Finishing the human race – lessons we might learn from the Olympics

In recent weeks I’ve noticed business coaches rushing to make comparisons between their role in the corporate world and Olympic coaches.  Not to be left behind I have decided to venture some reflections of my own.

With records set to be broken on British soil in the next few weeks there are lessons to be learned from the Olympic spirit that can inspire all who strive for excellence and ethics in their practice.  Of course we admire exceptional personal achievement and the focus and dedication that produces it.  But what lies behind this passion and is this a good model for us to follow?  In what ways are the Olympic athletes an inspiration for good work?

There are several qualities that are essential to sporting excellence.  What separates Olympic athletes from the rest of us is not just physical strength, stamina, or skill, but mental commitment.  When many of us might yield to inner doubt, Olympians believe they can still win.  Even when adversity strikes they pick themselves up and start again.  Nerves are overcome with a strong dose of self-belief.  Developing this level of confidence to reach the top often involves time with a sports psychologist not just a physical trainer.

The carrot for an Olympic athlete, of course, is a gold medal.  The motivation to succeed keeps them going through the long hours of training, pushing themselves to the edge of their ability, time after time, after time.  To break a record in London an athlete will have come close to the record many times before.  In London they will be pushing harder than ever before to exceed their personal best.

But winning a medal is more than just running the race.  It comes from the accumulation of good decisions – listening to the advice of family and friends, coaches and psychologists, and choosing what really works.  Add to this the pressure a modern athlete is under from the all seeing gaze of the media.  This suggests that top athletes need a strength of character – courage if you like – to make tough decisions.  A brave decision can make the difference between silver and gold.

Confidence, motivation, courage – these are qualities we all aspire to, but in the human race these are focussed not just on the 100 metres sprint but on the whole of life.  In competitive sport there is only one winner.  We all enjoy the intensity of competition and the excitement of winning.  But if we don’t win – if we don’t quite reach the top – does that mean the rest of us are losers?  No.

In life we are all rewarded in different ways.  Success is not measured by the trophies we win, the money we make, or the status we achieve.  Our personal vocation is to fulfil ourselves, to become all we can be, to give all we can to our world.  In this sense I am reminded of St Paul’s image of himself as an athlete.  “I have run the race, I have finished the course,” he said.  The prize is not just for the winner but for the finisher.  Perhaps the London Marathon, not the London Olympics, is a better image for personal achievement.  Many of those we applaud in the Marathon finish the course far behind the winners, sometimes by hours or even days.  Everyone that finishes is a champion.

What can sustain us on the long haul of professional excellence?  Yes we need to build confidence, sustain our motivation, and develop the courage to take tough decisions.  But how are these qualities nurtured?  Where do these qualities come from?  It is here that we might learn the most.  It is not just in having experiences but learning from them, in paying attention to the moment, and in engaging with the disappointments and challenges that life springs upon us.  These are the disciplines of life that lay the foundation for good work.

This may not be the language that sports coaches use but, I suggest, they are the disciplines that make the difference between those who complete the course and those who fall at the final hurdle.

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