Lessons from Olympians, Part 1: How to develop and motivate talent like America’s best

Lessons from Olympians, Part 1

How to develop and motivate talent like America’s best

By: Mike McDonough

The Olympic games are in full swing, and as some of the nation’s top talent competes, you may be wondering how you can find and develop employees in your industry that can rise to the heights of our Olympians. In this two-part series, we’ll look at the training regimens and habits of two of America’s top athletes. One is seasoned veteran swimmer Michael Phelps. The other is relative newcomer, gymnast Simone Biles. Both are showing complete dominance in their respective competitions, but need very different training and motivation to stay at the top of their sport.


First we’ll look at Michael Phelps. At 31, he may not seem like a veteran to most of us, but in the swimming world he is actually one of the older competitors (Anthony Erving became the oldest individual to ever win a gold medal in swimming this year…at 35).  So what keeps Phelps performing at such a high level? Here are a few of the factors and how you can incorporate them into your own business:



Worried about your baby boomer generation retiring and leaving a hole in your talent pool? Maybe you just need to find the right motivation to keep them engaged and active in the company. Sound tough? Well consider that Michael Phelps actually retired from the sport two years ago in London – but with the right motivation he found a reason to get back in the pool and resume his rigorous training regimen. His reason? He was bored. He said he needed the structure that swimming brought to his life.


You probably won’t find many people who are just bored enough in retirement to come back to the office full time, but ask them what they’re missing at work that makes them want to retire. If they want to spend more time with family, maybe you could negotiate a work-from-home system or have them only come into the office part-time. If they are just ready to do something else, see if there are other areas of the company that they would be interested in learning about. Michael Phelps said his training regimen didn’t need to be as strict for this year’s games because his experience and past training had more than prepared him for the challenges he would face at the Olympics. Your higher-level professionals may be able to similarly take a step back from the strenuous day-to-day while remaining as effective as ever. Keeping these valuable employees on board in some capacity is better than letting them leave – because you can use their knowledge and experience to train your next wave of executives.



Phelps was also driven to return to the pool by all the people who looked up from him in the world of swimming. And he wasn’t the only person who benefitted from his return to Rio for the 2016 Olympics. As the sport’s chief ambassador and most decorated Olympian of all time, lots of athletes looked up to him and relished his comeback as well. Teammate Ryan Lochte says he can’t imagine the swimmer he’d be without Phelps’ mentorship. As you can see from this picture, Katie Ledecki, a five time gold medalist with four at this year’s games, idolized Michael Phelps growing up.


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Michael Phelps took home one silver medal this year in the 100m butterfly. He lost to another Olympian who grew up idolizing him, Singapore’s Joseph Schooling (Shown with Phelps below). Instead of being upset, Phelps was proud of Schooling for helping take swimming to the next level. Your baby boomers can do the same thing for your younger employees through mentorship programs and cross-level teams. Keeping these experienced and respected members of your team in the office to inspire the next wave of leadership will only benefit your organization in the long run.



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More to strive for

Michael Phelps still had more to accomplish in Rio. This year that took the form of five gold medals and another silver. But when you’ve been with a company long enough, you can feel like you have nothing more to work towards. It’s important to give your experienced employees more to shoot for. That could come in the form of team goals, financial incentives like stock options, or sabbaticals after a certain number of years with the company. Make sure you’re catering your benefits to the people receiving them. Michael Phelps wanted to get back in the pool because he still had the drive and passion to succeed for himself, his team and his country. Find out what drives your executives and offer them incentives that match. You could see them prolong their careers by two years or more, just like Michael Phelps.


Through motivation, mentorship and having more to strive for, Michael Phelps found his way back to Rio and took home six more medals in the process. Don’t miss out on more gold-medal years with your baby boomers because your organization is lacking any of these crucial retention tactics.


Make sure to read the second part of our series to see how dynamic young Olympian Simone Biles can help you identify and train young talent to be exceptional in your organization.

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