Lessons from triathlon for corporate athletes


Last week I went to a presentation where the athlete & Belgian triathlon champion, Simon De Cuyper, gave an interview about setting clear targets. Just like in the corporate world, in the sport world is setting targets an important part when acquiring results. During the interview Simon shared some of his experiences and lessons learned.

Triathleet Simon De Cuyper

Triathlete Simon De Cuyper

I’ve made a list of key insights for you to share.

Focus on the process and process targets

When you’re only focussing on the end result and the end target, you might get caught up by stress too much. Simon has learned to focus on the process and set process targets. For example, the start of the swimming part of the triathlon and the change-over between the sports in triathlon.

When you only keep the end target in mind, focussing on it might freeze you. When you focus on the different steps and parts to make it to your target, you’re focussing on how you’re doing your job in the best possible way.

To quote Steven Covey: “Begin with the end in mind”.

Set a target

One of the differences between a professional and many recreative athletes, is the principle of setting targets. When you want to improve upon something, whether it’s triathlon, squash or incident management, you’ll have more chance to success when you set a target.

The target will keep you focussed and allows you to measure progress, which motivates.

Set a realistic target

Simon has set his target for the 2014 Olympic Games to be in the top 8 of triathlon ranking. “Why not go for gold?” was the next question of the interviewer. Simon replied that he was aware of his capabilities and choose to pick a realistic target. A target where he needed to stretch himself, but which he could make.

I’m not sure what to do with this takeaway. I understand how this could work, but history has learned us that setting inspiring targets can work too.

See for example Microsoft, Apple and the Nasa.

President John F. Kennedy, May 1961: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth”

Bill Gates, Microsoft: “A computer on every desk, and in every home”.

Steve Jobs, Apple: “What we want to do, is to change the way people use computers in the world.”

Use a coach

Unlike in the corporate world, in the sports world it’s very common to have a coach. A coach who coaches you, supports you, challenges you. The coach doesn’t have to be better than then athlete, but who is committed to the success of the coachee. A good coach will make you stick to the commitment of running 4 hours a week, even when it’s raining.

In the corporate world the same logic can be applied to the role of a coach. The coach doesn’t need to know it all, the coach doesn’t have to be older, … The coach needs to be committed to the success of the coachee, provide an honest mirror to him and motivate him when the going gets tough.

Know your limits

Simon works at continuous improvement, but he is aware of his (physical) limits. There will be a day when continuous improvement is not possible anymore. A big “transformation” will be needed then, maybe a change to a total new sport, like long distance running, he testified.

We often hear this remark at the work floor too: is it possible to keep on improving, even with tiny bits? Instead of improving peanuts (and violating the Pareto-rule), it might be interesting to question it all and try something new. To make a transformation.

Additional reading

The Making of a Corporate Athlete by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz

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