Monday, 4 October 2010


For a long time now I have been a sceptic about the value of using sport as a guide to success in business. Talks on how javelin throwing can help you gain market share have always seemed to me to miss the mark.

But I’m changing my mind after last week.

I went to a conference called “Ahead of the Games” at the Royal College of Physicians in Regents Park to hear a cluster of past Olympic medal winners tell their stories.

And something happened to me; it wasn’t, you see, just what they said but what lay behind their talks and the uniformly clean, enthusiastic positivism of their delivery and attitude to life that suddenly got to me. I became not just a believer in the Olympics but in this simple professional approach to life. There were no spurious words about market forces or external factors. This was simply you against them.

Three things particularly stuck in my brain (although if you want my list of all 20 top tips just e-mail me at )
  1. On marketing – here’s what I jotted down as they were talking “The Olympic buzz is a virus – think of how to create a marketing buzz in your business – create a build up: a sense that something’s going to happen; use real people to talk about it; make the event itself extraordinary; worry about how to exceed expectation and then how to leave a legacy of new talent.” Stop using military metaphors in marketing and start using medical ones. How to create a pandemic for your brand – that’s the marketing man’s real job….spreading the bug.
  2. On the big performance – be that the race or, say, a business presentation….one chance…one contest…one winner….or as someone said “it’s sometimes not so much winning a bronze as losing a gold”. They all talk about proper preparation, about smiling at the start and reflecting “I’ve done all I can”. If Olympic athletes were as prepared to busk as most business people seem to be we’d never win anything. Robustly thorough preparation is everything.
  3. On success – top athletes all surround themselves with good advisors on diet, on positive thinking, on aches and pains, on technique because the difference between success and failure is the small % point improvement such help can give. And all, literally all, talk about WE not I – “we met every week over four years”: “we talked about it”; “we discovered a better way”; “we ran…” Compared with the value of achieving success, good mentoring and coaching is really cheap. Not to be mentored is one sign of career damaging egotism.
This event taught me more about business than I’d expected as well as inspiring me hugely. The Olympics is coming. It’s going to be great. And if business in Britain is half as professional as the builders of the event itself and athletes competing in it then the next good times are just around the corner.


Alan Stevenson said...

I love the post and agree with your sentiments in terms of business success. I recently heard Kris Akabusi speak and the two words I word use to describe him are: Positive Energy.

Often it is the drive and the motivation that picks out the winners in this life and these guys have it in spates.

Well done on the post.



Richard Hall said...

Thanks so much.

Most of all perhaps these guys are all great storytellers.


Tom Hings said...

Always been a fan of linking sporting success and endeavour to business practice. It is as much about the preparation and striving for continual improvement (six sigma) as it is about positive mental attitude. An Olympic gold medalist rower once told me that training on rainy winter mornings could be awful but he turned it on its head. When he got up, pull back the curtains to see a bleak and miserable day, he said "Great the river will be rougher today making training tougher and making me fitter, stronger and better!" Sport has so much to offer the wider world. Watch Invictus if you haven't already seen it to see how it worked for Mandela.

Ian Wilson said...

I ride to work most days and it's interesting that I also do the reverse psychology trick when the weather is foul, telling myself how a really windy day is great as it will make me fitter. Sometimes I even believe myself :)

Richard Hall said...

Alan Stevenson.

Thank you.

You are right, athletes do a lot – they are or have been demonstrably and measurably at the top of their game or know what it is like to have been at the top of their mountain. This is real not theory. Most of all these guys are all great storytellers. They have distilled their experience and allow us – the spectators - to get drunk on it too.

Inspiration is stuff we all need and we don’t have enough of it in business.

That’s what creativity brings.

That’s what extraordinary feats do.

Excellence in any form but especially in sport is a huge gut wrenchingly exciting thing and these champions of it do us all a lot of good.

One caveat: throwing a javelin a very long way is not the same as running a factory but in the end most of us would prefer to be famous doing the former.

Tom Hings

Yes to positive mental attitudes Tom. They can and do make the impossible happen. And anything which makes you tackle important but apparently prosaic tasks with more gusto and determination the better.

Sport does this but there are two hidden aspects to sport.

Here’s what Michael Johnson said:

“There are two sides to a sprinter.

The side that wants to crush his opponents and leave them blue and lifeless by the side of the track…

…and the other, darker side.”

(Michael Johnson – Nike ad at the time of the ’96 Olympics)

And there’s masochism.

The training and the destruction of the body.

I’m not sure anyone sane likes the early morning training in the bitter cold. Nor the pain of a high dive. Nor the possibility of a Radcliffe moment.

The price of success is very, very high – yes, that these amazing guys teach us if we choose to hear it.

Ian Wilson

Psychological tricks are good…that 4am alarm call in the winter – hurray – I’ve beaten the birds – I’m alive! But perhaps a little nauseous and hysterical too.

The need to do what you do is a tremendous source of power.

Good luck with the cycling. I detect a touch of the Chris Hoy in the way you write…gritty, strong, relentless….