February 22, 1980. Lake Placid, New York – the host city for the 1980 Winter Olympics. The Soviet Union’s Olympic hockey team was set to play the United States Olympic team in an important game that would probably decide the gold medal. Yet, calling this a “game” was a stretch.
The powerful, professional Soviet hockey team had won four consecutive gold medals and was undefeated in the Olympic games since 1968. The U.S. Olympic hockey team was a collection of untested college players. The 1980 Soviet team was head and shoulders above all of the other Olympic teams.
How good were the Soviets? They had defeated professional teams from the National Hockey League. In fact, months before the 1980 Olympics, the U.S. collegians played the Soviet team in an exhibition game. The Soviets embarrassed the U.S. squad by a score of 10-3. The players on the U.S. team admitted that they were awestruck by the ability of the Soviets.
The U.S. team regrouped and headed for the Olympic games in Lake Placid. In the opening game, they tied a strong Sweden team by scoring a goal with 27 seconds to play. The U.S. team won its next four games, earning a spot in the medal round – and the privilege of playing the Soviet team, who had easily beaten all of its Olympic opponents to that point.
Nobody thought this game could possibly be close. Near the end of the first period, the Soviets led 2-1. With just a few seconds left in the period, a U.S. player took a desperation shot from center ice. The great Soviet goalie, Vladislav Tretiak, made the save easily and expected the horn to sound, ending the period.
The Soviet defensemen also eased up, sensing the end of the period. But Mark Johnson of the U.S. team hustled past the Soviet defensemen, got the rebound and put the puck in the net with 1 second to play to tie the score at 2-2.
Going into the final period, the Soviets led, 3-2. But, in what is widely acknowledged as the biggest upset in sports history, the U.S. Team scored two goals in the final period to win the game, 4-3.
How on earth did the Soviets lose to a bunch of college students? Simply put, the Soviets got complacent. They were overconfident and thought there was no way the U.S. Team could possibly defeat them. At the end of the first period, the Soviet goalie didn’t think the U.S. had time to score before the end of the period.
And, throughout the game, the Soviets believed that they couldn’t possibly lose to a team whose talent was so clearly inferior to their own. The Soviets thought they could easily coast to victory. They were wrong.
Just about everyone in that arena in Lake Placid on Feb. 22, 1980 knew that if these two opponents played nine additional games against each other, there’s an excellent chance that the Soviets would have won all nine. But the Soviets had only one chance to win the gold medal in 1980, and on the day when it counted, they took the competition for granted and they lost.
If you’ve ever played sports, you’ve probably witnessed this phenomenon first-hand. You played an opponent or team that was inferior. Yet, you took the opponent for granted and ended up losing. You or your team got complacent and the other team gained confidence as the game went on. They started to believe they could beat you… and they did.
Of course, this principle isn’t confined to sports. While I was a practicing attorney, I was fortunate to represent a very astute, highly successful businessman named Jack. He taught me a great deal about success, and one of his comments, in particular, stands out. Here’s what Jack said: “My greatest security is my insecurity.”
Now, when Jack referred to “insecurity,” he wasn’t talking about lacking confidence or self-esteem. He was addressing the issue of complacency. You see, Jack was always able to stay on top, because he never rested on his laurels. He knew that if he let up, something or someone could bring his businesses down. He recognized that yesterday’s triumphs do not guarantee tomorrow’s successes.
We’ve all faced this issue in our careers, and we’ve witnessed others who get complacent. I’ll bet that somewhere along the line, you had a teacher who had been teaching for many years and was just “going through the motions.” Or, perhaps you were served by a waiter in a restaurant who was just doing the minimum to get by.
Salespeople often get complacent in booming economic times, only to suffer extreme disappointment when there’s an economic downturn. Even in the field of professional speaking, it is tempting at times to get too comfortable. I realized early on, however, that I must prepare for several hours before each presentation, whether I’ve given that presentation once or 50 times. Otherwise, I will not be at my best.
Take some time to think about your business or your career. Are there any areas where you’ve become a little complacent… where you’ve let the quality of your work slip? Complacency is not just about trying new things. It’s about performing at the highest level you’re capable of – and maintaining that level every day.
When things are going well, we tend to ease up. And, it’s in those moments that we give less than our best effort, squandering opportunities. So, the next time you’re a little overconfident and complacent about your work or your competition, think of the Soviet hockey team in 1980. Don’t ever let that happen to you!
(c) Attitude is Everything, Inc.
Jeff Keller is a motivational speaker and author of the best-selling book, Attitude is Everything. He has also published the audio program, “Success from Soup to Nuts”.