Learning From Olympic Athletes…Good Coaching Gives A Competitive Advantage

The Olympics draw millions of viewers every four years as the athletes compete for the gold.  Not only do we find ourselves watching our favorite sports like basketball, soccer or volleyball, but even in the obscure sports we become connected to the medalists.  We are moved by the drama, and we are intrigued by the commitment and preparation required for medal winning performance.  If we look closely, we see these athletes are not alone; they are guided, taught, pushed, critiqued,  and encouraged by coaches to both develop and apply their skills to the highest degree under intense pressure to gain the competitive advantage.  If this is what is required for winning at Olympic games, shouldn’t we take a similar approach to succeeding in business?

The world’s top-performing organizations understand the forces that drive performance outcomes.  At the ASTD 2012 Conference, it was reported that businesses lost $328 billion due to “actively disengaged” employees.  To turn the trend around, 50% of all mid to large size organizations now use mentoring or coaching to develop high potential talent and increase employee engagement.  In the State of the Industry Report, the American Society of Training & Development (ASTD), the world’s largest association dedicated to workplace learning and performance professionals, revealed that employers are spending more on employees’ development than ever before.  Businesses in the United States spent $171.5 billion on employee learning in 2010, up from $125.8 billion in 2009.

So, how do you go for the gold when it comes to producing results?  Training definitely has its value, but like attending any sports camp, the skills learned in training sessions are not permanently ingrained.  While it is easy to be motivated while you are there, who will push you to excel when you return home?  Will you be able to spot your own mistakes and make the necessary corrections in order to excel?  Months later, who will guide you through each unique situation that arises so you can customize your approach and strategy?  Coaching is a necessary component for Olympic athletes and for business men and women.

Watch Olympic athletes compete for the gold and you see athletes that are engaged, not disengaged.  Yet, I can assure you that at some point they were tempted to quit or they reached a plateau and did not know where to go next.  What kept them going?  Over and over, these athletes impress billions of viewers with their skills and determination.  Just when we think we’ve seen the best possible performance, another athlete soars above and beyond the rest.  How did they achieve these amazing accomplishments?  Athletes train and are coached physically, mentally and emotionally to grow stronger and persevere through their mistakes.  Gabby Douglas, U.S. gold medal gymnast, said “If you can push through the tough days, you can do anything.”  But it is more than just being persistent.  Behind every winner is an experienced coach working closely with them to strategically position them for the best possible outcome.  For example, coaches of the U.S. swim team moved Michael Phelps (who won 18 Olympic gold medals and 22 Olympic medals total–more than any other Olympian in history) to the anchor position in the London Olympic 4×200 meter medley relay even though Phelps had never competed in that position before.  That strategic move helped the team capture the gold!   Many of the athletes travel long distances just to connect with a coach that can give them the competitive advantage.  Their goal is to find that unique combination that will help them stand out and move ahead of the pack.

Business draws many similarities to athletics.   Good coaches listen to your needs, evaluate and provide input to position you to reach your goals.  Your coach brings fresh eyes and an objective viewpoint to uncover tendencies of your competitors, new ways to respond to competitors, or a unique approach to show your value to the decision makers and check writers.  A good coach can guide you in cutting through the masses of information to unveil issues and valuable client intelligence hiding in plain sight that can give you the competitive advantage.  On the micro level, coaching is beneficial in multiple ways such as how to frame your conversation with potential partners, how to handle objections, and changing the game when target clients have preconceived notions as to what you can and cannot do for them.

Even experienced athletes and business pros benefit from coaching.  Michael Phelps did not stop working with his coach, Bob Bowman, even after gaining experience in three previous Olympics.  As Jim Lavis, COO of Houston-based University Connection LLC, “Even experienced negotiators can benefit from a good coach.”  He goes on to say that executives want and need to move beyond theory to actual application and results.   “Experienced negotiators should look for coaches who really understand today’s best practices in a practical way and can guide them through the application of the best practices,” said Jim Lavis in a sales training article posted in the Houston Business Journal May 4-10, 2012 “Analyze Negotiation Process To Add Value To Bottom Line.”

According to Harvard Business Review, when organizations coach employees, benefits to the company include:

  • Boost productivity by helping your employees work smarter
  • Overcome costly and time-consuming performance problems
  • Strengthen employees’ skills so you can delegate more tasks to them and focus on more important managerial responsibilities—such as planning
  • Develop a deep bench of talent who can step into your shoes as you advance in the company
  • Improve retention; employees are more loyal and motivated when their bosses take time to help them improve their skills
  • Make more effective use of company resources; coaching costs less than formal training

When employees are coached, they:

  • Build valuable skills and knowledge they can use to advance in their careers
  • Feel supported and encouraged by their manager and the company
  • Improve business relationships
  • Experience the pride and satisfaction that come with success

Bobby Knight, coach of the gold medal Olympic basketball team, once said “The key is not the will to win. Everybody has that. It is the will to prepare to win that is important.”  Training and coaching are a winning combination to prepare you to succeed and achieve the gold medal.



“Benefits of Coaching Employees”

“ASTD 2011 State of the Industry Report Finds Continued Investment in Employee Learning and Development”

“Training: Your Investment in People Development and Retention”

“Do Happier People Work Harder?”  New York Times

“Employee Engagement”

“The Benefits of Coaching”  Harvard Business Review (2010). HBR Answers Exchange

“Olympics 2012:  Michael Phelps and Bob Bowman have partnership like no other”



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