Five things we can learn from how elite athletes approach training

Over the last couple of weeks it’s been non-stop Winter Olympics in our neck of the woods, and we’ve enjoyed not only watching events but also learning more about the individuals behind the medals. In almost every televised interview, athletes talked about the team effort that got them to the podium, thanking their families and also their trainers. It got us to thinking about what those of us involved in adult learning can learn from the athlete/trainer relationship. Here are five characteristics of elite athletic training: 

Each athlete understands the need for training – they are motivated because they can easily see how their performance improves with the help of the trainer. They seek out and engage the trainer; they’re not mandated to take training as may be the case for workplace learning. This only strengthens our view that tapping into what motivates adult learners to value a training topic is a key factor in setting the stage for a successful learning event.

Tailored coaching
Elite athletes don’t limit themselves to one trainer - they get coaching for different aspects of their sport from different experts. Also, there isn’t one trainer or a single training style in each sport. Each athlete has individual strengths and areas for improvement and their coaching speaks to these factors. This reminds me that a cookie-cutter approach to training is only going to achieve limited success. We need to remember to make our training relevant to our organization’s needs and goals. We also need to ensure the learning we create speaks to different learning styles so it engages as many learners as possible.

A holistic approach
Beyond training for their sport, elite athletes know that they have to pay attention to their whole body, both physically and mentally, in order to be at the top of their game. They consider their nutrition carefully and they may work with a psychologist to improve their mental fitness. This reminds me that when we are looking at a performance issue, we need do some analysis to uncover all the contributing factors. Training won’t solve every problem - if the athlete had a poor diet, there would be a ceiling on his or her performance no matter how much training is done. Our performance issues could have contributing factors that must be addressed by means other than training. 

Small changes can yield big results
A small change of approach for the trainer and athlete can make a slight difference in performance, and in an event measured in hundredths of a second, a slight improvement can mean a move from fourth place to medal standing. This reminds us that even if we don’t have a lot of time or money for training, giving people the tools to improve their performance even in a few key areas can have a ripple effect through an organization, generating success.

The value of ongoing training
When referring to coaching and training, you never hear an elite athlete say, ”I’ve learned all I can and I’m just going to do it by myself now.” They clearly recognize that performance improvement is an ongoing process, and that message translates very easily to our world. It’s important when we create training to consider what happens beyond the actual event. Sometimes the moment when the event occurs doesn’t align with when the learner really sees the value in the information. Also, it may be that some people are only ready to absorb the big picture at first and need to reconnect with the material to get the nuances at a later time.

Overall the biggest lesson for learning professionals is that elite athletes are immersed in a culture of learning. Working with trainers is accepted, proven effective and the natural thing to do. If we strive to create this kind of environment in our organizations, we will surely be on the path to success of Olympic proportions.