Business Lessons From the Summer Olympics

Rieva Lesonsky shares some business lessons Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte have taught her.
Contributing Writer,
August 03, 2012

In the 2008 Summer Olympics, U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps became a star and a media sensation when he earned an unprecedented eight gold medals. This year, I had some time to watch the Olympics on the first full day of events, and became fascinated by the rivalry between Phelps and his teammate, swimmer Ryan Lochte. Watching NBC interviews with both swimmers, I couldn’t help but draw a few business lessons from their different styles. 

In an interview with John McEnroe, Lochte showed off a closet full of hip-hop duds, fancy watches and “grills” for his teeth. Full of bravado, he boasted, “It’s my year.” But it wasn’t just about machismo: Lochte also revealed that after the 2008 Olympics, he revamped his diet, removing all junk food, and upped his grueling training routine to include feats like pushing a 650-pound tire up and down the sidewalk every day. 

In contrast, Phelps, who took some time off and dialed down his routine after the 2009 world championships, has been criticized for not pushing himself hard enough in practices. In an interview with Phelps and his family that aired Saturday, the swimmer’s mom and sisters seemed more excited about swimming than he did. In contrast to the energetic and pumped-up Lochte, Phelps was laid-back as he admitted to interviewer Ryan Seacrest that he wasn’t yet on top of his game mentally.

Watching the interviews, I was intrigued by both athletes and curious to see what would happen in the pool. In the first race…. 

Preparation paid off. Viewers were stunned Saturday when fellow U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte beat his teammate in the 400-meter individual medley. The race wasn’t even close, with Phelps a distant fourth (well, as “distant” as you can be in a sport measured by hundreths of a second).

But in the second race…

Natural talent came out. Phelps bounced back in the men’s 4x100-meter freestyle relay. Phelps swam the fastest time of any man on the U.S. team, putting them in first place until Lochte lost the lead in the final leg of the race.

And in the third…

Overconfidence took a fall. On Monday, Lochte finished fourth in the men’s 200-meter freestyle race—the first Olympic event of his career when he didn’t garner a medal.

What can a business owner learn from the (still unfinished) story of Phelps and Lochte?

  • Talent matters. Widely acknowledged as an amazing natural swimmer, Phelps doesn’t have to push himself as hard as those with less innate talent do. Play to your strengths, and you’ll find it easier to succeed in business with less effort.

  • Preparation matters. Don’t have the natural business skills of your competitors? Then you need to work harder. As Lochte’s initial success proves, preparation can trump talent if you work hard enough.

  • Motivation matters. Getting your head in the game is as important in business as it is in the Olympics. Take time to do the things (meditation, fitness, vacations, continuing education) that keep your mind and spirit in peak condition.

  • Competition keeps you sharp. Phelps and Lochte are both on the same team, but I have no doubt the competition with each other keeps them sharp. In the same way, even your biggest competitor can teach you a thing or two that can improve your business.

  • Don’t get too confident. Confidence is charming, but cockiness isn’t. Stay humble and appreciate the success that comes your way. When you fail (and you will), it won’t be so far to fall. 

Contributing Writer,