August 18, 2020
May 6, 1954 is the day on which 25-year-old English medical student Roger Bannister succeeded in overcoming what many thought was an impossible obstacle – the sub-four-minute mile. Bannister ran the mile in 3:59.4 on a cool and cloudy spring day at Iffley Road Track in Oxford, England, with only a few thousand spectators present to witness history.
Prior to Bannister’s breakthrough, some had thought such a feat was physically impossible or perhaps even deadly. Many had made the attempt to run under four minutes, but until Bannister did it, none had succeeded.
Remarkably, just six weeks after Bannister broke the four-minute barrier, Australian John Landy also ran a sub-four-minute mile at a track meet in Finland – 3:58 to be exact – more than a full second faster than Bannister had run. How is this possible? How did two runners suddenly accomplish what some believed could never happen?
In a recent Harvard Business Review article about this historic accomplishment, Bill Taylor writes:
“Was there a sudden growth spurt in human evolution? Was there a genetic engineering experiment that created a new race of super runners? No. What changed was the mental model. The runners of the past had been held back by a mindset that said they could not surpass the four-minute mile. When that limit was broken, the others saw that they could do something they had previously thought impossible.”
Once Roger Bannister had broken through the four-minute barrier, Landy, who had previously run the mile in 4:01, believed he could now do the same, because someone else had already done so. Remarkably, since Bannister ran his sub-four-minute mile in 1954, more than a thousand runners have also run under four minutes, with the current world record, 3:43.13, being held by Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj.
Shoes worn by Roger Bannister to break the four-minute mile
What’s Your Four-Minute-Mile?
As a dental practice owner or team member, what’s your four-minute-mile? What performance goal have you set for your practice that you’ve not yet achieved? A certain number of new patients in a month? A percentage increase in production? An annual revenue achievement? What you are hoping to do but haven’t yet done is secondary in importance here. The fact that you have a goal, but haven’t yet accomplished it, is awesome! Goals can be valuable markers of progress, but achieving a goal isn’t the sole measurement of success. Any incremental progress towards a goal is also significant, and should be celebrated, no matter how “small” that progress might be.
The Method to the Madness
There were actually three runners trying to be the first to break the four-minute mile barrier: Bannister, Landy, and an American by the name of Wes Santee. Sadly, Santee was the only one of the three never to achieve this goal. In a recent episode of the Art of Manliness podcast, Neal Bascomb, author of the book The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It, talked about how Bannister went about preparing to reach this “impossible” goal:
At the same time Bannister was training to break the four-minute mile, he was also studying to become a doctor. He was interning at Saint Mary’s Hospital. He attended Oxford. He was achieving this excellence in medicine to become a neurologist while at the same time, trying to break this record. He had very little time to do that. He was training at lunchtime at best for only a half-hour daily by walking to the track near the hospital and putting in his time and then going back and seeing patients.
So, with his medical background, he got scientific with how to best approach breaking the four-minute mile and he researched. He was testing VO2 max. He was testing lactic acid in his muscles. He had built this treadmill in the lab at school and he would put himself on that thing and hook himself up and run as fast as he could and then hop off and take blood samples and then do it again. Really trying to see from a scientific level what was possible, what was physiologically possible and how to push himself to a higher level. He experimented on his friends, Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway and other people. He was running a scientific experiment in some ways on the four-minute mile.
Bannister…was racing time and time again to break four minutes. He took a much more measured approach to it and decided that if he was going to achieve this, he would have to pick a date, pick a time where he was at the absolute supreme level of his conditioning. Also, to do that race with pacers, with people, his friends, Chataway and Brasher, who were both runners, to in some ways push him along the track as pacers to bring him to the level where he could push past four minutes.
To say that better, Bannister took this as a team approach. He knew he couldn’t do it alone on the track by himself. He needed someone to chase after and to push himself. He organized this race on May 6th, 1954 in Iffley Road track at Oxford, a track that he knew very well, and his two pacers would go out before him and he would follow them around and then ultimately, leave them behind while finishing in under four minutes.
This is so instructive. Bannister didn’t just wander onto that Oxford track and start running. He prepared. He experimented. He made adjustments. He failed, again and again and again. Also, notably, he didn’t achieve this goal alone. His teammates were critical to his success, and not just on the day of the race. They provided him with encouragement. They participated in his extensive testing efforts. They pushed him to try harder. All of this speaks to a process. A system. An incremental, measurable effort to progress from one level to the next.
On Your Mark, Get Set, (don’t) Go…yet!
Once you identify your practice’s “four-minute mile,” now what? Should you just start running? Work longer and harder? Spend more money on adding staff, marketing, or new equipment? Some or all of these might be part of the answer. But before you run too far ahead of yourself, you need to slow down. That’s right, slow down. You need actionable data about what is actually happening, right now, in your practice. Put another way, you need to know where you are before you can really determine where you want to go. Roger Bannister achieved this “impossible” goal by first identifying how far away he was from reaching it, and then went to work. This is a great model to follow for any dental practice with goals to improve.
If you want to increase production, for example, you need to know some critical things about how you’re currently doing. Here are a few numbers that every practice should be tracking:
You likely have other performance metrics that are important to your practice. Fantastic! Schedule a few minutes every day and look at them as a team, discuss what they mean and how you feel about them, and then – the key – make a plan to act. If you hold a morning huddle, that’s a great place to do this. (If not, what are you waiting for? 😉)
Roger Bannister will be forever remembered as the first to break the four-minute-mile barrier. What most people don’t know about is what he did to prepare to break that record. It was those incremental, behind-the-scene processes that made all the difference. This is also true for your dental practice. With the right information, with a plan, with daily, incremental effort, you too can achieve your own “four-minute-mile” goal and celebrate as you cross that finish line.
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