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Jimmie Johnson

“What Off-Season?”
They are always working towards the next game… The goal is what’s ahead, and there’s always something ahead.

After a disappointing sixth-place finish in last year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Jimmie Johnson, driver of the no. 48 Chevy, knew he needed to reexamine his team dynamic.

For most, finishing in the top 10 of their profession would be a reason for celebration. But Johnson’s record in recent years sets the bar a little higher. How much higher? In 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010, Johnson finished first in the season-long series, making him the only NASCAR driver ever to win five championships in a row. So, understandably, sixth place in 2011 was a rather disappointing drop from his half-decade of dominance.

I have to admit I’m not a huge NASCAR guy, so it took an interview a few months back with Johnson’s teammate, Jeff Gordon, for me to grasp the enormity of those five consecutive titles. “Imagine the thousands of things that can go wrong in a single race,” Gordon told me. “Most of those things — what others cars do, what other drivers do — are things that are out of your control. To manage all those to win a race is big. To do it race-in and race-out for five years…I don’t know that we’ll ever see someone have a run like that again in this sport.”
Last week, I had a chance to sit down with Johnson in Daytona as he prepared for this weekend’s Great American Race, The Daytona 500. I was there working on a book for the Make-A-Wish Foundation — Johnson is one of the organization’s most active granter of wishes to children — but as we were wrapping up, I had to ask a couple of questions about what it takes to stay at the top for such an extended period. More significantly, I wanted to know what a champion does the year after he doesn’t win it all.

He offered a fascinating perspective on the precision with which a NASCAR team operates, and what changed for them last season that needed to be fixed. “Our sport is so over-regulated that the cars are virtually the same,” he explained. “The differences in equipment are so minor that what really separates those who win and those who don’t is the people on your team and the way you communicate with them, from your pit stops to the practice sessions where the crew chief and I are working through our set-ups. There is an unbelievable pressure and expectation to continue the streak while it is happening. But last year, things weren’t clicking the same way, and it was the communication that had to change.”
Johnson realized that was the missing piece with his team; as their communication system had broken down, their whole team was affected: “It’s all within that human element of communication at the end of the day,” he said. “You get off just a little, carrying some frustration, animosity, whatever it is — the team dynamic gets off just a little bit, just a small amount. That’s the difference. Not addressing those things, which is sometimes hard to do when you’re on top, is a problem. You’re dealing with all-pros, so everyone’s pushing to be better and better. You get off just a little bit and it changes everything.”

“The first thing I noticed when the [2011] season was over was the weight of continuing the streak,” Johnson remembered. “The expectations I had put on myself, I put on my teammates, the expectations they put on themselves and on me — I didn’t realize how much weight we were carrying just to keep the streak alive.”
The pressure to maintain their amazing streak had created stress even as it caused some blind spots to develop in his team’s thinking. “For me, it was almost like: ‘I’m a champion, my crew chief’s a champion, the other key ‘brain trust’ guys on the team are all champions.’ And we’re all like ‘Well, I’m doing my part. He’s doing his part,'” Johnson said. “But you lose just a little bit of flow, it gets off just a touch — and that’s all it takes.”

So they, as a team, dedicated themselves to fixing that. By using their off-season to reform and refocus, instead of continuing in their established patterns, they were able to put themselves in a position to improve their already elite team.

Johnson pointed to his crew chief, Chad Knaus, who was “always reciting stuff to me about never sitting still, constantly changing. He’s been the leader here always pounding that through all of us and always challenging me: re-invent yourself. What worked to win a championship last year won’t work next year.” The team took this advice to heart and worked tirelessly to repair what had broken down in their otherwise outstanding dynamic.

And people have noticed. In fact, on the very day I talked with Johnson last week, the members of picked Johnson as the top contender to win the series again in 2012. “Now we’re on a clean sheet of paper and we’re fully confident of what we’re able to do,” Johnson said, smiling. “We have a clean slate and hopefully we can start another streak.”

Tips from the Great Ones

What about your team? Can you see any areas where you may be falling behind — just a little bit — from the rest of your competitors? Can you see something that kept you from making last year a championship run? What small tweaks can you make to ensure that you aren’t getting too comfortable with the status quo as you work towards Greatness?

Instead of assuming that a problem will fix itself, maybe you can take your downtime to correct whatever small problems might exist that could impact your team’s overall chances at success.

Once Johnson and his team identified their weak spot, they were able to pull together, working on open, effective, and honest communication during the off-season to make sure that they can Chase Greatness once again. By using the off-season to work towards repairing what had gotten slightly off-track, the entire No. 48 racing team is feeling better than ever about their chances to dominate the field this year, and a big part of it has to do with a shift in emphasis from managing what they had, to growing and developing into what they wanted to be.

What are you doing with your off-season? Celebrating that the last season is over, or looking ahead for how to be even better next season? What you do today will absolutely impact your pursuit of Greatness tomorrow.

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About Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated, 11-time New York Times best-selling author, leadership expert and executive coach.

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