What Does 'Going for the Gold' Mean for Your Business?

Did you catch any of the U.S. Olympic swimming trials on TV? Talk about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat!

The look of joy on the face of a young athlete as they realize they’ve made their first Olympic team is priceless. Conversely, the pain and disappointment of veteran swimmers who realize their time has come and gone always bring a lump to my throat. Either way, the Olympic trials reinforce the importance of not just focusing on winning, but getting very clear on your specific definition of winning.

In swimming, the goal is to win the race, right? Not necessarily.

For premier swimmers like Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte — who both expect to win multiple gold medals at London — winning means securing their expected spot on the team while expending as little energy as possible. But they also use the races to evaluate their performance relative to where it needs to be for the Olympics, and to identify areas for improvement.

For the second echelon of swimmers, it’s a different story. Winning simply means making the Olympic team. Once on the team, they can worry about winning an Olympic medal. But until they earn that coveted spot, they devote every ounce of energy to doing what it takes to get there.

And for the up-and-coming swimmers with no realistic chance of making the team, winning may simply mean swimming their best time and gaining valuable experience for the next Olympic trials four years down the road.

As with many sports, Olympic swimming offers up several lessons that translate well to the business world:

Make the goal tangible, visible, and powerful
Often, swimming races are so close that we can’t visually discern the winner from second, third, or even fourth place. Just ask Dara Torres, who missed out on a sixth Olympic team by nine-hundredths of a second. The human eye can’t even blink that fast! Yet for Torres, it washed four years of intensive training down the drain.

To avoid human error, all timing is done electronically, with highly sensitive touchpads on the pool wall. That’s why top-performing swimmers have a saying that helps them visualize the goal: get your hands on the wall. Don’t worry about your time. Don’t look around to see who’s ahead or behind. Simply put your head down and get your hands on the wall before anyone else. What could your business accomplish with such a clear and compelling definition of winning?

Sweat the details
From minute adjustments of their goggles and caps to the positioning of their hands entering the water on each stroke, the top swimmers focus on every little detail. If you think it doesn’t make a difference, consider that Michael Phelps twice bested Ryan Lochte by less than one-tenth of a second.

In both races, it looked like Lochte held a slight lead heading into the wall. But in each case, Phelps did a better job of keeping his head down and maintaining perfect trim. This tiny fraction of a difference enabled him to get his hands on the wall first and nose out his rival. In business, the key is not just to sweat the details, but to make sure you sweat the right ones.

Swim your own race
In swimming, as with any other sport, you have to know your competition. More important, you have to know your own strengths and weaknesses, and then swim your own race. Time and again, an overanxious swimmer went out too fast and had nothing left at the end of the race. Or they went out too slow and couldn’t make up the difference on the last lap. And time and again we heard the winner say, “I saw him/her going out fast, but I just focused on swimming my own race.”

In business, we need to watch what our competitors do, especially those who excel at bringing innovation to the marketplace. But ultimately we have to focus on what we do best. When what we do best no longer fits the marketplace, then we need to adjust by developing new strengths. But market leaders invariably focus on “swimming their own race” rather than obsessing over what the competition is doing.

Premier athletes have known and used a core set of winning principles for decades. In business, I often find that we work hard but don’t know or stay focused on what will really make a difference to winning (hint: it’s not by checking your smart phone or device constantly). Get clear, get it visual, get the details right and stay focused on your race, your definition of winning! In the meantime, go USA!

Call to action: Imagine “going for the gold” in your business. What does it look like for you?

Like Innovation Excellence on Facebook

Don’t miss an article (4,400+) – Subscribe to our RSS feed and join our Innovation Excellence group!

Holly G GreenHolly is the CEO of THE HUMAN FACTOR, Inc. (www.TheHumanFactor.biz) and is a highly sought after and acclaimed speaker, business consultant, and author. Her unique approach to creating strategic agility, helping others go slow to go fast, will change your thinking.

