Go Slow to Go Fast – a Business Lesson from Water Polo

Club Natacio Sant Andreu - Toby Jenkins

When I was up to my eyeballs in water polo, a part of my training was weekly martial arts sessions with Andy Sutton. Back in early 2002 he introduced me to the principle:

“Go slow to go fast.”

This wasn’t just counter intuitive when I first heard it – it seemed plain mad. We’d been training one on one in a park in West End in Brisbane and it really didn’t make much sense to me. At the time I opted to file it away in my subconscious in the “too hard basket”.

Later that same year I was offered a chance to play professionally in Barcelona, for a club called Sant Andreu. I was pumped.

When I arrived in Spain, I realised they had a different approach to training. The general theme of this approach was to opt for high quality at high intensity rather than the incredible volumes we were doing at home. Each session was focussed on skills, strength, game play or swimming. In comparison to Australia, where it was typical to pile on strength work on before, or skills or match work on after a swim session, a swim set was nearly always just a swim set.

 

Go slow

I don’t remember what triggered me to dredge up Andy’s advice, but I thought it would be a good time to test if going slow could actually help me go faster.

Over the course of dwelling on and trying to practice this concept in the swimming training, I realised that by going slow with every stroke, I was able to focus on each element of the stroke from the pull at the top of the stroke all the way through to the push at the end. I concentrated on keeping my body still in the water and stayed focussed on economy of motion. By going slow, I was able to break down my swimming into discrete elements that I could then practice and improve. I felt good, I felt strong and I started wonder if there might be a kernel of truth in the saying.

It was time to test the “go fast” piece. It was time to test myself against the clock.

 

Go fast

There is one swim set that stands out for me. It was a sprint set that culminated in 3 x 100m max efforts and an opportunity to prove myself to my new team. Having been training slow, I was fascinated to see if I could embody the principle.

At the end of the first 100m, I was surprised. I’d clocked around 59 seconds (a quick training time for me) and still really felt like there was more in the tank than I’d realised. The next 100m I focussed on increasing power, while maintaining my focus on each stroke and stillness in the water to see if I could go faster. 58 seconds. Even after this, I still felt like I could go faster. I kept  saying to myself throughout these 100s: go slow to go fast, go slow to go fast. 3rd 100m – 57 seconds.

These times are by no means quick by elite swimming standards but they were amongst the best I’d ever clocked in training and particularly that I was able to improve through the 3 was completely new for my sprinting. By breaking down the 100m into a series of discrete strokes, focussing on every piece of the execution, I was able to produce these times with an ease that I still clearly remember 11 years later.

 

How is this relevant to work now?

One of the problems we’ve had recently with projects has been rework. Ads and I have sat down to address this and ultimately came to reinforce the mantra of thrash upfront in your project planning to get everything out on the table. While it feels like its slowing you down, focussing on and hammering out the details of what actually needs to be done ultimately saves huge amounts of time in the execution.

I’m also a huge believer in the agile approach to projects in that you can’t plan for everything and in fact to do can be dangerous. Slowing down to make the projects small enough to execute and revisiting these smaller projects at crucial points is also key to adjusting for new learning and delivering fast, quality projects.

 

Related quotes:

Since then I’ve heard a number of other phrases that to me, really relate to this philosophy.

“Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”
This was taken from the movie Shooter with Mark Wahlberg where his character uses it as a mantra as he fires a rifle. A surprising source of inspiration :-)

“Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” Bill Gates
I only became aware of this quote recently and I believe it reflects some of those same sentiments – to reduce the amount you try to do in a smaller time frame to accomplish much more in the longer period.

What do you think? Are there areas in your life/business that you’ve gone slow to ultimately go fast? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.