6 Olympic Lessons for Business Leaders

I always find the stories behind the Olympics inspiring. The athletes’ dedication to their sports and the adversity many overcome to reach their goals is compelling. As I watch these talented athletes compete for their moment in the international spotlight, I’m struck by how much of what they do holds lessons for the rest of us.

There are many parallels between the skills required to win in global athletics and those necessary to build a winning business. What can you learn from Olympic class athletes? Here are a my top picks for Olympic lessons from for your business:

1. Find Your Niche

I’d never heard of skeleton until I watched men and women hurtling down an icy tunnel at 80 miles and hour, headfirst, on a tiny sled.

Lesser-known (ok, call them obscure) sports like skeleton and curling are no less competitive than more popular ones. You might think the participants are crazy, but the gold medals the winners take home are just as precious as the ones earned by ice skaters, downhill skiers and bobsledders.

Whatever you choose to do, knowing your strengths and how to use them is essential for breakthrough results. Skeleton racers found their niche, committed to it, and excel.

At the same time, picking a niche doesn’t mean forsaking everything else forever. Decisions about what opportunities to pursue aren’t permanent or irreversible, as some athletes have proven by switching sports.

The ability to win in one niche often translates to success in another as lessons from one area are applied to the next.

2. Assess the Course

The women’s super-G slalom course was taking out skiers at breakneck pace at Sochi. The course set a record for skiers who didn’t finish the course, with 18 of 49 not making it to the end.

Why so many failures? Unusual conditions (icy at the top and slush at the bottom) collided with a prohibition on practice runs and a limit of 90 minutes for competitors to evaluate the course beforehand. With limited access to critical information, skiers later in the lineup had a distinct advantage over those who went first.

As news emerged about the real status of the course, skiers were able to adapt their approach. As a result, several overcame challenges that took the trailblazers out of contention.

Do you charge ahead without checking out the course? Listen for feedback, even from competitors, and adjust on the fly.

3. Gather Speed When You Can

Acceleration and control are two critical aspects of sports and business. Winning a downhill race requires both. In the women’s super-G, many competitors ended up off the course because they tried to speed through turns without the proper control.

Others edged ahead because they made up speed on straightaways, relaxing enough to gather momentum instead of fighting against it.

In these races, hundredths of a second can mean the difference between winning and merely placing. Knowing how to capture speed – and then applying this skill when it counts – separates the winners from the rest of the pack.

Do you know how to gain speed for your business? Can you do it while maintaining control? It’s a delicate balance.

4. Watch for Friction

So many sports in the winter Olympics depend on sharp edges. Skis, ice sakes, sled runners all work with and against the snow or ice. Too much friction steals speed, not enough and you lose control.

Figure skaters depend on their blades to propel jumps and execute turns. One little imperfection in the ice can spell disaster. Snowboarders discovered a bumpy bottom in the halfpipe robbed them of the momentum they needed to complete tricks, causing wipeouts and dramatic falls.

The friction of bumping the walls in skeleton and luge slows racers down. One miscalculation in a turn can become added resistance on the wall and spell the end of a promised run.

Friction is everywhere in business, too. Sometimes it’s so subtle we don’t notice, and that’s when it becomes a problem. Keep an eye on the little things to avoid a big slowdown later.

5. Know When to Call it a Day

Quitting is hardly something we associate with die-hard athletes who’ve dedicated their lives to sport. At the same time, knowing when you’re beat, when you have reached the limits of your potential or when to step aside to let a teammate shine are hallmarks of real winners.

John Daly of the American skeleton team told reporters he was going to give it his all before the finals, and he did. Too much, in fact. His hopes for a medal were dashed in a heartbreaking run that started with an overzealous misstep in which the runners of his sled came out of the track.

Daly’s friend and teammate Matt Antione took home the bronze instead. A loss for Daly, but a win for the team.

Russian figure skater Evgeni Plushenko withdrew from the games after helping his team win a gold in the team event. Plushnko succumbed to back pain and announced his retirement, drawing criticism from fans and rivals who thought he should soldier on.

Only Plushenko knows his limits. When he met them, he made the bold choice to leave the competition. While that may signal the end of his competitive skating career, he’ll surely turn his experience into success off the ice.

In snowboarding, American favorite Shaun White failed to medal at all. After abruptly pulled out of the slopestyle event, causing controversy because there was no time for the team to name a replacement.

Unfortunately conditions weren’t in White’s favor for the halfpipe, either. Is that the end of the road for him? At Sochi, yes, but not for good. As White said, “…this is one big part of who I am, but it isn’t all of who I am.”

6. Prepare for What’s Next

Each of the athletes I’ve mentioned will have a second act. Maybe it won’t be in their current sport, but they’ll show up somewhere and succeed.

Having the right stuff to win isn’t an accident. It’s the product of hard work, a strong team, good coaches and a sense of purpose.

Business leaders know this as well. Not everything works out the way you plan. Not every day ends with a medal. But commitment to your vision, flexibility to adapt to changing conditions, and consistent improvement do pay off.

Image by Andi O. via sxc.hu
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