What Can We Learn From Olympians?

March 7, 2022

As the Beijing Olympics get underway, it’s always a time for me to reflect on how my athletic/coaching career informs the way I live and work. When I transitioned from coaching the US Biathlon Team to a business career, I’d commonly be asked, “What can the business world learn from Olympians?” People love the Olympics, Olympians, and athletes in general, but I didn’t love the question at the time. I didn’t see the parallels between achievement in sports and those in the boardroom.

Training and competing in sports are driven by exercise physiology, biomechanical technique, and a massive number of hours of physical training and repetitive technique practice. My sport was biathlon combining Nordic skiing with precision rifle shooting. It requires not only decades of physical training to reach a fitness few achieve in any other sport, but also the fine motor skill control and adjustment needed to hit targets in varied and mixed weather conditions. It can take 15-20 years to build the expertise needed to succeed at the top level.

There most certainly is competition in business. I see the parallels. But success in business is certainly a very different endeavor than excelling in sport at the highest level. After almost 20 years in business, I’ve come to realize that what business leaders admire in athletes is a j’nai sais quoi thing. It’s the hero’s journey, the commitment to a goal, showing up every day, giving it your all, overcoming adversity, and ultimately making a valiant effort against all odds.

Salmela CFO Kara Salmela competing in the 2002 Winter Olympics

I’ve done both of these things. I’ve pushed my body beyond what it could handle, mentally and physically. I’ve fought my doubts and demons that I wasn’t good enough and I’ve guided dozens of athletes who became Olympians and World Championship medalists to do the same. We’ve played all the tricks and mind-games to convince ourselves it was worth it. To be an Olympian, you have to be a zealot. You have to show up every day committed to improving yourself even though you might not see that improvement for months or even years in the future. You need an unwavering faith in yourself and your plan.

While the physical training comparison doesn’t correlate with achievement in the business world, the mental and emotional commitment certainly does. The mind games entrepreneurs play in building a successful company are all pretty similar to the training elite athletes endure. Success relies on tricking yourself into believing you will succeed, showing up every day engaged, and committing to a goal that can sometimes feel very distant and amorphous. As a coach or CEO, one must demonstrate the same commitment they want to see from their team, tweaking the plan for each person’s individual metrics for progress.

Lanny & Tracy Barnes (L to R) competing in the 2006 Winter Olympics

I finally get it. Six months ago, we decided to completely change the way we do business. It was a significant and bold change that required a leap of faith by everyone in the organization. We needed to retool everything. It required everyone to stretch, relearn, and believe. It was exciting, scary, but ultimately very familiar territory for me. So far, the gamble has paid off on so many different levels for the company. Like an athlete who trained hard in the off-season, our team is confident and invigorated, operating on a new level that once seemed unattainable.

And that might just be the parallel between sports and business. Bold action toward a higher goal is often the reward in itself, win, lose or draw. Medals aren’t won in one season of work and coaches don’t develop athletes with a few one-on-one chats. A positive mindset, ready to confront adversity powers all winning teams. As a business leader, I’m still pushing myself to adapt and improve, with an eye towards a resilient, curious and enthusiastic team culture. While there aren’t podiums and medals for “Best Talent Acquisition Firm,” the sense of accomplishment is there for the taking.

Team Salmela 2022

As it turns out, the lessons we can learn from the Olympics were always out there in plain sight. The Olympic Creed, delivered in a speech by Bishop Talbot at the 1908 Olympic Games, reads:

"The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."

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