intrinsic feeling of glory. You’re the unsung hero. You’re doing it for yourself, more so than for everybody else or recognition or money.

The Quarterly: Could you elaborate a little bit on your own path to becoming a serious decathlete?

Dan O’Brien: Well, I fell in love with the Olympic Games at a young age. When the 1980 US Olympic hockey team won the gold medal, I jumped up and down on the couch and said, “I’m going to the Olympics!” And so that was where my dream was born.

And then, when I was in high school, I was a good track-and-field athlete. A coach by the name of Larry Hunt, from Southern Oregon, where I grew up, suggested that I try the decathlon. He was very knowledgeable about the exploits of Bruce Jenner and other past decathletes. I really wasn’t thrilled with the decathlon. It was a long two days. There were a lot of hard events in there. But I was good at it.

When I got into college, my college coach thought I could be a great decathlete. But I still didn’t want to go down that path, because of the arduousness of the journey. I wanted to run the hurdles and long jump and just do single events. It wasn’t until I met Jackie Joyner-Kersee that I realized it takes a special person to do this. I thought to myself, “You know, I want to be that. I want to be the next Bruce Jenner.”

At that moment, when I made up my mind, I was 22 years old. And I realized, if I’m going to do the decathlon I can’t tell myself, “Well, I’ll try it.” I have to jump in with both feet.

The Quarterly: How do you allocate your time when you make a commitment like that? Is it more important to invest in the areas where you’re really good, to boost your differentiation? Or do you train harder for the ones you struggle with?

Dan O’Brien: You do spend the majority of your time working on your weak events. As I got started, it was a lot of learning. I didn’t have a great background in the throwing events. With some good coaching, I was able to take what I learned on my own and then put it into what a coach taught me.

So most of the time in the decathlon, you spend on your skill events, always with an aspect of conditioning because you know you need to compete for a two-day period. The decathlon is a large animal. And the fact is that you have to be well conditioned. You train for the most difficult event, which I think is the 400 meters. I became a 400-meter specialist. I ran a lot of relays. I ran open events when I could.

The interesting thing about a track-and-field season is you train throughout the week, and then you compete on the weekends. So you’re training all year long for these large events—NCAA championships, US championships, Olympic trials. And those are really the only ones that count—you know, your big events, world championships, Olympic Games, and stuff. But throughout the year, you train and you test yourself. And through the training and the testing, your times, your marks, your events increase. You run faster, you jump higher, you throw farther. Train, test, train, test, train, test. That’s the dynamic that’s going on.

The great thing about competing on a fairly regular basis is that training never beats you down. The training gets long sometimes, but you know you’ve got a test around the corner. I think that’s the thing that kept me interested all this time.

The Quarterly: You said that there’s a mind-set you must have to embrace the idea of plunging in to do this thing, because it’s so daunting and scary. Is there also a special kind of training mind-set?

Dan O’Brien: Absolutely. Time almost ceases to exist for a decathlete. You’re out there as long as you need to be out there. You don’t schedule practice from 2:00 to 4:00. You show up at noon and you go home when you’re done. You’re the first guy on the track and you’re the last guy to leave.

And you see that in the weight room, in the training room. When I was at my highest levels of training, I don’t even know if I could have told you what day it was. All I knew was that I would train for three days and tomorrow I’d get a day off. And so it was always the cycle: two days of work and one day off, four days of work and one day off, three days of work and one day off. That’s how I lived my life.

You have got to love the process. You have got to love your “job.” Because as much as you want to win the gold medal, you’re going to spend most of your time training. And so you better like it. The secret, for me, was to embrace the idea that time doesn’t exist. You’re out there as long as you need to be. You’re working toward a goal of perfect training, perfect competing—not so much for a result or an outcome.

The Quarterly: Would you always do all ten events in a typical training cycle?

Dan O’Brien: You train in everything. The way we’ve always looked at the decathlon is you’re a juggler. When you first start, you can juggle three balls. Each ball represents an event. After a while, you learn how to juggle three balls very consistently. And all of a sudden, you throw a fourth event in there. And you get very good at that, and you’re juggling the fourth ball. The key is: how can I juggle all ten balls at the same time?

A lot of times, you can juggle six, seven, eight events. But to get that ninth and tenth event is very difficult. Once you can do that, you’re a master juggler—a master decathlete. And so we train for the decathlon as a whole. I hit all ten events in a two-day training period.

The Quarterly: Do you remember moments when you were able to pick up something new? Moments when you could feel it clicking?

