The Dick Fosbury Flop: How to Think Outside the Box and Innovate New Ideas.
During the 1968 Olympic games, right in front of a crowd of 80,000 people—an unknown athlete—Dick Fosbury, prepared to complete his first attempt at the high jump event.
Up till this day, Fosbury had a very average athletic track record.
As a teenager, he failed to break into his high school basketball team, despite his towering height of 6 feet 4 inches.
Fosbury literally ‘flopped’ at his attempts at various disciplines within athletics.
Eventually, he settled with the high jump event because it was the best of his athletic flops. Even so, Fosbury didn’t reach the qualifying heights of his local club in his first attempts.
And so, the stage was set for this average high jump athlete.
Dick Fosbury—a 21-year-old student with a major in civil engineering, bad feet and weak physical stature—would fail at his Olympic high jump attempts and go home without a medal. 
Or would he?
The innovation of the “Fosbury Flop”
Prior to Dick Fosbury’s Olympic high jump event, athletes relied on three techniques to clear the high jump bar.
They were the scissors, western roll and straddle jump.
These all had one thing in common: they were designed to give the athlete the opportunity to land carefully on their feet after clearing the bar.
But, Fosbury knew that he had little chance of competing with the top athletes using these techniques.
He had to innovate to give him any chance of competing at the highest level. In his own words:
“The interesting thing was that the technique developed in competition and was a reaction to my trying to get over the bar. I never thought about how to change it, and I’m sure my coach was going crazy because it kept evolving. I believe that the flop was a natural style and I was just the first to find it.” 
Instead of jumping face forward using the conventional “straddle” technique, Fosbury jumped off the “wrong foot”, arched his back and cleared the bar backwards.
Immediately, Fosbury received heavy criticism from his coaches and the press for his unconventional jumping technique.
A local newspaper even called him the “World’s Laziest High Jumper.” 
But, this criticism didn’t stop Dick Fosbury from perfecting his new Fosbury “flop” technique, which soon paid off.
Fosbury won the NCAA championships and qualified for the Olympic games.
The 1968 Olympic high jump event was his opportunity to showcase this new high jump technique.
Prior to Fosbury’s first attempt at the high jump, three men had already stepped up and cleared the bar using the “straddle” technique.
Then, up next came Dick Fosbury, the unknown lanky young man wearing a green top, white shorts and Adidas trainers.
As he approached the high jump mat, he launched off the “wrong” foot, arched his back and cleared the bar.
Within a few hours, Dick Fosbury would go from being unknown to one of the most influential athletes in Olympic history.
Fosbury shocked the world by setting a new Olympic world record by clearing a height of 2.24 meters with his Fosbury flop technique—winning the gold medal in the process.
But most importantly, his disruptive innovation completely changed the ‘best practices’ and philosophy of the high jump athletic discipline.
Within a few years after this event, the “Fosbury flop” would become the conventional technique for the high jump athlete.
Since 1972 till date, every single Olympic gold medalist and record holder has successfully used the “Fosbury Flop.”
Who would have known that this average athlete, Dick Fosbury, could outperform his competition and become a champion?
His willingness to experiment with new ideas contributed to his success, but something else also played an important role—his environment.
Environment Drives Innovation
Up until the 1960s, high jump athletes cleared the bar and landed on hard ground—sawdust, sand and low mats.
As a result, innovation of the high jump techniques attempted to ensure that the athletes landed on their feet.
Fortunately for Dick Fosbury, his high school was one of the first to install a deep foam matting for high jump landing.
This new environmental shift gave Fosbury the opportunity to try out new ways to clear the bar i.e. Landing on his back instead of his leg.
Fosbury wasn’t the only person to innovate new ways of clearing the bar.
Around this same period, a Canadian teenager, Debbie Brill, also decided to experiment with new ways of clearing the bar, after the foam landing mat was introduced to her high school. 
Just like Fosbury, she would also clear the bar backwards instead of the forward conventional method.
She went on to break high jump records and in 1970, at the age of only 16 years old, Brill became the first North American female to clear six feet using her “Brill bend” technique.
This is why the right environment is crucial for innovation and success.
There was no way that the Fosbury flop could have been innovated prior to the introduction of the foam mats—because the innovation of the Fosbury flop depended on the existence of a foam mat for a soft landing.
Whenever there’s a new change in environment, there will always be new opportunities for a better way of solving the same problem.
How to Innovate Your Own ‘Fosbury flop.’
“So when a good idea comes, you know, part of my job is to move it around, just see what different people think, get people talking about it, argue with people about it, get ideas moving among that group of 100 people, get different people together to explore different aspects of it quietly, and, you know—just explore things.”
