Olympic Excellence Only Works with Teamwork, Flexibility, and Gut Instinct

As we look toward the closing ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, I am reminded of the tremendous highs and lows we have witnessed these past two weeks. Every two years, the participating athletes show the world the very best of the human spirit, inspiring us with their enormous sense of teamwork, skill and competition. For 17 days, we cheer the greatest achievements in sport — sharing in the exultation of unbelievable feats and empathizing with others in the agony of disappointment and defeat.

The Olympic Games are unparalleled in their ability to break down barriers. I can’t help but feel proud of what the Olympic Movement is able to achieve on a global scale, uniting athletes from every corner of the world and giving them an opportunity to compete on a level playing field. The Olympic Movement is empowering individuals from every walk of life, making a difference in the lives of men and women, boys and girls across the globe. Further, I am thrilled to see that for the first time in Olympic history, women are competing in every sport at the 2012 Games in London.

As I wrote prior to the onset of the Games and again following the opening ceremony, I draw great parallels between elite Olympic athletes and the world’s finest entrepreneurs. Many Olympians and entrepreneurs are familiar with my 10 secrets to entrepreneurial success. Now that the 2012 Summer Olympics are coming to a close, I would like to highlight four more of these insights and explain how athletes follow an entrepreneurial path to achieve greatness.

Gut Instinct
Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt reminds me of the importance of following your gut instinct. Initially his country had him training for longer distance races, but Usain’s gut led him to train for events where he excelled, driving his change to the 100- and 200-meter sprint races. Now, for the second Olympic Games in a row, he has left us all in amazement.

Additionally, the most remarkable Olympic ‘gut instinct moment’ occurred in 2008 when Michael Phelps won the gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly. When his goggles filled up with water with about 100 meters to go, he had to rely on counting his strokes and following his gut instinct to be aware of where he was and compensate for the lack of sight. Of course, Phelps was more than prepared for that scenario. His coach, Bob Bowman, had him practice with water-filled goggles so that when the time came for him to rely on his gut instinct in competition, he was ready.

Entrepreneurs can relate. We have to rely on the same gut instinct that compels us to react without hesitation. Like Phelps and other athletes have shown, panic is not an option. We must remain focused on our goal, or chart a new course, whether that is a new business venture or breaking a world record.

Flexible but Persistent
I would be remiss not to mention the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, which overcame the odds to win the first Olympic gold medal for the United States in the all-around competition since 1996. This year’s team is comprised of so many remarkable teenagers, each of whom undoubtedly have the capacity and wherewithal to become successful entrepreneurs if they so choose. In fact, they don’t even have to look outside their sport for inspiration and guidance if they choose to make that transition.

Nadia Comaneci arguably remains the all-time greatest gymnast and continues to exemplify the utmost flexibility and persistence throughout her post-Olympic journey. Comaneci won five gold medals and was the first female gymnast ever awarded a perfect score of 10 in an Olympic gymnastics event, earning seven perfect 10 scores in the 1976 Montreal Games. Today, Nadia inspires us with her charitable endeavors, relentless support of women in sports and her altruistic work on the boards of directors for the International Special Olympics and the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Her flexible approach to the world’s problems carries through in her persistent ability to triumph against all odds.

Last February, I was proud to honor her achievements at the International Olympic Committee’s World Conference on Women and Sport. Comaneci still has that grace and amazing presence that defined her Olympic feats many years ago. But it is her entrepreneurial spirit and philanthropic work that inspires all of us today.

Deploying The Right Team
Each team — whether athletic or business-oriented — is comprised of individual excellence and the collective expertise necessary to complete the mission. However, as your vision evolves or competitors change, you may be forced to change your roster to make your team ideally suited for a win. Just look at the U.S. women’s water polo team, an inspiring group of athletes that won the first-ever gold medal for their country on the back of a 19-year-old sensation. Maggie Steffens scored an astounding five goals in the team’s 8-5 win over Spain, elevating her team to greatness just weeks before she heads off for her first year at Stanford this fall. “I’d say she was the best player in the world in this tournament,” the team’s coach Adam Krikorian said after the game. “But there’s no way we do this without everyone else.”

Just like Olympians who compete as a cohesive unit, entrepreneurs need a team that is smart and agile. Otherwise it won’t be able to grow and adapt, as your business needs change. I learned the importance of applying these entrepreneurial insights to sports when I was a co-owner of the Seattle SuperSonics. Athletes and entrepreneurs are acutely aware of how quickly things can change when winning streaks turn into losses. It takes the right team and courageous leadership to put key responsibilities in the hands of those best equipped to continue winning. And often, that winning comes with change.

Diversity As The Key To Success
The title of the world’s greatest athlete is generally reserved for the Olympic decathlon champion — and for good reason. This 100-year-old event is a two-day competition, comprised of 10 events and requires athletes to focus on executing each and every discipline to the best of their ability. When all is said and done, the decathletes standing on the podium with gold, silver and bronze medals hanging around their necks have shown extreme athletic prowess to be competitive and nimble, expert and diverse. Not to mention enormous strength and determination through every cell of their bodies. Even Usan Bolt who said, “I am a living legend. Bask in my glory,” when asked who is the world’s greatest athlete, replied: “I’m a great athlete, but to do 10 events, especially the 1,500 … I’ve got to give it to him,” referring to U.S. gold-medal decathlete Ashton Eaton.

It has been an exciting two weeks. As I turn off the remote control after Sunday night’s Closing Ceremony and focus on my entrepreneurial endeavors, I am reminded that the parallels of sport and entrepreneurism exist at every level. Tennis is a game of strategic movement and response. Golf is a game of risk. The list goes on and on. And with that, I have an entire year’s worth of entrepreneurial enlightenment ahead of me. Thank goodness I won’t have to wait until the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Russia…