Lessons businesses can learn from swimmer Michael Phelps

9 August 2012 05:15 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Michael Phelps didn’t merely win medals; he rewrote swimming – and Olympic history at the London Olympics, emerging the most decorated Olympian ever. As he greeted crowds, having emerged triumphant not just a swimmer but a celebrity, he held in his right hand a statue from FINA, the international governing body for swimming.
 
The statue was presented to him after winning his 22nd and final Olympic medal – 18 of them gold, including the last one as part of the United States’ 400-meter medley relay. “The Greatest Olympic Athlete of All Time.” said the inscription on the statue, describing Phelps in one simple but powerful sentence. 
 
The beginnings
 
Phelps held something else in his left hand - an old and dingy orange foam kickboard named “Big O.” Phelps had held on to it since he was a starry eyed kid with big dreams. Therein lies lesson number 01 for those of us who are entrepreneurs  and business owners – never forget your beginning. Your beginnings are what led you to achieve a dream, make a vision come true. Your beginning is your anchor that will keep you deeply rooted – and humble. As our businesses grow, we forget to be humble, forget the small beginnings. Mistake.
 
The hard work involved in becoming the world’s best swimmer, takes much out of you  – for Phelps, his Big O, the kickboard, represented the tiresome andincessant practice needed to make his art perfect. The kickboard is not needed when it’s time to race, but it’s definitely essential equipment during training. 
 
In short, a good swimmer has a great kick, and learns fast that your legs must be your best asset because you need them for world class performance. In business, we need to know what is needed to keep our performance up, and what is not. Often, things we think are important are not. We need to stay sharp, stay focused and get the homework done, using tools that may not really be needed for great performance out there but tools that will propel us towards great performance.  
 
Most decorated swimmer
 
Phelps is consistent ; three Olympics running, he has emerged the most decorated swimmer with eight medals in Athens – six gold, two bronze – at the age of 19 in 2004, the moment the world took note of the lanky teenager. He won eight more in Beijing – all gold – in 2008, a master in his art, a dream in motion. Now , he grabs six more in London – four gold, two silver.  He never wavered in his performance ; consistency and stability are key factors when it comes to keeping a business running the way it should be run.
 
Michael Phelps could stay on and compete in the 2016 Games in South America but there is nothing more to prove, no frontiers to conquer.
The lessons 
 
“I’ve been able to do everything I’ve wanted,” he told media following his outstanding success at the London Olympics. Too many of us try to keep doing things to impress others, conquer new frontiers. It seems for some, among us, the business is not about having achieved a unique success but about keeping scores, letting others know what we could do. It’s never about being satisfied with what you have achieved.   
 
When running a business, especially one you have founded and steered to success all your life, it is important to know when to walk away. Not to wait until it becomes an obsession that holds back progress into the next generation. Retirement, as some may be surprised to discover, can be good even for entrepreneurs.  
 
Michael Phelps has given the world of swimming one of its finest achievements, unsurpassed by none, in sheer dedication, commitment and tenacity. He never gave up on himself, believed in what he could do and went on to prove it beyond an iota of a doubt that the world has seen its greatest swimmer yet in international competition. He knew what he was capable of – and what he could deliver. Some of us need to gently remind ourselves what drove us to emerge entrepreneurial in the first place – and what we are capable of. 
 
There are many lessons in business and in life the greatest Olympian can teach us – whether we choose to learn the lessons is another matter altogether.
 
(Nayomini Weerasooriya is a senior journalist and a writer and a PR Professional and can be contacted at nayominiweerasooriya@gmail.com)

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