Dan O’Brien: Well, take the javelin. It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I realized how to throw the javelin properly. And then, once I did, I threw the javelin very, very well. I can remember just watching single-event athletes—javelin throwers—throw and throw and throw and throw. I was able to imitate a lot of people’s styles and techniques. I mimicked them in every way: body posture and position and, you know, big yells and things like that. I remember when I was 27 years old, I had a weekend where I had two days off, and I thought and I thought and I thought, just about the javelin. And I came to practice the next time and just started throwing better.

Coach Sloan, Rick Sloan at Washington State University, was amazed. He said, “My gosh, what happened?” And I said, “I don’t know. I’ve just been thinking so much about it.” And when I say “thinking about it,” you know, literally—when I’m walking around town, running errands, or shopping or cooking food.

I accomplished so much in my mind that when I went out there the next time, I was able to produce it.

The Quarterly: Do you have a strategy for competition? Do you go all-out in everything? Or are you pacing yourself and trying to run with the pack on a few things because you know you’re going to blow it out of the water on others?

Dan O’Brien: Decathlon training is almost a competition in itself: my system versus your system, my theories of training versus your theories of training. The result is a great athlete at the end of it.

The strategy for me was always 100 percent. We train to work and recover, work and recover. There’s no reason to not give 100 percent in a decathlon. When you add up the full decathlon—your actual movements—it’s 12 minutes in a two-day period. Stand up, take a high jump. Relax. Stand up, take a shot put. Relax. You have plenty of time to recover. So that was our strategy: give 100 percent effort and recover.

The Quarterly: Do you see a pattern where the guy who wins is often the guy who is just a little better than everyone else at everything? Or is it the guy who has three events where he is a lot better than everyone else?

Dan O’Brien: Consistency will win out in the long run, always. Over the years, we’ve seen different types of athletes show up. In the ’60s and the ’70s—even the ’80s—Germans recruited and trained a lot of big guys. I mean big guys: 6 feet 5 inches, 230 pounds, 225 pounds. They were outstanding jumpers and throwers. But they weren’t great runners.

In the ’80s, Daley Thompson, from Great Britain, was more of a fleet-footed runner and a smaller guy. He didn’t throw as well but was a great runner and a jumper. In the ’90s, I brought a lot of 100-meter, 400-meter speed, with very good throws. Toward the end of my career, I didn’t have huge throws, didn’t have huge jumps, but just relied on consistency.

At the Olympic Games, I won one event out of the ten, but I placed in the top five in most other events; I didn’t place in the top five in the 1,500 meters. And so, it was my consistency in the end. You know, for years the world record holder was a guy from the Czech Republic who was so consistent in all the different events. He just reached a high level of consistency in each individual event.

And now the world record holder is a guy from Oregon—Ashton Eaton—who’s top heavy in the runs and the jumps. So it varies from year to year and cycle to cycle. But, again, it’s our theory versus your theory. Do we want ’em big and strong? Do we want ’em lean and fleet? Do we want more running?

The Quarterly: One final question: the coach. Are there things he did that really enabled you?

Dan O’Brien: I surrounded myself with people who shared the same vision and goals as myself. And that was very important. I’ve seen a lot of coaching staffs micromanage everything. You’ve got a jumps coach over here and a throws coach over here and a hurdles coach over there.

And so you get four, five people trying to coach one athlete, with no respect to the other events. You go out to pole-vault, and your pole vault coach wants you to jump for two and a half hours. You know, as a decathlete, you don’t have that much time in the day.

And so somebody needs to oversee the whole event. Because all the events can have an impact on the others. I started training with a single coach and then added a coach just two years into my professional career. It was a great combination. There were three of us: two coaches and myself. And then I added a massage therapist. And so we had this little team. We called it Team O’Brien.

The coach in the decathlon can think about all the things you can’t and relieve you of those thoughts. Coaches have to deal with weather conditions and wind and all kinds of stuff. As an athlete, you just want to go out there and put on the uniform and compete your best. A coach is up there, and he’s saying, “Raise your grip. Move your step back.” He’s seeing all the things that you can’t see. It was really a major part of my competition.

My coach jumped in there with me. When we were in the weight room, when we were in long-distance runs around Pullman, Washington. You know, I didn’t beat him for years in a long-distance run. He was willing to pay the price with me, and that meant a lot.

I think the greatest lesson I learned was how to challenge myself personally each and every day. So, often, we would get into the workplace—the weight room or the training room—and I’d feel like saying, “Nah, I’m just going to get a sweat, I’m just going to stay in condition.” Well, as a high-level athlete, you can’t do that. You always have to be pushing the edge. Today’s workout is harder than yesterday’s. Tomorrow’s workout is harder than today’s. Always, always, always. And so I think that was the greatest lesson I learned from all of this: just challenge yourself each and every day.