You Can’t Beat Olympic Athletes, So Join Them

The Olympics are in full swing, and I’m eagerly anticipating all my favorite events: gymnastics, diving, synchronized swimming, pole-vaulting—actually, just about everything! The problem is, like most people, I’ll be sitting in my cubicle at the office when all of these competitions are taking place in real time. Modern technology, though, means that I, and your employees, can surreptitiously livestream all the events we want on our work computers or smartphones—all on your dime.

Many of your employees are as excited about the Olympics as I am, and many will look for ways to watch the events as they are happening during the day. The Society for Human Resource Management has anticipated this issue, and has published a piece on its site to help managers cope: “How to Prepare for Olympic Streaming Throughout Your Workplace.”

If you think many of your employees are looking forward to the Olympics, and you know the Olympics will be a nearly constant topic of coverage and discussion in the media, why not bring it into your office yourself? Elite athletes and competitions among the world’s best are lessons on learning, training, and leadership for your employees. And watching some of the games together can be a fun bonding experience.

Olympic coverage today usually includes background stories of the athletes, including the obstacles they overcame and how their training programs needed to evolve to overcome those obstacles. After listening to these stories and watching the performance of these athletes, you could have a discussion with employees about their own career trajectories, including the obstacles they faced (and still face) and how the training the company is delivering to them will have to change. You could have a general discussion on this topic as a group, and then, as part of this year’s performance review process (so as not to make extra work for your employees), you could have each employee put in writing a list of challenges and obstacles conquered, and those that remain, along with training revamps or changes, or learning aids, they think they need to excel (or to win their own personal competitions).

Managers could assign a different Olympic athlete to each member of their work group to research online, and report on, including a brief personal and athletic history, major achievements and setbacks, and the changes in training or personal habits that made the greatest difference.

Along with the lessons offered by the personal stories of the athletes, the teams assembled—even for sports in which the athletes compete one at a time—offer valuable instruction. Take women’s gymnastics. The team captain is once again Aly Raisman. Women’s gymnastics is the most popular summer Olympic sport (my favorite, too), so many of your employees already will be familiar with this year’s team. And with so much coverage available online about these women, it won’t be hard to put together a synopsis of this year’s team and its story for those employees who aren’t familiar.

A great point for discussion: Why do they think Raisman, the oldest member of the team at 22, was chosen again as team captain? Was it simply because she was the oldest, or was it something more? If you watched the U.S. women’s gymnastics Olympics trials as I did, or if you read stories about it online, it’s clear that, along with her experience, she is the most consistent of the gymnasts. She’s not necessarily the most exciting (that would be this year’s star, Simone Biles), but she has a steadiness in what she is able to do. It also is clear that she is gifted at giving support to her teammates. What should that tell you about building ideal work teams at your company? Sometimes it’s the star, or the most noticeable person, who gets chosen as the leader, but what may be needed is a person who isn’t necessarily as exciting, but is steady and supportive—a person who meets deadlines and delivers consistently strong work or results—and is able to support, rather than alienate, colleagues in the process.

The events the U.S. teams and individual athletes lose also are instructive. A big part of business is recognizing why you lost to the competition—why the competitor company’s product is selling better than yours, or why the rival firm is getting clients you thought would come your way. When the U.S. loses, it’s interesting to discuss why. Was there not enough team cohesion? Was the caliber of the other teams’ athletes just better? Was the U.S. team’s game strategy weak? After you discuss the problems that led to the U.S. loss, you can turn that same thought process to your own company’s issues, taking losses from the last year (even if you’re lucky enough to just have one or two small ones to report) and discuss. When your brain has had the exercise of thinking critically about lost competitions, it may become easier to analyze your company’s failures.

Watching the Olympics—especially instead of doing the usual monotonous work—is a great way to pass time at the office, but also a great way to learn important lessons.

Would your company be open to allowing work groups to watch some of this year’s Olympic games at the office together, and then to use this activity as a learning tool? What do you think the Olympics’ elite athletes and teams can teach your employees?