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Get Your Hands on the Wall!

Did you catch any of the U.S. Olympic swimming trials on TV? Talk about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat!

The look of joy on the face of a young athlete as they realize they’ve made their first Olympic team is priceless. Conversely, the pain and disappointment of veteran swimmers who realize their time has come and gone always bring a lump to my throat. Either way, the Olympic trials reinforce the importance of not just focusing on winning, but getting very clear on your specific definition of winning.

In swimming, the goal is to win the race, right? Not necessarily.

For premier swimmers like Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte — who both expect to win multiple gold medals at London — winning means securing their expected spot on the team while expending as little energy as possible. But they also use the races to evaluate their performance relative to where it needs to be for the Olympics, and to identify areas for improvement.

For the second echelon of swimmers, it’s a different story. Winning simply means making the Olympic team. Once on the team, they can worry about winning an Olympic medal. But until they earn that coveted spot, they devote every ounce of energy to doing what it takes to get there.

And for the up-and-coming swimmers with no realistic chance of making the team, winning may simply mean swimming their best time and gaining valuable experience for the next Olympic trials four years down the road.

As with many sports, Olympic swimming offers up several lessons that translate well to the business world:

Make the goal tangible, visible, and powerful
Often, swimming races are so close that we can’t visually discern the winner from second, third, or even fourth place. Just ask Dara Torres, who missed out on a sixth Olympic team by nine-hundredths of a second. The human eye can’t even blink that fast! Yet for Torres, it washed four years of intensive training down the drain.

To avoid human error, all timing is done electronically, with highly sensitive touchpads on the pool wall. That’s why top-performing swimmers have a saying that helps them visualize the goal: get your hands on the wall. Don’t worry about your time. Don’t look around to see who’s ahead or behind. Simply put your head down and get your hands on the wall before anyone else. What could your business accomplish with such a clear and compelling definition of winning?

Sweat the details
From minute adjustments of their goggles and caps to the positioning of their hands entering the water on each stroke, the top swimmers focus on every little detail. If you think it doesn’t make a difference, consider that Michael Phelps twice bested Ryan Lochte by less than one-tenth of a second.

In both races, it looked like Lochte held a slight lead heading into the wall. But in each case, Phelps did a better job of keeping his head down and maintaining perfect trim. This tiny fraction of a difference enabled him to get his hands on the wall first and nose out his rival. In business, the key is not just to sweat the details, but to make sure you sweat the right ones.

Swim your own race
In swimming, as with any other sport, you have to know your competition. More important, you have to know your own strengths and weaknesses, and then swim your own race. Time and again, an overanxious swimmer went out too fast and had nothing left at the end of the race. Or they went out too slow and couldn’t make up the difference on the last lap. And time and again we heard the winner say, “I saw him/her going out fast, but I just focused on swimming my own race.”

In business, we need to watch what our competitors do, especially those who excel at bringing innovation to the marketplace. But ultimately we have to focus on what we do best. When what we do best no longer fits the marketplace, then we need to adjust by developing new strengths. But market leaders invariably focus on “swimming their own race” rather than obsessing over what the competition is doing.

Premier athletes have known and used a core set of winning principles for decades. In business, I often find that we work hard but don’t know or stay focused on what will really make a difference to winning (hint: it’s not by checking your smart phone or device constantly). Get clear, get it visual, get the details right and stay focused on your race, your definition of winning! In the meantime, go USA!

Call to action: Imagine “going for the gold” in your business. What does it look like for you?

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