Valuable Leadership Lessons From The Olympic Coaches


 — August 14th, 2015

Valuable Leadership Lessons From The Olympic Coaches

How do coaches communicate with some of the world’s leading athletes?

The 2016 Olympic Games in Rio are now in full swing. We have already seen some fantastic performances and as we move into the second week, we can expect to see more great scenes.

While the athletes take center stage, supporting each competitor is a backroom team and a coach who play a major role in the success of these athletes. Key skills of these coaches are leadership and communication and there are many lessons to be learnt for organizations and managers in a corporate environment.

“Smart leaders today, we have found, engage with employees in a way that resembles an ordinary person-to-person conversation more than it does a series of commands from on high.” Leadership Is a Conversation by Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind

Let’s take a deeper look

One man who is certainly comfortable in the deep end is Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time with an astonishing 22 gold medals, four of which he has won so far in Rio. So behind this physical powerhouse of a swimmer, who the person that helps him perform when it matters most? While Phelps is a worldwide name, his coach for his entire career Bob Bowman is not known by many but has been key to Phelps success. Phelps openly admitting that “he wouldn’t be where he is today without Bob Bowman” in a 2012 interview with CBS News.

In the past Bowman has given advice on how leaders can get the best performance from their team. What is most interesting and relevant from this is how leaders need to determine a gold standard, and then make sure the team buys into achieving said standard. Make sure to control the controllable and not to get too worked up about competitors’ actions. Bowman says;

“Be a little better today than you were yesterday. If you do that enough days, you’ve traveled a great distance”.

Let’s travel further into the deep end and see how the British cycling team took a similar approach.

Sir Dave keeps his team on track

Sir Dave Brailsford was charged with the task of leading Great Britain’s cycling team at the London 2012 Olympics. The performance of the cyclists excelled under his leadership with a staggering eight gold medals being won by British cyclists, 70 percent of the gold medals available in this discipline. Head of the cycling team, Brailsford faced the challenge of leading a team of 18 athletes, both male and female, all of whom had a different individual target and overall role to play in the entire team’s success.

Brailsford’s approach was simple but effective, the aggregation of marginal gains. Basically by improving every small thing you do by as little as 1 percent, this all adds up to superior performance. Quite often in sport and even in business, managers try to solve a problem by making large and sometimes radical changes to fix a problem, when in fact improving the existing processes ever so slightly can be just as effective. Psychologist James Clear has studied Sir Dave Brailsford career to date closely and wrote a fascinating article; This Coach Improved Every Tiny Thing by 1 Percent and Here’s What Happened. In this article, James Clear explains that early on, there is not much difference between making a choice that improves performance by only 1 percent. But as time develops, a big gap develops between those athletes, business people or organizations who consistently make slight improvements and make better daily decisions.

Toni’s got the recipe

Toni Minichiello is the coach who provides the motivation behind one of Great Britain’s finest athletes, Jessica Ennis-Hill, Olympic gold medalist and face of the London 2012 games. When coaching someone that has the natural ability of this heptathlete, very little can be done to improve her running, jumping or throwing style, but harnessing her skills and pushing Ennis-Hill in the right direction has been an integral part of Minichiello’s mentorship of this athlete.

Minichiello has understandably grown as a coach over his career, learning that the best coaching techniques are tailored to what the individual responds to best. Internal communicators can learn a lesson here too as their communications often have to be tailored to employees in different departments, locations, demographics etc. Similar to the approach of Bob Bowman with his swimmers, Minichiello uses the example of how he coaches Ennis-Hill in a very direct manner nowadays as this is what she responds to best.

Managers and leaders have to adapt over their careers, whether that be adapting to new technologies, new employees, or crisis management, being agile is a key trait of being a successful leader in the long run. Inspiration can be taken from Toni Minichiello here as Ennis-Hill unexpectedly told him that she was pregnant in 2014, severely disrupting her planned training program for the long term goal of winning gold in Rio 2016. Minichiello’s ability to adapt and tailor a whole new training program to suit his athlete, leading to Ennis-Hill returning to the top of her game, and touching down in Rio as one of Great Britain's main hopes of winning gold.

Coach K leads the way

While the majority of Olympic sports feature athletes who sacrifice their lives for their sport without any significant financial gain, a small number of sports feature professional athletes who earn millions every year. One such sport is basketball, where the average salary is just under $5 million according to Forbes. When these world superstars come to meet at the Olympics every four years to represent their country, a certain type of coach is needed to bring all these large egos together to play as one.

Mike Krzyzewski, better known as Coach K, leads the U.S basketball team to Rio for the third time after securing gold in both Beijing and London. So how does Coach K bring global superstars such as Kobe Bryant, Lebron James and Kevin Durant to win gold?

Coach K’s vision of leadership is built on building strong relationships with his players. He studies his players closely to understand their personalities and emotions, and using this knowledge to see how they will play on the basketball court. Coach K makes the team want to like him, so that they will go that extra length for their coach when the pressure comes on. Similarly, in business, employees who have a strong relationship with their manager, will often put more effort into their work.

A passage from ASLANation blog summed Krzyzewski’s relationship building perfectly; ‘Coach K's teams are marked by a strong sense of connection and oneness that has come from his practice of making players part of his extended family. It is a proven psychological principle that in groups where connection is strong, members make their best efforts. When things get tough, connected groups pull together whereas groups without much connection tend to tear each other apart’.

So there you have it, some lessons and inspiration on the importance of leadership and engagement from the often forgotten Olympic heroes (the coaches). Enjoy the games!

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