Holly G Green




Four ways you can ensure employees take accountability for their work

By Hubert Day | April 5, 2023

One of the most important driving factors for any successful business is a high-performing team. Having people working for you…

Read More

What is digital upskilling and why is it important?

By Hubert Day | February 15, 2023

            Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash In a world of business that never stands…

Read More

No Comments

  1. Scott Simmerman on July 16, 2012 at 10:10 am

    I like your post and the key points. I added these thoughts to the thread on LinkedIn and thought to repost them here:

    We use the metaphor of mining gold as the prime anchor point of our team building game, The Search for The Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine. We often have the most senior manager in the group leading tabletop discussions and then asking for Big Ideas around the question, “What does Mining Gold mean to us as an organization,” after we have discussed the ideas of collaboration generating optimized results, overall.

    (see more at https://www.performancemanagementcompany.com/Overview_of_The_Search_for_The_Lost_Dutchman_s_Gold_Mine_s/62.htm )

    But focus on winning and getting gold is a double edged sword, for sure. One of the things that a business requires is an overall sense of purpose and then a great deal of teamwork between departments. There is a requirement for some level of “continuous” continuous improvement and a degree of commitment and ownership. We benefit more by overall collaboration than by individual success / winning in nearly every case.

    I think collaboration appears nicely in many sporting activities, such as a team working together to win the Tour de France or that great movie about the Jamaica Bobsled Team — it took a lot of people to get them there.

    In The Olympics, the focus is mostly on individuals WINNING while in business, there MUST be more than one winner for an organization to succeed. Similarly, many of these athletes focus all of their time and energy on peaking for one event or one day of competition. In business, we see that in “fixed interval curve” behavior where there is a great deal of focused effort just before that date and then a long “post reinforcement pause” thereafter.

    Car dealerships / car sales are a case in point for this scheduled behavior, whereby the sales at the end of the month are much more focused and driven (and the customer can get a much better deal) than they are at the start of a new month.

    Most of our business require a more steady-state level of performance. Consistency and teamwork are the key, not peaked performance and high levels of competition.

    In Dutchman, the expressed goal is, “to mine as much gold as we can.” But what happens so often is that each of the tabletops gets focused on its own success — something we call, “My TEam, My Team, My Team,” and that focus generates measurable sub-optimized levels of OVERALL group performance.

    Competition is a good thing, since it is motivating. But it is NOT motivating for everyone and it has a whole bunch of negative side effects. I would guess that 99.995% of the population is NOT motivated by The Olympics and that their levels of personal exercise and activity are not improved by their “engagement.” One might argue that we might even see a lot more sitting / watching activity than anything else during that time.

    And, without all the regulatory bodies and attention to detail, we might see many of these top athletes take measures that many might call cheating. Performance enhancing drugs and other external treatments are common. Heck, there is blood doping and steroids and lots of other things going on. Cheating is common in many sports and — well, heck — a lot of businesses (see Mortgage Meltdown and think “Countrywide.”)

    In an organization, we want everyone to feel like a winner and to contribute to the overall results of the organization. Normal interdepartmental competition is often a real problem, and often has impacts on customers and profitability. I think we could all probably tell stories about things like that.

    Gold is a great metaphor, but sometimes athletics is NOT the best metaphor for most organizations and for society in general. Focusing on winners is often great, but doing that reinforces the reality that there are a lot more losers than winners in any competition.

    Have FUN out There!


  2. Holly Green on July 16, 2012 at 8:46 pm

    thanks Scott. I have participated in the Lost Dutchman game.

    I do disagree with you on a couple of subtleties: winning does not have to mean someone loses and almost no sport is really won by an individual. Almost everything takes a host of people to create a winner even if the athlete is competing individually (i.e. coaches, family…). I think we often get caught up in singular definitions of winning and I often talk about whole new models that could serve us incredibly well if we remain open to them.

    thanks for your comments!

Leave a Comment