High-performance – 7 lessons from the Olympics

As we enjoy the astonishing success of the GB team in Rio, it is worth asking why have they done so much better than the teams from Germany, Australia, France, Italy and so on. Beating China is astonishing. It is not surprising this question is being asked in those countries too.

I am sure you have some answers; here are mine.

Please let me know if I have missed anything by commenting here.
Unsurprisingly, these seven all have a message for anyone running a business. As an example of a well-formulated and well-executed strategy by the British Olympic Committee and UK Sport, this is almost faultless.

1. Clear and ambiguous goals

The British Olympic Committee (BOC) has set its sights only on winning at the Olympics, every Olympics. World Championships, Commonwealth Games, anything else is second priority. All GB Team athletes must peak at the Olympics, not at any other time. Nothing else matters. This means long term planning; the athletes who will appear at the Tokyo Games are already 4 years into their preparation.

Question: does your business have a clear and unambiguous set of long-term goals? Hint: if they are purely financial you are missing a trick; businesses focused on delivering value to their customers produce better financial results.

2. Investing in selecting and developing the right people

In their selection, in their development and in enabling them to focus purely on the single goal, UK Sport, assisted hugely by The National Lottery, has ensured that the right competitors are selected. These 1400 athletes are then paid for 8 years to ensure that they spend 100% of their time focusing on their goals. They do not need to have worries about a job or living expenses. 366 competitors went to Rio, 130 of them won medals. Selection for identifying candidates for the Olympic team is based on carefully thought-through criteria that assesses “Podium Potential”. The highly selective process is very rigorous. Big “multi-medal” sports are given priority: the goal is to grow the GB Team’s share of medals. In Tokyo watch how many medals the GB Team wins in Shooting.

So how do you select for potential? Watch this space; this is the subject of another newsletter that I will be sending out soon.

Questions for business:

  1. How much do you invest in selecting the right people?
  2. How do you assess the potential high performers?
  3. How rigorous is your selection?
  4. Do you make sure you only have High Performers on your team?
  5. Research in USA has shown that performance is NOT normally distributed, contrary to many managers’ belief[1]. High Performance follows a Pareto distribution: 80% of high performance is in 20% of the people. So how do you find the high performers for your business?

3. Investing in the right support teams and equipment

The massive investment (£868,562 per athlete) includes huge support teams and in their equipment. Coaches, physiologists, psychologists, masseurs, doctors, and nutritionists form the human support teams. So are equipment maintainers, equipment designers, workshop facilities, tracks, boats, bikes, swimming pools with the support from industry to test out the latest and most innovative technological improvements. Graphene, the new wonder material is being introduced for new equipment. This army examines in depth the characteristics that separate medal winners from those that don’t. Improvement actions are focused on developing these characteristics day and day out. These are all essential components to allow the participants to train properly over the eight years running up to the Olympics. Nearly everything is paid for by the National Lottery. Every competitor is given the right support they need to excel.


  1. Do you give your people the right support, advice, coaching, equipment, psychological and emotional help to succeed?
  2. Does the work climate encourage engagement, discretionary effort and excellence?
  3. What are you doing to enable your people to be winners?

4. Reinforcing success

After each Olympic Games UK Sport decides which sport will be given money for the next Olympics. The focus is on giving more money to those that get more medals each time so that they are able to put more money into the eight-year preparation of the participants.

After this year’s Olympics you can therefore expect that cycling (£30m for Rio), gymnastics (£14m), swimming (£20m), canoeing (£20m), sailing (£25m), equestrian (£17m) and rowing (£32m) will all continue to be well funded as may well hockey (£16m), boxing (£13m) and rugby 7s (£0: paid by the Rugby Unions). Athletics (£26M) is usually well funded. This reinforcement of success means that we target sports we are good at and can build a long-term community of enthusiasts in. The massive growth of cycling in the UK has led not only to Olympic success but also to winning the Tour de France. My son participated in the Prudential 100-mile race recently along with 25,000 others. 20 years ago such interest in cycling didn’t exist. Now we have 123,000 cycling club members from whom we are able to select our potential Olympic medal winners. Many of those selected will be coached by former medal winners.


