The Olympics are here and I, for one, will be glued to my television watching my favorite Olympic sports.

I’ve always been interested in the “art and science” of athletic performance. Many years ago, when I worked at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, I thought that that would be my calling — to work with athletes and do research on how to improve athletic performance. But it was not to be, and so I found myself working at CCL with “corporate athletes” instead.

There are some obvious similarities between good leaders and Olympic athletes. Both are high achieving, talented, action- and goal-orientated individuals, and both pour time and energy into their craft. This often comes with a degree of sacrifice, but, then again, no worthwhile pursuit doesn’t.

However, there are some lessons that executives can learn from those who wish to represent their country in Rio.

Athletes pay attention to the smallest of details — recovery, sleep, nutrition, and equipment — in order to train better and see performance improvements.

They get skills coaching, strength coaching, mental coaching, and endurance coaching (depending on their sport). They pay attention to training cycles, which incorporates easier days balanced with harder days.

One of the top female triathletes, Gwen Jorgenson, who is the gold medal favorite in Rio, is a great example of an athlete who has a singular focus on her ability to train. Her husband, a talented cyclist in his own right, gave up his own athletic pursuits, and is now the chief cook and bottle washer in their household. He takes care of everything so that Gwen can focus 100% on her training.

Indeed, the story goes that Gwen once offered to take out the garbage, but then had to ask where to take it out to, as she had no idea where the garbage can even was. This has certainly contributed to her becoming the top female triathlete in the world and the one to beat in Rio.

Many executives, on the other hand, don’t pay attention to those factors that play a supporting role in helping them feel and perform better. Sleep, nutrition, and fitness are often sacrificed at the altar of “the job.”

Over time, this neglect leads to poor health, higher risk for chronic disease, fatigue, reduced cognitive function and ultimately performance.

Being fit and healthy doesn’t a good leader make. (There are many effective leaders that are unfit.) But healthy habits can and do play a role in making good leaders even better.

Given the current levels of poor health now seen in both the US and around the world, the world is in dire need of effective leaders, but more importantly effective healthy leaders; leaders who both practice and promote healthy habits.

The biggest thing I’ve learned is that when leaders become healthy, people notice. It has a ripple effect beyond just improving the individual leader’s health and energy. It has the potential to impact their families, their organizations — and collectively, the world.

I challenge you to let the 2016 Summer Games be your catalyst for taking control of your health and would love to hear how you currently are (or are planning on) working good habits into your busy life.

An earlier version of this post was originally published July 31, 2012.

4 thoughts on “The Olympics & Leadership: Let’s Talk about Corporate Athletes

  1. Laura Catlin says:

    Great article, Sharon. I schedule in exercise just as I do other meetings, treating it with the same level of priority. Some of my best ideas for my work have come from long treadmill runs, and I always leave the gym feeling less stressed, more focused and re-charged to face the stresses of my day. I’d be willing to bet that most Olympians would be successful in any career they choose because of the lessons athletes must learn on long and short-term goal achievement, overcoming obstacles, dealing with pressure, proactivity, and perseverance.

    1. Sharon McDowell-Larsen says:

      thanks Laura, you are right, regular exercise can do wonders for brain function, creative thinking, and stress reduction. Good idea to schedule it as you would other appointments, that helps to stake out the time and give it priority status!

  2. Christy Brown says:

    Sharon, your points are very valid. Without exercise, proper diet and adequate sleep, no one can perform at his/her best, so healthy habits are probably even more important for leaders to adopt because they affect so many other people.

    To make sure I incorporate enough exercise into my busy schedule, I have recently moved my workout time to morning before work and before the kids wake up. This allows me to prepare mentally and physically for my day, and then I have my evenings free to spend time with my loved ones. Now I feel like I have so much more time!

  3. Christy Brown says:

    I also find it helpful to have a workout accountability partner. If you know somebody else is waiting on you to join them, it’s much harder to skip the gym!

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