It’s not unusual for Elite Olympic Athletes become successful in business after their sporting career. This is because during their time as an elite athlete the learned essential skills that set them up perfectly for business. This was the case for British Olympic rower Ben Hunt-Davis.
‘Will It Make The Boat Go Faster’ is the story of Ben’s journey to Olympic gold in the men’s Rowing Eight at Sydney 2000. It’s a story of talent, focused preparation and hard work. What won the race? Not just the combination of these, but the way in which they all worked together.
It’s about daily actions and thought processes, setting goals and then stretching them. Elite performers don’t simply work hard, they also work differently. Each day they focus on what will make them better at what they do, check their habits and focus on what matters most for the best possible results in relation to their end goal.
There is a host of things Olympic athletes do, and attributes they have, that allow them to take that talent and hone it to the point where they become good enough to represent their country at an Olympic games. Here are the top 10 attributes that make a great Olympian, according to Ben Hunt-Davis.
1. Have a goal - Every competitor has a goal. It may not have been to win a gold medal or to reach the final, but at least to achieve a personal best. The important thing is having the goal. If you don't know what you want to achieve, how can you ever succeed?
2. Get a plan - Once you have a goal you then need a plan to achieve it. Ben explains how they look at their sport on a cycle with the Olympics at the end of the cycle. He explains that it’s impossible to maintain an Olympic gold medal performance standard continually, so they aim to peak at the Olympics, with other competitions used as marker posts for expected levels of performance at given times, and for development of specific aspects of the rowing conditioning.
The same logic can be applied to business. You can't do everything you want all the time, so plan effectively, know what you can do and when. Know what steps you can take towards your overall goal over what time periods. Hit small milestones on the way to the overall target.
3. Have a great work ethic, but work smart - Ben talks about how he had missed weekends away, holidays, family events, parties etc. because of his training schedule. To achieve great results we generally have to work hard. Most business people certainly do. The real lesson is to work smarter not harder.
4. Measure performance - All athletes measure performance whether it's time, weight, height, distance. Whatever the success criteria, they constantly evaluate where they are compared to where they expect to be, and whether they are on-track to achieve their goals or not. By evaluating performance they can determine if they need to change their plans.
5. Be prepared to experiment - one of the most interesting sporting interviews you'll probably see is with Australian swimmer, Ian Thorpe, explaining how swimmers use ballet in their training programmes. The logic was that ballet dancers train to reproduce very specific athletic movements perfectly, time after time, and this skill is also important in swimming where getting the body, arms or hands slightly out of position can cost hundredths of a second.
It is important to keep an open mind in business and take lessons from other industries. See how others do things that you do - or things you don't do, what can you take from them?
6. Train like a champion - no matter how talented an athlete is, they train to perfect their skills and maintain peak levels of performance.
7. Don’t settle for ‘good enough’, use pressure to improve your focus - Most business people lack the same level of mental discipline that successful athletes have in abundance. One of the risks for businesses is being tolerant of an average performance. When an athlete does badly, their performance is reviewed and analysed from all angles and they work out how to improve from there.
8. Focus on what you do best - Tennis players, weight-lifters and divers have specialised skills, strengths and body types that enable them to compete in one sport. Other than in the pentathlon and decathlon, high-level sport is dominated by niche-oriented athletes who focus on just one field. Understand your true strengths and the unique way you create value for customers, and find an area of focus where you stand at the top of the world.
9. Performance is everything, and then celebrate success - When Usain Bolt crossed the finish line in the 100m final at the 2012 Olympics, he made one simple gesture. He didn’t point to the sky or raise his hands in the air, but held up his finger to his lips, making a gesture of silence. He’d reached a new pinnacle and his first reaction was to silence those who thought he’d never make it.
Ben and his colleagues had less than 5.5 minutes to perform, at 10:30 am on Sunday 24 September 2000. The margins between success and failure are tiny, but if your goal is to win, there is no second best.
10. Anything is possible, never give up - Ben’s story is a great example of someone who overcame a stream of constant challenges, but he kept going rather than letting them prevent him from reaching his goal. We should all work to overcome barriers that are thrown at us so we can become better each day.
So, there you go, 10 great pieces of advice from a British Olympian that you can easily implement day to day to help improve you and your network around you. If you want to dive further into this we would definitely recommend picking up a copy of Will If Make The Boat Go Faster.