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Going for gold – five lessons from sports psychology


Harriet Beveridge and Ben Hunt-Davis look at how sport psychologies translate into the commercial arena.

With the first tranche of tickets released and the opening ceremony only just over a year away, Olympic hype is well and truly starting.  But aside from the sales and sponsorship opportunities the games present, what relevance do the games – and sport in general - hold for business? 

Ben Hunt-Davis won Olympic gold at the Sydney Games in 2000 as part of the men’s rowing eight, and he and corporate performance coach Harriet Beveridge have teamed up to write “Will it make the boat go faster? – Olympic-winning strategies for everyday success”  (Matador, published 1st June 2011).  The book mixes Ben’s journey to gold with a coaching compendium of practical, straightforward examples of how to take the crew’s philosophies and harness them in the business world.  Here are five of Ben and Harriet’s favourite examples.

Clarity of goals 

Ben and his crew were absolutely clear on their goal – Olympic gold- and they translated this into yearly, monthly and daily goals. How often in the corporate world do we have an ill-defined sense of where we’re going – and how often is this confusion multiplied by different interpretations amongst managers and staff? When everyone signs up to a clear, compelling goal we can make sure every ounce of effort is directed in the same direction. Clear goals are like magnets, pulling teams together and focussing energies through current challenges towards future success.

"Sports psychology pays significant attention to how to perform under pressure and bounce back from defeat."

Strong belief

The British eight diarised belief-building sessions in just the same way that they scheduled weights sessions or endurance training. Why? Because they realised beliefs were just as important.  As Henry Ford is reputed to have said, "If you believe you can or you believe you can’t . . . you are probably right." There is a huge raft of evidence to show that strong belief breeds positive behaviours and yet it is still rare for businesses to invest in attitudinal training, and rarer still for this to go beyond a one-off, away-day jolly and for the practice to be truly embedded in the daily habits of the organisation. The crew’s story shows how straightforward it can be.  They created a list of reasons why they were becoming a great team and why they would win, in the business world this might translate into a list of reasons why the product and service is fantastic, or why the sales target is achievable.

Controlling the controllables 

Ben and his crew focused their attention purely on the things they could control and let go of factors that they could not.  This meant, for example, not worrying about weather conditions – even though the weather has a huge impact on rowing performance – because it was completely outside their control.  Ben cites one regatta where the Dutch crew – the favourites – lost the final before they had even got into their boat, because they were worrying about a 180-degree switch in wind direction.  We could reap huge dividends if we focussed our attention in the corporate sector more stringently on controlling the controllables. How much time and effort is wasted on a daily basis worrying about unreasonable clients or competitor actions versus channelling our energies into what we can do to turn things round?


A high jumper who fails at her first attempt needs to pull herself together to nail the second attempt in a matter of minutes or seconds, as do sprinters who suffer a false start, tennis players who miss a serve, football players who miss a penalty . . .  the list is endless.  Sport psychology pays significant attention to how to perform under pressure and bounce back from defeat. In their book, Ben and Harriet describe the key strategies in terms of a launch Pad (prepare, accept, do).  How often in the business world do we really reflect on what might knock us off course over the coming year, and pack a metaphorical umbrella to cope with likely rain? When disaster strikes do we look for the upside – for the new opportunity to leverage? And lastly do we get caught in analysis paralysis or do we dust ourselves off and take that all important first step forward?

Bullshit filters

Ben and his crew had countless people telling them their dream was impossible. This ranged from sceptical coaches to judgemental journalists and from competitors trying to put them off their stride to friends and family who wanted to protect them from disappointment. The crew learnt not to confuse other people’s negative opinions with facts and to focus simply on figuring out useful ways forward. 

If their detractors were annoying they used this as emotional rocket fuel to spur themselves on. It is a powerful lesson for us in the business world to treat fact as fact and opinion as opinion.  This applies to both micro and macro decisions – for example, the giving and receiving of performance appraisals, the assessment of company health and forecasts for future success. The British rowing crew never shied away from painful facts, but were careful to challenge unhelpful opinions.

Of course there are big differences between the sporting and the corporate world.  For example, Ben freely admits that he wouldn’t have been able to sustain indefinitely the level of intensity which he threw at his training for the four years prior to the Sydney games. 

But sport is more than just a powerful metaphor for business.  Many of the sporting philosophies that underpin Gold can be transferred directly into the corporate sector. Harriet and Ben have road tested the tangible strategies for over a decade, with impressive results and it will be interesting to see if the run up to 2012 will encourage more business people to do the same.

Harriet Beveridge is an Executive Coach and Stand-Up Comic. On graduating from Oxford, she became a Management Consultant with Ernst and Young and now specialises in leadership development.

Ben Hunt-Davis spent 10 years chasing the Olympic dream. He came 6th in Barcelona and 8th in Atlanta. Since winning gold at the Sydney Olympics, Ben has run a successful corporate coaching company, helping FTSE 100 companies make their ‘boats go faster’. Ben now works for the British Olympic Association.


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