Five ways Red Bull try to understand and improve human performance

Dr. Andy Walshe is the Director of High Performance at Red Bull, where also he played the role of Performance Manager for Red Bull Stratos - you know, when that dude Felix Baumgartner jumped from space onto the earth.

What you will learn from reading this article:

  • Why we usually assume the worst
  • How to be a master of your craft
  • How to bounce back from failure (especially if you’re ambitious)

1. We're pretty good at assuming the worst

Generally, when we don’t have any information - or when we don’t have enough information - we assume the worst. Think about it: the last time you applied for a job, or pitched a client, and didn’t hear back when you expected to... did you assume the best? Did you think, "I know I did a good job, but I also know people are busy"? Or did you think something like, "they must not like me"?

We do this because it’s how - and why - we evolved. Tens of thousands of years ago, if we heard a rustle in a bush, it’s like Andy says: "it was probably best to assume that something was trying to eat us and run away". Because if we didn’t assume that, and it was something that wanted to eat us... well, that wouldn’t have ended well. And if all humans were like that then we would've ceased to exist a long time ago.

However, perhaps there's a smarter way to operate. You can train out your reaction and replace it with a response - something you’ve chosen, something that helps you rather than hurts you. Which is useful, because we’ve moved quite a long way from having to run away from rustling in the bushes.

2. Train in the space where you're uncomfortable

Something Andy has done with elite athletes: he’s had them crawl through a big box of deadly snakes. Yeah. "And the idea is that you don’t rush your crawling - you crawl at a leisurely pace, a calm pace", says Andy. In other words, you choose how you crawl, rather than letting external factors - like snakes - dictate your actions.

Andy does this with his elite athletes because, at some point, it’s going to happen - that is, they’re going to be uncomfortable. They’re going to be in a space where they’re uncomfortable but absolutely need to give their best performance. And the only way they can make that happen is through training, through relentless practice.

Ultimately, we have a choice to reframe threats - perceived or otherwise - as opportunities. If you had to crawl through a big box of deadly snakes, what would happen if you stopped seeing it as something extraordinarily uncomfortable, and started seeing it as an opportunity to practice choosing how you respond to intense fear?

3. Mastery comes down to passion

Some people are innately gifted, and are therefore much more suited to pursue and achieve mastery than other people. This is just a fact.

However, Andy is of the belief that "anyone can achieve mastery in their chosen field" - if they put in the hours, and train when it’s pouring with rain, and still keep going when they feel like the world is against them. If you don’t have a passion for it, if you don’t absolutely love it, why would you do these things?

4. As soon as we impose limits, we seem to break them

When Roger Bannister ran the first four minute mile. When Usain Bolt destroyed the 100 and 200 metre world records. When Felix Baumgartner jumped from space and back down to the earth. And countless other examples.

It makes you wonder: do we have any limits? Because every time we think we’ve reached one, someone breaks it.

"Human potential is wildly untapped", says Andy. And as the limits we try to impose keep being proved wrong, Andy keeps being proved right.

Read: Five rules that allow Atlassian to innovate

5. If you have a lot of ambition, at some point you’re going to fail

Uplifting, isn't it? But it’s the truth. And here’s what Andy says about that: "when you fail, you need to be able to reflect on - and get better at being - who you are."

Interesting. How many people do you know who try to get better at what they do? Quite a few, probably. How many people do you know who try to get better at who they are? Do you know anyone like that?

The reason this is important is because you are who you are, no matter what happens. You can fail, and you can fail big, and you can fail at something that’s really important to you - but none of that has to take away from who you are. Ever.

There’s a lot of ancient wisdom about this. The Stoics, for example - like the philosopher king Marcus Aurelius - believed strongly in becoming better people, becoming good people, becoming more of who they were. They believed that failure didn’t define them. They believed that ambition, left unchecked, and valued above all other characteristics - like it often seems to be in the entrepreneurial world - would destroy a person.

They wrote about this thousands of years ago, but it seems like we’ve forgotten it. Maybe now’s the time to remember.

If you joined us in London and would like to share your highlights and how you've been inspired to make a change in your world, drop us an email on with the subject Virgin Disruptors 2016.

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