Distinctive Performers Like Hugh Jackman and Usain Bolt Observe the 85 % Rule. So Ought to You

For the best Olympic sprinters, the 100-meter run is over in less than 10 seconds: power, speed, focus and power are concentrated in one short push.

To win from start to finish, they have to give everything to the race.

Before a race, Usain Bolt always looked relaxed. He smiled. He waved to the crowd. He seemed to be enjoying the attention and the moment.

For the first 30 meters of a race (the “propulsion phase”), Bolt kept his head down and his body pointed forward. Then he slowly straightened up … and for the last 40 to 50 meters, when the race could be won or lost, Bolt actually relaxed: shoulders relaxed, hands relaxed, facial muscles relaxed.

Relaxation, not extreme exertion, was the key to success.


Or take nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis, a notoriously poor starter. Lewis was often behind the leaders at the 40m mark, but somehow managed to overtake everyone at the end of the race. Many assumed Lewis would have to put even more pressure on to get over his bad starts.

Instead, Lewis actually relaxed. Instead of clenching his fists and cringing in the exertion, Lewis kept to himself, trusting that preparation and technique – not an “extra” effort at the moment – would pay off.

Lewis, like many exceptional performers, took advantage of what a sprint coach who studied Lewis later referred to as the “85 percent rule”.

The premise is simple. When you’re at 85 percent – if you’re not pushing the limits of your ability and making the effort and operating – you have room to think. You have room to adapt. You have space to evaluate your performance, evaluate the reactions of those around you, and interact with them.

In short, you have space to relax.

Which means your performance is getting worse, not better.

Even though you’re only working 85 percent.

The premise works with almost any pursuit. Take Hugh Jackman; On the Tim Ferriss Show podcast, Jackman said, “If I were the coach and Hugh Jackman was on my team, I wouldn’t put any more pressure on him, push him anymore. I wouldn’t yell at him, scream.”

Jackman believes his best moments are researching, working, preparing … and then leaving room for impulse and spontaneity. “I actually think you have to take the risk of being bad,” said Jackman, and “just let it be.”

Remember, the 85 percent rule only works if you get the job done beforehand. Put bolts in the work; That’s why he was so confident before a race. That’s why he could relax. He knew he was ready.

Confidence – and the ability to relax a bit, work at 85 percent and let it flow – came from preparation.

Because if you are not prepared, 100 percent effort is not enough.

Make sure the 85 percent rule works for you

For example, let’s say you’re landing a meeting to attract an important client – maybe even an empowering client.

First, make an effort. Know your things. Know how to answer questions. Know how to respond to objections.

Prepare for what you will do if something goes wrong: your prototype malfunctions, key people are out of the room, your schedule time will be cut, etc.

Then focus on getting off to a good start in the day. Keep your head down for the first bit. Focus on making progress.

And then relax. Let your preparation and practice – and your skills and experience – take over and work 85 percent.

At 85 percent you can read the room. At 85 percent, you can adapt to whatever happens.

At 85 percent, you can smile, engage, and build a real relationship.

At 85 percent, you appear more confident and confident – because you actually will be.

Which means your performance will actually improve.

Even if you don’t try too hard.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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