Why Olympic Athletes Are Never, Ever Good Enough

A few years ago, our family saw Michael Phelps and Ian Crocker on a tour to promote swimming in America.

After seeing them in person, I just assumed they must have been just naturally gifted at birth and blessed with Olympic-sized talent. Lucky them!

Then the announcer asked Michael what he does for vacation. “Well, I swim 365 days a year and work with my coach on most of those days, so I don’t have much time off.”

What?? I could make the team if I practiced that much!

The critical part to getting better

OK – not a chance of that. But if you do anything that much, you are going to be pretty good. And, why does he still need a full-time coach? Then, I got a clue.

My son participates in a mental training program for high school athletes. I recently watched an online video with him and one topic jumped off the computer screen at me:

“A critical part of becoming better is receiving and acting upon ACCURATE feedback.”

Interesting. So, no matter how good you are, you can only improve if you know objectively and specifically what will make you better. Seems obvious – but it really stuck with me because I don’t think it’s practiced much in business today.

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Keys to giving/accepting feedback

For Olympic athletes, reaching the medal stand is based solely on results, so their complete focus is on getting better. Not on the applause, but getting better.

  • Giving accurate feedback: This sounds like an obvious goal, but think about it — how often do you see this happen? Other factors can get in the way. Here are a few:
    • Honest feedback is uncomfortable. It’s easier to say “good job” and call it a day. Accurate feedback takes thought and is just harder to do. Working through your discomfort can be your greatest gift to help someone improve.
    • Performance rating retro-fit. My colleague, Kristi Erickson, just shared a blog on why the current performance management in most companies needs to be eliminated. Today, the goal is often to manipulate the ratings to get the promotion or the right raise. Accurate feedback – if it involves areas for improvement – often happens on the side and very carefully.
    • Fear of sounding negative. We have an acceptance that ‘no news is good news’ in business. If you share how to improve, will it be interpreted as intended or that you are criticizing? The best leaders know how to give honest feedback while offering encouragement. They aren’t mutually exclusive.
  • Accepting accurate feedback: Even if we receive it, we have to hear it and use it. Here are some obstacles that can get in the way:
    • Success affects hearing. “If I’m this successful, I must be doing something (everything) right. So why do I need to improve?” I’ve seen leaders stop learning because of an unspoken belief that success gave them a free pass. They just didn’t need feedback anymore. My brother is a baseball hitting coach and has worked with some great players with the Texas Rangers and now the Baltimore Orioles. It’s fascinating to hear that even at this level these incredibly talented players work constantly to improve and make even small adjustments that affect performance. Likewise, the greatest golfers in the world have coaches to help their technique. These top athletes know they have to constantly improve and they can’t do it alone.
    • Addiction to applause. This starts when we are children. We like the applause and accolades more than knowing what will make us better. This addiction can cause us to tune out anything except “you are great.” Gravitation to applause can give us a distorted view of our performance, keep us from learning or taking risks to get better.
    • Too much attention to strengths. There is much written about maximizing strengths today. I believe in this concept when choosing a career, the best fit organization or the right team to balance out a leader. But, we also get better by knowing what needs our attention and some situations demand it.

Too often overlooked

We all need encouragement and positive feedback to stay motivated. I know I do.

But, as I thought about these Olympic athletes and how much their success depends on accurate feedback, I decided it is too often overlooked. I have work to do on both giving it and accepting it.

I’ve decided that accurate feedback needs a new PR campaign and a real emphasis in business today. We can change our ways. Let’s bring it back.

This was originally published on PeopleResult’s Current blog.

Patti Johnson is the CEO of PeopleResults, a change and organizational development consulting firm she founded in 2004. She is the author of newly released "Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work and in Life." Patti and her team advise clients such as PepsiCo, Microsoft, 7-Eleven, Accenture, Frito-Lay and many others on creating positive change in their leaders and organizations. Previously a Senior Executive at Accenture. Patti is an instructor on change for SMU Executive Education and for the Bush Institute Women’s Initiative, as well as a keynote speaker on change and leadership.


12 Comments on “Why Olympic Athletes Are Never, Ever Good Enough

  1. Patti, 
    Thanks for the excellent, thought provoking article.  
    Throughout my career I have seen this emphasis on performance appraisals done for ranking purposes and compensation rather than a true interest in helping the employee improve.  What a wasted opportunity!  It reminds me of the old adage ‘cruel to be kind’ where we need to point out the hard truths to help people understand what they need to do to improve.  I’ve been lucky to have had a few bosses who had the courage to tell me the truth (an on-going process to be sure).
    We must be courageous, tactful and honest when discussing people’s areas for improvement if we are to truly assist people to change.

    1. Thank you – love the ‘cruel to be kind’ reference. And, very true. The truth with the right kind of support is the best we can do. I’m like you – I learned the most from those who were honest with me. Appreciate your comments.

  2. Patti – great perspective.  And I like how you’ve shown both sides of the coin – the giving and accepting of feedback – because doing both effectively are the key to growth and development.  

  3. The fear of sounding negative is a subtle one but a biggie. No one wants to be thought of as a nag. I find whether or not leaders give it, depends a lot on the culture of their organization. But then again, these are just excuses.

    1. Thanks, Marta. It’s true – when the culture is not to share honest, accurate feedback – then when you do it can be misconstrued. Appreciate your comments.

  4. Patti – I especially agree with your point about how uncomfortable it makes people to give negative feedback. The strongest leaders are the ones who can push though and deliver feedback that can be hugely important for the person receiving it. Of all the feedback I’ve received, I don’t really remember any of the “good stuff” but do remember that the points of negative feedback made a huge difference in my own success. 

    1. Thanks, Sheri. Me too – I learned the most when I had the accurate, honest feedback but with some kindness and support to go with it. Appreciate your comments.

  5. Maybe if executives had some competition where medals were being awarded, we would think that on-going coaching was needed. I guess it’s easier to become complacent when that public recognition is not part of the equation. I love the analogy — seeking feedback is so important in performing at the top of your game.

    1. Thanks, Martha. I actually think the huge recognition is a major factor here. Thanks for calling that out! That is another blog in itself! Thank you…

  6. Patti, you draw some great parallels between sports and careers. Accurate feedback is so, so important to anyone’s growth and development. Sugarcoating a performance review will do nothing for you and nothing for the person. You’re absolutely right when you say that the “best leaders know how to give honest feedback while offering encouragement”…an employee will only improve if they are met with both sides of the sword.

    I love posing comparisons between athletes and employees – I actually wrote a related blog post earlier this week if you want to take a look: http://pastfive.typepad.com/pastfive/2012/07/blackhawks-fans-have-lessons-to-share-pursue-your-passions-even-at-work.html 

    1. Thanks, Tom. I appreciate your comments and agree that sugar coating does nothing for anyone.

      I like your blog! And, you are right – if we had the half the enthusiasm for our careers as we do for our favorite sports teams we’d be for the better! Thanks for sharing.

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