Executive Olympics and Other Mind Games


It would be churlish not to revel in the success of the just concluded Olympic Games. Everyone else is, and will undoubtedly continue to do so for years to come – today’s stars of the track and pool are the stars of tomorrow’s motivational speaker circuit and the senior leader retreats where we hope that some of that gold, some of that success, some of that glory will rub off on us. As with the conquerors of the Himalayas and space, their dedication, their sacrifice, their single-mindedness, and ultimately their deserved achievements have been phenomenal. On the British side, to such an extent that the usual rumours and questions have arisen – doping, special bags for bike wheels, home advantage, and all the rest. But what really has changed in the British approach over the last few Olympics?

For me, what has stood out has been that every single athlete – unfailingly – has very publicly thanked their coach. Not down in the long litany of ‘and anybody else who knows me’ section, but right at the top of the A-list. Performance coaches and sports psychologists are part and parcel of modern training and development, just as their counterparts are in the executive world.

So what can our business leaders in the corporate boxes learn from their sports heroes?

In cycling, David Brailsford has talked of ‘marginal gains’ being the difference between the British team and the others. The UK cycling chief and his team had gone back to all their processes and procedures and reviewed them to see where 1% could be added here, a tenth of a second cut there. The aggregation of all these tiny individual improvements resulted in the perceived superiority Team GB took to the Games. But a more fundamental, mind-oriented approach came out in a psychology-lite piece the BBC ran a few times during breaks between the events. This distilled performance psychology into a few top disciplines.


Doubt is a performance killer. Any hesitation, any question, any doubt about your not achieving what you aim to achieve means that you will almost certainly not achieve. In turn, anything that stops the mind straying into doubt helps. Visualisation or the superstitions and rituals outsiders might mock work if you believe in them strongly enough and they close the mind to self-doubt. They are like medical placebos – total 100% belief is all-important.

Control for freedom

Time and time again the interviewed sports stars mentioned this. The rower Matthew Pinsent and the sprinter Michael Johnson underlined that you can only control what you can – yourself – nothing else. It might sound obvious, but how often do we find our minds taken up by worry over what we cannot control? This was echoed by the cyclist Chris Boardman: “I can only be as good as I can be. And when I’ve crossed the line, I’ll see what that got me. It’s a very calming, focussing and indeed inspiring thought.”

Your own path

The British triple jumper Jonathan Edwards said that whoever your heroes are and whatever you learn from them, ultimately you need to find your own way. Back in the days of ‘Great Man/Woman’ leadership theories, biographies of leaders from every field dominated the business bestseller lists as we sought clues from these paragons’ life stories. What is it they had that made them so great? What distinctive traits and features did they have? This is fine – and many of these lives are truly inspirational – but anything we take from others has to be distilled, examined and personalised like any piece of learning. From this we forge our own path. We use what works for us individually.


The message here was that all your preparation, all your hard work, all your dedication, all your talent, none of these counts for anything if you can’t perform under pressure. You need to be able to deliver when called upon to do so. The sports psychologist Tom Bates emphasised that top athletes will not see this pressure as a problem but as a privilege, a view corroborated by Michael Johnson. Pressure allows focus. It narrows your world down to your one single aim and goal.

In short, success is in the recesses of the mind, not necessarily in effort or even skill. Everyday, as neuroscience progresses further and further, we learn more and more of just what an extraordinary tool and engine and gift our brains are. Learning how to fully leverage this great resource we have at our disposal is a fitting executive takeaway from the Games. With this we can in turn work to meet Team GB’s clarion call to leave a legacy. Inspire a generation.


  • The Chimp Paradox (2012) – Dr Steve Peters
  • Executive Toughness (2011) – Jason Selk
  • Talent is Overrated (2006) – Geoff Colvin

About Julian King

Julian King is an international HR consultant and certified executive coach with a keen interest in intercultural matters.