  1. How well do you reinforce success in your business?
  2. How do you build engagement and energy behind those in your organisation to succeed?
  3. How much do the medal winners of today become the coaches of tomorrow in your business?

5. Measure, measure, measure

As Lord Kelvin famously said “If you cannot measure it you cannot improve it”. I went to listen to Dr Steve Ingham, physiologist to the Great Britain Rowing Team. He showed us some of the screens of data they capture every day on every rower in the team in the eight years running up to the Olympics. The focus is simple: they must peak at the games. The scale, depth, thoroughness, rigour and broad spectrum of the data collected is astonishing. Dr Ingham knows more about the bodies of the rowers than they do themselves and, with coaches, psychologists and nutritionists he hones their fitness with precise timing to a degree that will amaze most of us. Advances in computing technology using sensors worn by athletes or on their equipment give instant feedback to the coaches and show how tiny parts of seconds may be shaved off times. This can mean the difference between a gold or not medal at all. This data is at the heart of continuous improvement.


  1. How well do you measure people performance in your business?
  2. How well do you perform against what your customers expect?
  3. How “in control” are your processes? What is the current level of waste, errors and re-work?

6. Coaches

I mentioned them several times – they are critical – very carefully selected and trained in a special 2-year Elite Coaching program, passionate about their role and highly demanding of their selected coachees. Jade Jones in her interview after winning her Tae Kwon Do gold-medal described her coach as a psycho. May be that is a little extreme but there is a passion for excellence from these inspirational people who deal in tiny minute improvements every day for years. So Sir David Brailsford, Tony Minichello, Jürgen Gröbler[2], Iain Dyer, Danny Kenny and Paul Thompson all deal daily in a disciplined and rigorous method to ensure continuous improvement happens over an eight-year period.


  1. Who are the in-house coaches in your organisation?
  2. Are they the former medal-winners? If not who are you using?
  3. Have they been properly trained to be coaches?
  4. Do they have that passion to win too?
  5. What method are they using to focus improvement on?

7. The Method: Marginal Gains

What is this method? Continuous improvement requires a method, one where there is deep regular examination of what minute improvements can be made. Every success and every failure is examined with one focus in mind: focus in mind: What marginal gain can we gain from it? This is the method, the magic the competition are baffled by. Dave Brailsford discovered that the paint on the GB Team bikes weighs 100 g – he is trying ways to reduce it. The magic is a disciplined, relentless, tireless, unforgiving attention to detail, supported by the measures and metrics routinely collected, constantly looking for improvements in every possible way. These people are never satisfied, will never give up and are constantly looking for other better ways. They experiment, fail often and fast but persevere. Sir James Dyson is said to have discarded over 5000 versions of his famous vacuum cleaner until he allowed it to go for sale. These coaches are the same.


  1. What method for continuous improvement are you using every day with every part of your organisation to beat the competition, to become faster, simple and better?
  2. If you do not have a method, isn’t it time you did? Once you have it, you need to use it over and over and over and over again, for years. The journey never ends. That is how you become Olympic Gold Medallists. You will not be a high performer unless you do…

Pull all seven of these ideas together and the sum of the whole is far greater than the sum of the individual parts.

As Aristotle said: We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

High Performance is a habit, not a single race.

Could you do this to your organisation? If you like to comment on this, please do so here.

Written by: Rowan Jackson
Chairman of Dryden Human Capital

ERNEST O’BOYLE JR. Department of Management College of Business and Economics Longwood University HERMAN AGUINIS Department of Management and Entrepreneurship Kelley School of Business Indiana University

[2] Gröbler has coached rowing teams at every Olympic Games since 1972, only missing in the Russian boycott in 1984. He was 70 at Rio. Rowers he has coached have won gold medals in every Olympics since 1992.

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