9 OLYMPIC LESSONS: WHAT CAN BUSINESS LEARN FROM ELITE SPORT?
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1. PUSH YOURSELF
“From an early age, I pushed myself to do more and be better,” Alex says. “I grew up in Indonesia, in the middle of nowhere and I loved sport and being outside. My parents were active and we were part of a community that threw itself into everything with no half measures.
“I wanted to be better and better all the time. It wasn’t even a desire to win, I was just fascinated by how far I could push myself and what my body was able to achieve.”
Following a move to the UK, Alex dabbled in sports including rugby before a chance conversation with a friend led him to the rowing club. The rest, as they say, is history.
2. KEEP GOING. NO MATTER WHAT
“Initially I was terrible,” Alex remembers. “But a big component of rowing is hard physical training and that’s what I was craving. I was 14 or 15 and pushing myself to the absolute limit, experiencing a level of physicality that you don’t get in other sports.
“Then, Redgrave and Pinsent won gold in Atlanta ’96. At that moment I knew what I wanted to do. And that changed everything.”
3. ATTITUDE MATTERS MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE
From then on, Alex’s life revolved around his goal of reaching the Olympics. He trained three times a day, shunning the usual teenage temptations.
“I wasn’t at a sporty school and I wasn’t the best rower,” he says. “So I knew if I was going to make it I had to put serious amounts of effort in. I had the right attitude and I was lucky that I also had people around who supported me and helped me to manage my obsession so it became a positive force.”
Although he didn’t win a race for the first three years, Alex never lost his determination. “When I eventually made it to the World Junior Championships I was in the worst boat, bottom of the team. I remember sitting on the bank, praying that I’d get selected.
“I shouldn’t have been selected, no one from my school had ever been selected. But I was.”
4. IF YOU WANT IT ENOUGH, YOU CAN GET IT
Looking back, Alex says it was his mindset that swung it for him that day – that unwavering belief that he would get to the Olympics and pick up that medal. “Talking to people about it now, they say they’d never come across a 16-year-old with such purpose. They didn’t actually believe me – but they couldn’t ignore how much I clearly wanted it.”
It’s this focus that has stood him in such good stead, and he says his experience in sport provides lessons for those in business. Alex explains: “When you have a clear purpose everything you do is based on reaching that end goal. Whether that’s winning a medal or growing a business, decision making becomes incredibly easy because you don’t do anything that doesn’t align with your purpose. You don’t get bogged down with distractions.”
That’s not to say you never try anything new though. Alex adds: “To be the best you have to be open-minded, take risks and experiment. But having your purpose in mind means you can very quickly assess whether you’re still moving towards your goal. If not, then it’s not right.”
5. IT’S VITAL TO DEFINE WHAT SUCCESS LOOKS LIKE
This sense of purpose is what sets elite athletes apart from the rest of us. In team sports especially, everyone is working towards the same common goal; something that is rarely seen in other situations.
“There is one aim, pure and simple, and that’s to win,” says Alex. “That means success is easy to define – there’s a tangible measurement and a specific time period. We know exactly where and when we need to step up to perform and we train for that precise moment.”
Preparing for the Olympics took Alex and his teammates four years, to be at peak performance for five minutes. Then there were three months of fall-out as they recovered from the intensity.
In business, there isn’t the same clear timeline. “Defining success becomes much harder because the point at which you’re deemed to be successful can be quite variable,” says Alex. “You also find that although the business may have a clear purpose, there are variations within that. One individual might want to earn more, while another person is looking for faster growth. Someone else might want to further their own agenda, to the detriment of the team.”
6. BEWARE THE EGO
This emotional side is much harder to manage, in part because it’s often a subconscious response. “It’s very hard to control the way someone makes you feel,” says Alex, “but it can have a huge impact on you and your mindset. Creating the right culture is therefore incredibly important – in business as well as sport – and having a shared purpose is a big part of that.”
He illustrates this point with an example from the London 2012 Olympics. “Traditionally in rowing, there is a top boat and all the energy and effort goes into giving that crew the best possible chance of winning gold.
“In the run-up to 2012 our coach, Jurgen Grobler, announced that this time he wasn’t focusing on a single boat winning gold, but on every team member taking home a medal. This was a dramatic shift in attitude and it made a tangible difference in the way we operated as a team. Suddenly, everyone felt equal and that broke down a lot of the egos and created a great team dynamic.
“The fact is that in a boat, you really do have to play an equal part. There’s no point in trying to row twice as fast as someone else – you actually move more slowly that way. Everyone has to be going at the same speed and working together. It’s a good lesson for life.”
7. FIND A PURPOSE
It also brings us back to the sense of common purpose and the importance of having an end goal if you’re going to succeed. Upon leaving professional rowing at the age of 32, Alex suddenly found he didn’t know what his purpose was, and he struggled to adjust.
“I’d never considered what my values were outside of rowing. My whole identity had been about winning a medal and now that had gone I didn’t have a focus. I reached a crisis point and it forced me to look at who I was and what else I loved doing.
“I realised I liked helping people, to inspire them to do more and improve their lives. My inspiration was seeing other people achieve, which is where my motto ‘Inspire and be Inspired’ came from.”
It’s not surprising, given his background, that Alex’s focus initially fell on improving wellbeing and wellness. But he soon realised that financial stress is a real and significant issue in many people’s lives.
8. FOCUS ON WHAT FIRES YOU UP
“Around 34 million people in the UK have less than £250 in savings,” he says. “That’s a huge proportion of society who, if unexpected costs arise, are forced to use a high-cost form of credit, and who find it hard to budget and are more likely to use their overdraft. They are more likely to end up in a cycle of debt with higher and higher associated costs.
“The equally shocking thing is that elements of the financial services community know this and prey on this more vulnerable group. Wagestream was doing something to stop the cycle, and that appealed to me.”
Founded in 2018, Wagestream aims to improve the financial resilience of individuals, worldwide. It allows employees to stream their earned wages into their accounts through an instant app, so they can track, budget and save their earnings in real time.
It’s simple and easy and that’s what makes it work, says Alex. “Many people don’t improve their financial lives because they’re afraid to take the first step. It’s too daunting, or time-consuming. This helps.”
9. EMPOWER YOUR TEAM
It’s the first step on a journey to change people’s relationships with money, which Alex says is an important part of the wellbeing agenda as a whole.
“There is a growing realisation that we have to invest in our wellness to be OK,” he says. “And a big part of that is about a culture change.
“I saw it in the team for the Olympics and I think it’s the single biggest lesson that I’d transfer into the business world. If you’re going to do one thing to improve your situation, invest in a positive culture and empower your team. That’s the way to be a winner.”
BEYOND THE FINISH LINE
Alex Partridge reveals the raw power of determination. He admits that he wasn’t the most naturally talented rower of his generation, yet he worked with such fury and such focus that he was selected for the Olympics, where he won a silver medal.
That would be a stunning enough story. However, the tale continues. Alex is now taking the lessons he learnt in elite sport and applying them to the business world. His number one observation is that building a positive culture among your team and boosting their wellness is the most effective way to win. Alex teaches us that by planting a seed of determination in the fertile soil of an empowering, supportive workplace culture, we can all grow into something extraordinary.
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