How to Approach Work with the Mindset of an Olympic Athlete

By Alicia Mandel  ::  Leader Development

What if we practiced 90% of the time and only performed 10% of the time? That’s what elite athletes do… they spend most of their time figuring out how to get the most out of their body — how to get themselves to the top of their performance game, so that when they get on the field, the court or the track they are fully prepared to WIN. What if we did that at work?

What if we understood, that like athletes, our employees come to work every day in hopes of winning. Would that change the way we managed them?

Performance management: Would we wait until the annual performance review to give them feedback, or would we give feedback to them real time? Let’s consider the elite athlete… An Olympic swimmer hires a coach to help them make it to the games — the coach designs the practices, watches both real time and on film to track how the swimmer is doing. Together they analyze the performance, make tweaks and the swimmer tries again. And again. And what if during that practice the coach notices that the swimmer’s left elbow is dragging, thus slowing down the pace, however minimally. Would the coach wait until the year-end review to give the swimmer that feedback? OF COURSE NOT. That’s actually silly. Yet, this is what we do at work. We wait to give the feedback until the “appropriate time” in the performance review cycle.

If the coach were to do that, here’s what might happen:

  • the swimmer would likely not know themselves to lift their elbow. They wouldn’t improve the .10% of a second that was necessary to make the difference between fourth place and the gold medal.
  • The swimmer would continue to practice not lifting their elbow, and when they finally got the feedback, it would be much harder to unlearn the old way and then to relearn the new way — instead of just making the minor correction at the time.
  • The swimmer would never really trust the coach again — because the coach allowed them to do it the wrong way rather than to have the difficult conversation about making a change.

That whole scenario seems ridiculous and contrived. Here’s how it really plays out: The coach would scream into the pool, ‘LIFT YOUR ELBOW’, and the swimmer would lift her elbow, and that would be the end of it. There would be no drama, no feedback models necessary to figure out the best way to offer the feedback. The coach would give the feedback, the swimmer would incorporate the feedback and be better prepared to win. If the coach didn’t deliver the appropriate feedback, they would likely be fired.

And then, imagine if at the end of the year the coach gave the athlete a ‘3 out of 5’ for a performance rating. “A 3 out of 5 is good” he’d say. “You met expectations because you didn’t win it yet!’”. Again, sounds ridiculous. How could an Olympic athlete actually be a 3? Very likely, the swimmer would not get back in the pool for that coach again.

Why then at work is that whole scenario OK? Why do we assume that the feedback is going to be taken in the wrong way? Why do we think that not giving the feedback is acceptable? When does it become about the manager instead of about the employee? What if we treated employees as though they were striving to be the best they could be.

What if we assumed employees had an intention for greatness and we acted as if it were our job to guide them there?

Would we act differently with that frame?

Goal setting works the same way. The Olympics are every four years. That’s a big, hairy goal. In fact, at work, that is so big we might actually call it a “corporate objective”. And the goal itself is actually to qualify for the Olympics. And then there are micro-goals under that — personal bests, national competitions, and key qualifying events (among many others). There is a tremendous amount of effort and sweat, and successes and failures that lead up to those micro goals, which drive the big goal and corporate objectives. Four years’ worth in fact. Yet, together the coach and the athlete sit down and chart the course — when are the trials, when are the world championships, what races can we do to get ready for those? How can we practice? Where is it OK to fail, and where do I have to be at the top of my game? What else can I do to fully develop — what are the ancillary things that will make me more successful (sleep, nutrition, exercise, stress, etc).

Do we really think about those things at work? Or instead, do we run from one thing to the next, not really understanding how everything fits together? Can we work with our employees to create meaningful short term micro goals that drive the bigger organizational goals, that ultimately lead to being the best in the world? An opportunity that realistically comes along only once every four years? Can we identify those corporate objectives, vs. the goals and micro goals and then understand the “near and clear” steps it takes to achieve those?

Can we focus on getting a teeny bit better every day, rather than trying to go from good to perfect in one conversation?

And can we make the leap that our employees want and expect that kind of coaching and feedback from us in order to help get them there?

We have Olympic Athletes hidden among us at work. Those people that need the right coaching, the right feedback and the right type of goal setting to just help them be the best they can be… and in some cases we’ll never know it, because we give them a 3. And then they fire us (or move to another company), or become so disenfranchised that they actually give up. And because of our process, our system, our fear… they don’t reach their potential. That’s the exact opposite of the job of a coach. What if we operated as Olympic Coaches instead of managers at work? Maybe we’d get Olympic Performances.

About the author

Alicia Mandel

Alicia Mandel

Chief Learning Officer, Apollo Education Group

For the last six years Alicia Mandel has led Apollo Education Group’s learning, organizational development and executive succession planning programs as Chief Learning Officer, Vice President, Learning and Organizational Development. As a key member of Apollo’s Human Resources leadership team, she is instrumental in driving the company’s organizational capabilities across a diverse employee base with operations across the U.S. and abroad.

A recognized industry expert in learning and change management, Alicia was charged with building a culture that is aligned with Apollo’s high-performance and growth objectives. At Apollo, she introduced the Apollo Core Values as well as EPIC, a social media reward and recognition platform. In addition, she streamlined the company’s Learning function to ensure it is designed to meet its objectives and create the necessary ROI.

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