Here are four simple steps to improve your creativity for better innovative ideas.
1. Be Open to New Possibilities.
The first step to improving your creativity is to recognize that there are no ‘rules’, just ‘beliefs.’
Think about how many ‘rules’ have been shattered by new innovative companies that have disrupted their industry.
- Facebook, the world’s largest social media network, doesn’t create any content.
- Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, doesn’t own any vehicles.
- Alibaba, the world’s largest retailer, owns no inventory.
Be willing to embrace uncertainty and ambiguity. After all, how can you create something new if you’re still thinking old?
Always keep your eyes open for new changes in your environment that could open up the door for new innovative ideas.
2. Ignore the naysayers.
It’s unlikely that you’ll create the next breakthrough idea overnight.
Persistence and consistency matters a lot. Experimentation with trial-and-error is a necessary part of this process.
During this process, expect naysayers to dismiss your ideas and criticize you. You may even be called a failure first before you succeed.
Consider the following:
- Edison first built 10,000 prototypes of the light bulb that failed before finding one that succeeded.
- Einstein’s ‘general theory of relativity’, touted as one of the greatest breakthroughs in science—was published after eight years of testing the ideas of his ‘theory of special relativity.’
The critics and haters that dismiss you today, could become your biggest supporters tomorrow. So keep doing your thing.
3. Prove yourself wrong.
One of the biggest roadblocks to creativity and innovation is our confirmation bias, or the belief that “I am right because I believe I am.”
When experts and coaches first watched Dick Fosbury flop over the high jump bar, they dismissed his technique because it challenged their current beliefs of ‘how things should be done.’
The best way to overcome this “know it all” problem is to challenge your own assumptions by seeking evidence that could falsify your own beliefs.
This is a scientific way of thinking that will help you to avoid making narrow-minded decisions based on your emotions and opinions.
This will also force you to test your ideas and open yourself up to unusual, disruptive and innovative ideas.
For example, a couple of years ago, I strongly held the belief that breakfast was the most important meal of the day.
I believed that skipping meals would negatively affect weight loss and healthy living.
When I first came across the idea of intermittent fasting i.e. Skipping meals, I initially dismissed this as another unproven idea.
Shortly after, I decided to experiment with this ‘intermittent fasting’ protocol.
It’s been 4 years since then and I can now say that this unusual idea has turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.
My health has improved significantly, as well as other areas of my life. I go into much more detail about my insights and lessons from intermittent fasting, here.
4. Trust your intuition
After Dick Fosbury’s famous Olympic victory, people started spreading the idea that Fosbury must have been a genius all along.
They pointed to his mathematical knowledge and educational background as an engineering student for his discovery of the Fosbury Flop.
But, it wasn’t his intellect that led to this disruptive innovation. According to Dick Fosbury, during a 1969 interview with Sports Illustrated:
“You’ll read that I’m a gymnast. You’ll read that I’m a physicist and that I sat down one day and figured out a better way to jump. You’ll read that I ran up and tripped one day and fell backward over the bar.” Then he began shaking his head to the contrary, then he said…
“But I didn’t change my style… It changed inside me.” 
In layman’s terms, Dick Fosbury stumbled upon the Fosbury flop though an intuition or a “gut” feeling.
It’s possible that thoughts of crossing the bar backwards crossed the minds of the other high jump athletes.
Unlike Fosbury, they dismissed this intuitive idea as rubbish because it didn’t fit well with their beliefs.
Unleash Your Creative Genius
Following on from the previous point, is it possible that all this time you’ve had ‘Fosbury flop’ innovative ideas cross your mind?
Have you dismissed these ideas because they seem ‘stupid’ or ‘unrealistic’?
I’d like to encourage you to become more open to exploring these ideas. No one idea is useless until proven otherwise, these also include your current assumptions and beliefs.
And then, who knows? Someday, you could also discover your own Fosbury Flop.
- Haters: The Most Satisfying Way to Deal with Criticism and People Who Judge You Unfairly.
- Elon Musk’s “3-Step” First Principles Thinking: How to Think and Solve Difficult Problems Like a Genius.
- I originally came across the Dick Fosbury story whilst reading, The Little Black Book of Decision Making: Making Complex Decisions with Confidence in a Fast-Moving World.
- Dick Fosbury quoted interview from ESPN Sportzone via Speed Endurance Web Site.
- This quote came from the Local Newspaper, The Medford Mail Tribune in Medford, Oregon in their 1964 edition.
- Debbie Brill’s background story.
- Dick Fosbury Sports Illustrated interview with reporter, Roy Blount Jr.