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If Motivation is the WHY of High Performance, Preparation is the HOW

26,121 runs. 78 international hundreds. Average of 90 in successful run chases in 50-over cricket, while scoring twenty-three centuries during such chases. 63% win ratio as captain of India, across formats, over a period of seven years. 

Virat Kohli is special. Very special. And it is not merely his runs and his records that make it so. Those are just the outcomes on view for the world. What is hidden in plain sight is the part that results in those outcomes being achieved with metronomic regularity - his work ethic, and mindset. 

Shane Watson, former Australian captain and all-rounder, alluded to this on air last week at Dharamshala. As Kohli set up yet another successful chase to guide India to its first victory against New Zealand in ICC tournaments in 20-years, Watson said: 

‘It’s a super-human skill Virat Kohli has. Most will have 4 or 5 games where they're on & after they've contributed significantly to their team other guys have to do it. But that’s not how Kohli is built, every single game he's got his team on his shoulders.’

Virat Kohli’s incredible energy and involvement in every moment of every game is something millions have witnessed, day after day, year after year. Many have ridiculed him for the expression of passion on the field. Some have labelled it arrogance. But few have stepped back from a space of judgement to reflect on it. It’s time we did. 

In Kohli’s actions on the field, lie the secret of his high performance over 17 incredible years. To gain an understanding of this, the question we need to ask is what drives his actions? What is the underlying motivation? And how is it channelled?

Motivation tells us why a person does something. It is the driving force behind human actions, the process that initiates, guides, and maintains goal-oriented behaviours. But what drives motives and results in actions

Motivation theory tells us there are three major components of motivation: activation, persistence, and intensity. Activation is what initiates a behaviour, Persistence is making continued effort toward a goal even though obstacles may exist, and Intensity is the concentration and vigour that goes into pursuing a goal. 

Let’s break that into something simpler, the Why and the How. We need to infer the reasons why people do the things that they do, based on observable behaviours. But as importantly, we need to figure out how they do it. It is this duality of understanding that drives sustainability in high performance.

The Why

18-year old Virat Kohli walking out to bat for Delhi in the Ranji Trophy in 2006 the morning after his father’s untimely death, is an oft repeated story.  The Why was explained by Kohli a few years later. Paying respect to his dad, who had supported his future in the sport, was of course obvious. But then he added something that lay even deeper in his psyche: ‘My father taught me that if you need to go ahead, do things that no one else is doing.’

Six years later these words took on new meaning. In 2012, Kohli was coming out of a successful World Cup and a year when everything had gone right. He was indulging in excesses as a young man will. 

And then two things happened. 

He had a conversation with Duncan Fletcher where the coach, looking at Kohli’s lifestyle, subtly told him that cricket is the most unprofessional of professional sports and unlike tennis players, when cricketers have the skill, they don’t feel the need to train as much. Around the same time, one morning at home, the image Kohli saw staring back at him in the mirror, was nothing like the elite athlete he was in his mind. He was 12 kgs heavier than he is today and looked nothing like an elite athlete notwithstanding the runs he was scoring. His father’s words came back to him.  

Everything would change the next morning from what he ate to how he trained. He didn't know it then, but the impact of the change would go far beyond him personally, and transform how anyone who aspired to play for India looked at fitness and high performance in the years to come. 

Today the Indian team is one of the fittest in the world. Facing the infamous October heat at this World Cup, while many teams have struggled, Indian players have looked untroubled. It comes not merely from being familiar with the conditions, which goes for other Asian teams like Pakistan who have also struggled. It is a result of the obsession with fitness that drives Indian cricket. While the BCCI supplies the resources, it is Virat Kohli who for more than a decade has provided the inspiration.

The How

It is one thing to have an epiphany. But how does one make the switch? 

In Kohli’s case the inspiration came from another elite athlete - Cristiano Ronaldo. In interviews, Kohli has said more than once: ‘I would do a scan of my brain (if I woke up as Ronaldo) and see where all that mental strength comes from. His commitment and work ethic is unmatched. He wants it that bad - you can see it every game.’ 

Sound familiar? It should. Read Shane Watson’s words again. The way Kohli has gone about it, is how every person who seeks high performance, elite athlete or otherwise, needs to. And the key lies in preparation

In his book Finding the Gaps, former cricket umpire Simon Taufel talks about preparation being the ‘cornerstone of success’. It is worth a read, for there is no one better suited to talk about it. After all, to be at the top of your game for a decade and a half and win five successive ICC Umpire of the Year awards in a sport where your every decision is scrutinised by more than a billion self-appointed experts, demonstrates high performance at its peak. 

‘Preparation is king,’ starts off Taufel. He then goes on to talk about how ‘You don’t have to get it right to start with, you just have to make a start and then keep refining from your learnings. Successful people have a real bias towards action and doing things. They spend time practising and trying new things.’

In unpacking what goes into preparation, Taufel starts by quoting Rugby coach Wayne Bennett who famously said‘If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.’ Not very different from what Virat Kohli’s father told him, is it? 

The message is the same: Innovate - do things differently, learn from mistakes, practise continuous improvement. He talks about Taking Ownership when things are not going as per plan on the field, and doing something about it, even if it is just speaking up. In essence, taking action over inaction. He reminds us it takes Sacrifice - of time (including that with loved ones), of things we love but need to give up (chole-bhature and every other food he loves in the case of Kohli), and Honesty & Integrity - in everything we say and do as high performers. And finally, that vital element Passion for what we are doing, for without that high performance is unattainable. 

Think about every high performer you know, and you will find those characteristics reflected in everything they do while they go about their work, whatever that might be.

How and Why of High Performance is Industry Agnostic

Just as high performance is equally key to both elite athletes and those of us in less physically exacting pursuits, it’s How and Why is agnostic between the stadium and the boardroom. 

Jack Ma founded Alibaba at the age of 31. In this #OutsideInsights series we often speak about failure and the role that it plays in eventual success and high performance. Before founding Alibaba, a number of Ma’s ventures failed, and he didn't manage to get a job for a long time after graduating from college. In explaining Why he was motivated to go on, he once said: ‘I think we have to get used to it. We’re not that good.’ 

The How followed. Stating a variation of the lesson Kohli imbibed from his father and Simon Taufel outlined in his book, Ma went on: ‘[To succeed], you have to be very focused and rely on your brain, not your strength.’ 

In 1999, Jack Ma held the firm belief that online payments were the future. Small problem - he had zero experience in coding or systems, Undaunted, Ma went into preparation mode. He did his research, built his case carefully over months, then gathered 18 ‘friends and family’ in a room. Two hours later he had convinced them about his vision, got them to invest a total of $60,000, and immediately launched Alibaba. 

Alibaba and its payment system is ubiquitous in Chinese life. A few weeks ago at a street corner in Shanghai, I was accosted by a wizened old lady asking for alms. Using sign language I explained I wasn’t carrying any cash. With a smile she took out from her bag, a laminated card on a lanyard and held it up in front of me. It had on it an Alipay QR code to scan on my phone so that I could transfer alms to her. The company Jack Ma founded 24-years ago, now has a market capitalisation north of US$200 billion. 

Whoever we may be, whatever it is we do, a lack of motivation cannot be an excuse for not being the best version of ourselves. The Why is in our hands. The How shouts out at us from every stadium and boardroom. We owe it to ourselves to ascend the pinnacle of high performance by channelling the inner Virat Kohli, Cristiano Ronaldo and Jack Ma that resides within. 

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