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Problem-Solving Secrets From World Class Athletes

Once mastered, it’s a game-changing skill for turning industries on their head.



Image Credit: Midjourney

Top innovators are those mavericks who are exceptionally good at reframing problems. The world of outdoor sports, where practitioners are always pushing the edge of what’s possible, provides a case in point.

Pioneers and legends in extreme outdoor sports often attain their lofty heights because of their stellar problem-solving abilities. In particular, they redefine their sports by tackling problems their contemporaries have overlooked.  

Here are three legendary outdoorsmen who transformed the sports world through ingenious problem definition. 

Laird Hamilton

Hamilton is a professional surfer who has conquered the biggest waves in the world. Wherever there is a wave that others fear, Hamilton makes camp and figures out how to surf it.  

Teahupo’o is such a wave. Notorious for its size and ferocity — reaching heights of 70 feet and crashing into the shallow, rough barrier reefs of Tahiti — anyone who attempted to surf it was risking their life. Unlike a normal wave in which a surfer could paddle into the swell and time a ride, the size of Teahupo’o made it nearly impossible to reach the apex. 

Why did Hamilton think he was capable of doing what other professionals thought was impossible? The answer lies in how he thinks. While other surfers were trying to figure out how to surf Teahupoo with traditional methods, Hamilton knew a better technique was needed. 

After much thought, he redefined the Teahupo’o challenge from “How might I surf the wave?” to “How might I get to the top of the wave so that I can surf it?”  

From that problem definition, he developed the revolutionary method of tow-in surfing, in which another person on a jet ski pulls the surfer into the cresting wave. This technique eliminates paddling into the wave, which is an impossible task.  

The solution put him in position to do what no other surfer had done before: Surf Teahupo’o! It’s still extremely risky, but the technique has enabled him to come safely through some of the most death-defying rides in the sport’s history.  

Hamilton’s ingenuity is further demonstrated in some of his other innovations in the sport, such as the paddleboard and foil board. He’s always looking for the next problem he can solve that will keep him on the forefront of the surfing world.

“Make sure your worst enemy doesn’t live between your two ears.” – Laird Hamilton

Yvon Chouinard

Rock climbing is particularly fitting for expert problem solvers. Climbing a rock face requires nonstop decision-making to determine what route to follow, to find the next hand or foothold, and to decide what maneuver will propel the body upward. In fact, the complex challenges on a climb are why rock climbers call routes “problems.”  

Yvon Chouinard was an extremely good climber in the 1960s who was always looking for the next big challenge to conquer. He had climbed some of the world’s most challenging rock faces, like the North America Wall in Yosemite National Park, but he realized he could scale even greater mountains if he had better equipment.  

Mountain climbing require “pitons” — pegs driven into rock cracks that secure a safety rope. Chouinard was climbing the toughest routes and therefore needed more dependable pitons than those made of soft iron, but there was nothing on the market to meet his requirements. He explored the question: “How might a piton withstand the trials I put it through?”  

He bought a second-hand coal-fired forge and began making his own hardened steel pitons. They withstood his tests, and other climbers began buying them from him. This was the start of Chouinard Equipment — later to become Black Diamond Equipment. Eventually, he stopped making pitons because they were damaging iconic climbs, and instead, created chocks — which were removable. 

Being the innovator he was, Chouinard turned his attention to new sets of problems in his outdoor quests. For example, unhappy with outdoor apparel, he formed the clothing company Patagonia and began selling rugged technical apparel with great success. Patagonia continues to grow today, but Chouinard now channels his problem-solving genius on environmental issues so that he can protect the mountains he loves.  

John Collins

Not many people have heard of John Collins, but they have heard of the endurance challenge he created in 1978. The Ironman Triathlon is an extreme endurance event in which athletes must swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and run a 26.2-mile marathon in under 17 hours.  

Collins was a Navy Commander who loved endurance competitions. As a member of the sports scene in Hawaii, he wondered, “Could athletes combine the disparate skills needed for swimming, cycling, and running in an endurance race?” To find out, he formulated a challenge that, in February 1978, drew 15 athletes to compete. 

The contest rules ended by stating, “Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life.” Twelve finished the race, and the winner was declared an Ironman.  

Sports Illustrated covered the first Ironman race, which spurred more entries the following year. Collins eventually sold the race rights to two local Nautilus Fitness Center owners, and over the years ownership has transferred to different parties. The Ironman Company is now an international organization with thousands of competitors entering races all over the world.  

Those who have played a role in redefining the outdoor sports industry ask themselves the question: “Why? What’s stopping me?” This problem-solving technique allows them to look at situations in a new light. Once mastered, it’s a game-changing skill for turning industries on their head.

Michael Goldsby is Stoops Distinguished Professor of Entrepreneurship and Chief Entrepreneurship Officer at Ball State University. Min Basadur is Professor Emeritus of Innovation at McMaster University, Canada, and founder of Basadur Applied Creativity. Rob Mathews is Executive Director of the Entrepreneurial Leadership Institute at Ball University. Their new book, Design-Centered Entrepreneurship, Second Edition (Routledge, 2022), provides a research-driven, step-by-step approach to creative problem-solving. Learn more at

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