There's no denying it, Olympic fever has washed over us. Not only are we glued to our screens watching Phelps, Ledecky, Biles and Thrasher, but our social media feeds are filling up with “useful advice” inspired by our Olympians’ superb accomplishments.
A significant amount of this advice is useful: eat well, sleep at least eight hours, mentally prepare, and practice, practice, practice. But though these pieces of advice are routines all Olympic athletes (and healthy human beings) should follow, none of them distinguish the gold medalists from other participants.
When you look at what the winners do, you notice they train differently. Their stories are not just stories of talent and determination, but also of preparation. This is significant because it means that much of what makes them Olympics-winning athletes depends on others: a trainer, mentor, or teammate who makes the crucial difference.
Seeing how Olympic winners train can teach us some important things about how we should train our own people, whether you own a small shop, a growing business, or a global enterprise. For instance, they:
1) Prepare mentally: Olympic athletes spend a great deal of time psychologically preparing for their events. Not only do they practice and rehearse, but they read inspirational books and quotes, repeat mantras, visualize their events, and constantly plan out how they are going to win.
Training your people, then, should go beyond just conveying information. It should mentally prepare them for the job at hand. Understanding what counts as success and imagining how it gets done is just as important as conveying the details. This is what separates true skill development from merely acquiring facts.
2) Get the right motivation: A person’s ability to focus and succeed is directly proportional to his or her motivation, but that motivation needs to go beyond the old-fashioned “carrot and stick” that most business practices are based on. That kind of motivation only encourages immediate action to achieve well-defined goals. Real, lasting motivation is based on a deeper sense of purpose and value. When Simone Biles trains, she does not do it to win the uneven bars event; she does it to change the way gymnastics is done.
So, when training your people, motivate them with higher goals. Instead of motivating them with doing a slightly better job next week, point to something bigger: Helping customers, moving the company forward, innovating for the future…whatever captures their imagination.
3) Mix it up (because repetition kills): Olympic winners don’t stick to one type of exercise or movement. They do activities that engage many muscles and incorporate many movements. This not only fends off boredom, but it makes them stronger and more flexible overall.
The same should go for your training. Minimize repetition, and work on mixing up the activities and interactions that trainees engage in. For example, combine lectures with role play, audio with visuals, long assignments with short videos.
4) Are challenged: Behind every successful trainer is a coach that pushes them to the limit. Olympians are constantly nudged out of their comfort zone, asked to do new things and push the limit on routine things.
Your training should challenge your people too. They need to stretch themselves. They should learn new things, try new activities, and strive toward mastering new skills. Sometimes this is as simple as challenging their way of thinking about a problem or a role.
5) Train early in the day: Olympic athletes train early in the morning, before the pressures and the stresses of the day mount. Olympic trainers know that, in the morning, there are far fewer distractions that keep their athletes from giving their best workout.
Do the same with your on-campus training. Aim for early in the day, before things begin to wear on your trainees. (And especially avoid training right after lunch!) You can provide summaries of training and refresher videos for folks who claim to be “night owls,” wanting to learn late or after hours.
6) Train with a partner or group: Olympic athletes often train together—sometimes for years—before they compete against each other at the Olympics. The reason is accountability: When you train with others, it helps you stick with your training and challenges you to do your best (see #4 above).
When training your people, have them do activities in groups. Even when they are expected to train on their own, pair them up with others to encourage accountability.
7) Are cared for, and about: Many Olympic coaches are demanding and tough, but the best ones obviously care for their athletes. They don’t just care about winning medals; they want to see their athletes achieve perfection in their events…without breaking down.
The same impulse should inform your training. Sure, there is a business case to be made for quality training. This business case should not be your sole motivation in training, however. People can tell when you care about them…and when you care only about checking a box for compliance or eking out slightly more productivity. Care about your people, and they will care about your organization and its goals.
Most organizations are not training their people to “win” single events, but to perform better, consistently, from day to day. Still, many of the same lessons hold. Winning in the Olympics is as much mental as physical, and it requires the right kind of preparation and training. The same goes for any job: The right mindset has to be there.