Performance lessons from the Olympic Games

Team GB's success in Rio has been inspiring to watch, and many of the performance secrets can be applied to business life, too, says Damian Hughes.

by Damian Hughes
Last Updated: 30 Aug 2016

Over the last few weeks, the Olympic credo - Faster, Higher, Stronger - has been in ample evidence as we have watched British athletes run, leap, cycle, swim and dive to win a glut of medals and make the Rio games Britain’s most successful ‘away’ Olympics ever.

There are many lessons inspired by the Olympic credo which we can adopt within our own working lives. The business equivalent of may often be characterised as Cheaper, Leaner, Quicker, and In my work as an adviser to sporting and business leaders, I have witnessed five principles which elite coaches consistently employ.


Great sporting leaders strive for the ultimate model of simplicity: a one-sentence statement of their intentions.

When rowing coach Jurgen Grobler arrived from East Germany in the 90s with a brief to deliver a culture of professionalism to the amateur-run sport, he spoke, in his sparing, heavily-accented English. "I asked every rower to summarise whatever they were doing against the question: ‘Will it make the boat go faster?’"

Early on in his illustrious career, Steve Redgrave was openly dismissive of the idea that he needed to incorporate weight training into his regime. "If I wanted to lift weights, I would have chosen to be a weightlifter," he scoffed.

When Grobler attempted to convince him otherwise, he posed his golden question – will it make the boat go faster? - along with some statistics to help guide Redgrave’s response. Soon after, Redgrave began to see the difference increased power could make to his speed in the boat. He became one of the most committed weight trainers in the gym.


Psychologically it’s much more satisfying to find the solution to a problem yourself than have someone else solve it for you.  British Cycling – perhaps the ultimate gold medal factory - does this by making each athlete a Monarch.

London 2012 cycling supremo Sir Dave Brailsford explains, "Each athlete - whether it is Laura Trott or Jason Kenny - is appointed as king or queen of their discipline, with the performance support staff being there as "aides and advisers" to help and guide them."

These kings or queens are able to pick and choose where they get their help from – but ultimately, if they do not meet their agreed performance targets they can be overthrown and replaced.

"We put the riders in the middle; they have the ownership and responsibility for thinking about what they’re doing whilst we’re just the minions around them giving them expert advice. It seems to work," adds Brailsford. It certainly does.


When we come under pressure, our emotional brain engages in a contest with the rational part. The emotional brain is five times stronger and unless it is controlled, it takes over. The consequence of this is clear: We become erratic and unpredictable, forgetting the best laid plans.

Great coaches manage this neurological conflict. The late US boxing coach, Emanuel Steward, explained to me that to help people perform under pressure, he adopted a two-step approach, which reinforced this two-brains-in-one model:

"To engage you have to contain and then explain. It doesn’t work in any other order."

To do this requires what you may call ‘soft skills’ but they are anything but ‘soft’ in their application.


The former US secretary of state, Colin Powell once asserted that, "If you can’t explain what you are doing to your mother, maybe you don’t really understand it."

Great leaders are able to explain themselves in clear, understandable language. This is how Peter Coe once advised his son, Sebastian (holder of four Olympic medals and now a life peer) that he had to maintain contact with the athletes at the front of the 1500 metres final in 1980: "You sit so tight into that action you can smell Steve Ovett's armpits’ he said.

Coe went on to win Gold in the event and again in 1984.


In July 2005, Lord Coe delivered an emotional presentation to the International Olympic Committee members about the powerful inspiration which the Olympic Games had on him - and on future generations. At the end of his pitch he declared, "On behalf of the youth of today, the athletes of tomorrow, and the Olympians of the future," said Coe, "we humbly submit the bid of London 2012."

The presentation made by Paris - London’s great rival to host the 2012 games - had ended on an entirely different note.

"Paris needs the Games. Paris wants the Games. Paris loves the Games."

The French presentation was not about appealing to the positive emotions of the Olympic Committee. It was simply about Paris. They lost.

Damian Hughes is Prefessor of Organisational Psychology and Change at Manchester Metropolitan University, and author of The Five Steps to a Winning Mindset


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