Elite lessons : Katie Ledecky (aka The GOAT)

Elite lessons series : I have spent much of my life fascinated by elite performance, with a focus on studying elite athletes and elite leaders and what makes them different, a well as what elite performers can learn from others in different fields.

Katie Ledecky : THE “Goat”

My sons introduced me to the term “Goat”, meaning “Greatest of all Time”. A great and fun conversation that can go within and across sports, from Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Pele and many more.

For those who follow the sport of swimming though, the goat is the great Katie Ledecky.

Yes, with Michael Phelps in consideration, to call her THE “Goat” means she is quite astonishing, beyond description. Yes. She simply is.

As Katie swims long distance events, it is sometimes difficult to fathom quite how dominant she is, but in 2017 she lots a world championship final in her least strong event, and it was the first time she had ever lost an international race since she burst onto the scene in the London Olympics in 2012 at aged 15.

At Rio 2016, she won gold medals in the 200, 400 and 800 freestyle, and in her main event, the 800 free, she not only smashed the world record, she won by 11 seconds.

In short, she is like nothing we have ever seen in the sport of swimming. She has completely redefined long distance swimming.

For a bio of Katie and a great highlights film, see here.

To watch the last 100m of her stunning 800m swim in Rio :

So, let’s learn a little about how she does what she does, from this article. Focal points and bold type are my additions

Hard = Fun

As a six year old, at a local meet Ledecky competes in a 25-yard race. Several times over the course of a the one-lap race she stops to hang on the lane rope.

She struggles to complete the race, and when she does, her dad has a video camera to capture:

“Tell me about your first race. How was it?”

“Great,” she says, beaming. “That was hard!”

Bruce Gemmell {Ledecky’s coach}, in recounting this story in Angela Duckworth’s book Grit, notes that this is the attitude she has with training and competition to this day.

For Ledecky, hard work is in itself the reward. The challenge is—dare we say it—fun.


For Ledecky, it’s not enough to work hard, it’s about being willing to fail, to push herself to the point of failure over and over again and not get discouraged.

Although this might sound simplistic, a lot of athletes have a hard time with doing this. It’s taxing mentally and physically to push and stretch ourselves consistently to a breaking point. 

It requires leaving your comfort zone, to push yourself beyond what is normal or familiar, and it is just as tough mentally to do so as it is to do so physically.

“There are days she fails catastrophically,” he said. “She fails in practice more than anybody in her [training] group, because she’ll start out like, ‘This is the pace I need to swim in the race, so I need to replicate it in practice.’ And she’ll go six repeats like that, and the tank goes empty and she just falls off. But you know what? She’ll come back the next day and try it again. And on the third day, she’ll nail it. And she’s been doing this since the first day I walked on the deck with her.”

Lessons for leaders seeking to fully realise their potential ?

  • Work hard, and have fun doing it !
    • Tip : Your relationship to your work is as key as the work itself
  • Embrace the “Comfortable Uncomfortable”
    • Tip : Beyond working hard, get comfortable being uncomfortable. Go beyond your comfort zone to the stretch zone
  • Embrace failing
    • Tip : A level beyond the “comfortable unconfortable” is to be mentally prepared to repeatedly go beyond your limits and accept that failure is part of the journey to elite success. Edison said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work”. Katie Ledecky is an amazing example of this.





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