Maybe the Olympics are passing you by without having much impact on your life. Or maybe you’re up half the night absolutely glued to some sport which two weeks ago you had never encountered. Either way, there is something about elite athletes performing at the highest level that truly inspires.
Sports metaphors are nothing new in business. And there’s a reason they work. The life of the athlete, with its hard work mostly conducted away from view, with its failures, setbacks, as well as victories, mirrors the entrepreneur’s journey surprisingly closely.
And beyond the actual journey, there are personality traits which we find pop up in these athletes – particularly the ones at the top levels – which are remarkably similar to those entrepreneurs who also reach for the skies.
So let’s look at three skills that we have seen in Olympic athletes during these Tokyo 2020 games, and what entrepreneurs can take from them.
1. The ability to visualise your success ahead of time
Mindset matters. Top athletes have run their race in their mind before the starter pistol even goes off. If there is one image from the women’s 200m final that sticks, it’s Shaunae Miller-Uibo tearing around the outside lane and then … on the inside comes Elaine Thompson Herah, moving so quickly it’s as though Miller-Uibo – and the rest of the field – are just standing around having a chat.
Thompson Herah planned it that way. I will run the curve hard was one of her mantras (later posted on Instagram) and she did just that. No one could touch her on the bend. After years of Achilles problems (as bad an injury as a runner can get), and changing her running style, Elaine Thompson Herah wins gold in the 200m, and gold in the 100m, securing her place at the very top of women’s sprinting.
For entrepreneurs this is not just about having a solid business plan in place, although that is extremely important. It’s a bigger kind of vision – it’s seeing the outcome of a meeting, of a presentation, of a particular project – then working to achieve it. The athlete’s training, and the entrepreneur’s hours behind the scenes, all come together for one goal which has been visualised long before the moment comes. So when you’re in that critical moment, you know exactly what to do.
2. The flexibility to pivot when things go wrong
But what if something gets in the way? You have made plans. They are great plans. Then everything falls apart. Here there is a clear parallel between the Olympic athlete and the successful entrepreneur. Do you sit around and bemoan what has happened? Do you try to force the issue? Or do you get up straight away, pivot, and keep going?
This is what Sifan Hassan did. She’s known for hanging near the back of the pack on her long distance runs, usually making her break during the last lap. All was going to plan during her 1500m heat – she’s steady at the back and ready to make her move. Until the runner in front of her falls flat on the ground and Sifan, moving at pace, trips over her and crashes to the ground as well.
Okay, what do you do? Watch as the rest of the pack make their way around the track and kiss goodbye to your chance to qualify for the final? I mean, you have good reason to give up – there is only one lap to go, you need to conserve energy for your other races, and you’re lying face down on the track.
That’s not going to work for Sifan. She leaps up, sticks it in high gear and proceeds to set the track on fire, burning past the entire pack (who at this point were way ahead of her) and qualifies first in her heat. As for the 5000m, that gruelling event which this mishap would exhaust her for. She wins that too.
Being able to think on your feet, pivot quickly, then keep on moving is one of the most crucial lessons an entrepreneur will ever learn. Yes, it can be shattering when your business world falls apart, but you’re in great company, whether it’s the elite athletes of this world or the Steve Jobs types of the business world. It’s how quickly you can pivot and keep moving forward that ultimately leads to success.
3. The humility to ask for advice from mentors and peers
If you haven’t heard of Charlotte Worthington, look her up. You can usually find her ten feet in the air, upside-down, attached to a BMX bike, spinning in two directions at the same time.
The gold medallist in Women’s Freestyle BMX, and the first women to complete a 360 degree backflip (which is as scary as it sounds), Worthington understands the power of learning from mentors. Her coach for the event was Jamie Bestwick, one of the greatest BMX riders of all time. Bestwick, now 50 years-old, coached his 25 year-old prodigy all the way to the top at this year’s Tokyo Olympics.
But it isn’t just about the coach. Sometimes it’s about relationships with your peers. When picking up her gold medal, Worthington acknowledged that without the innovation in the sport by Hannah Roberts – who picked up silver – she wouldn’t be at the level at which she currently performs.
So as an entrepreneur, if you’re not learning from those who have gone before, as well as those who are on a similar path – you’re not tapping into an important well of knowledge. It’s important to understand that you’re not doing this alone, and if you think you are, then you’re missing out. It’s one of the reasons co-working spaces are so popular.
Finding mentors like Bestwick – someone who has been where you’re trying to go – as well as peers like Roberts, someone who is trying to climb the same mountain as you, not only makes you feel less alone, but streamlines your journey, helping you avoid many of the mistakes they made, and puts you in a much stronger position. Asking for advice does not make you weak, it makes you strong.
Get ready for the next event
Do you know what all these athletes do when they get down from the podium? Start planning the next race. The next training regime. The next set of goals. As an entrepreneur, avoiding complacency can be as important as dealing with failure. Whether you’re having success or failure at a particular moment in time, keep planning for the future. Because the next event is just on the horizon.