GB Rio Olympics management lessons

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Management Lessons from RioThe press is full of analyses of how it was that GB came to be second in the medal tables. It’s a phenomenal feat. And the stories have very significant lessons for managers.

There are two clear themes – investment and coaching. Let’s look at each.


John Major was instrumental in starting the national lottery. A significant proportion of National Lottery takings have been channelled into sport, both at local and elite levels.

Investment in elite sport has grown since the initial investment from the National Lottery in 1997. The graph below shows the relationship between medals and investment.

The graph illustrates that the correlation between investment and outcome could not be higher. The medal haul tracks the money.

GB Rio Olympics management lessons

So just where has investment been made?

UK Sport invests in a targeted way in people and in technology. The investment is channelled into sports where there is a good chance of medal success – and investment is minimised in sports where other nations dominate. The approach is textbook – managers would expect to invest where there is maximum chance of returns and in market segments not dominated by competitors.

The investment in people is huge – but payments made to athletes themselves are modest with a maintenance grant of around £28,000 per annum made to enable the athlete to live while training. So before anyone claims that athletes are in it for the money and that performance-related pay works, the pay is pretty rubbish. Their motivation comes from intrinsic motives – the desire to excel in something that has great meaning for them. Of course, the financials perhaps reverse for successful athletes when, later in their careers, they go on to win sponsorship and start companies selling goods with their brand.

Access to specialist help

But investment comes in the support, facilities and technology that the athlete benefits from while training. Athletes have access to superb psychologists, physios, engineers and scientists. Winning is not just a case of doing more personally, it’s about engaging with technology and science. It’s taking a scientific approach to winning.

A spate of BBC articles have analysed how this scientific approach resulted in success in Rio. Put simply, the investment has funded research into behaviour, motivation and performance. The research findings allowed change to be made. Athletes changed their behaviour and as a result, were better prepared for their moment on the track or field or in the ring.

Managers have access to management research. And they too must invest in the people they employ such that those people can excel.

Behind the science of management is a body of knowledge. Management academics are adding to this body of knowledge daily. It’s not about ‘hints and tips’. It’s not about the ‘7 best ways to this and that’. It’s not about listening to some old hack’s experience and assuming it’ll apply. The body of knowledge contains a deep understanding of the relationships between people, technology and business outcomes. If managers don’t embrace this knowledge through their management team and external advisers, they’re unlikely to get excellence. The optimising of the recruitment process to embrace psychometrics is a good example – psychometrics like general mental ability and personality are good predictors of who will excel once in the job. Improvement in management comes by doing appropriate things differently.

Investment in technology

Investment also goes into the technology that athletes use. In discussing the cycling technology, Chris Boardman, the cycling team’s former head of research and development notes that the team uses computational fluid dynamics to optimise airflow around the athlete.

This article is an excellent summary of the approach taken by the team to incrementally improve every aspect of both athlete and technology in harmony. It also illustrates that once an input variable is found that works, it’s fixed and change centred elsewhere. The cycling teams helmets were new for 2012, and re-used in 2016.

Managers also have a choice about how much investment they put in technology. They have choice about how they apply technology to help their staff excel.

Sadly, many managers don’t build technology and people together. Often they just expect to incentivise and drive the people without considering the technology/people duality. Everything in business should be about investment in development – development to drive improvement in business outcomes. UK Sport gets it. Why not managers?


Sports investment also goes to pay for psychologists, doctors, medical scientists, physios and coaches to work with the athletes to improve their game. And there’s no denying the importance of coaches.

It’s important, though, to look at the anatomy of a sports coach.

Firstly, sports coaches are themselves people who have excelled in that particularly sport. Andy Murray has Ivan Lendl. Lendl is a former World No. 1 with 94 career titles. Secondly, sports coaches are trained to coach. Today, UK Sport has a one-year full time Athlete to Coach programme “targeted at recently retired World Class Programme athletes who have been identified and are making the transition into a coaching role within their sport”.

Sports coaches have been there and done that, and then they train to coach.

Sadly, this is a critical difference between sport and management. There’s no such demands or expectations of experience upon business or management coaches. There’s no expectation on the part of managers that a business coach will actually have managed a company employing people. And there’s no requirement for business coaches to be trained – despite many excellent Masters level courses. Perhaps that’s the change needed to link business investment to business outcomes and create excellence in management.

GB Rio Olympics management lessons

UK Business has much to learn from UK Sport in getting excellence in people and technology and in exploiting assistance from psychologists, consultants and coaches.

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