Don't fire your coach too fast: What Olympians can teach business owners

Sally Gunnell
Competition is healthy: it’s what got me out of bed in the morning when it was pouring with rain (Source: Getty)

As an athlete turned business owner, I’ve twice experienced the thrilling, yet gruelling, journey of building something from the ground up.

The challenge of achieving an Olympic gold medal win and starting a business aren’t dissimilar. Many of the lessons I learned through my years as an athlete have been invaluable to my entrepreneurial venture in corporate health and wellbeing.

I recently worked with cloud-based accountancy software Xero to isolate the factors of success which lie behind the parallel worlds of sport and business.

Here are some key pieces of advice based on those findings.

Visualise your goal and steps to achieve it

Starting a business requires a strong visualisation of your goal, and the steps to get there. As an athlete, I had to work out the training needed to improve, just as businesses need the right skills at all levels. It’s about small steps and building a company by increments. This means enthusing yourself and your team, knowing what you want to achieve and which steps need to be taken to progress.

Rising above the competition is hard for businesses, as there will always be a competent rival. Stay respectful without losing the desire to win. Competition is healthy, it’s what got me out of bed in the morning when it was pouring with rain. Understand what competitors are doing and how to incrementally improve to come up to scratch.

Read more: How founders can become good chief executives

Motivate yourself and your team

After setting goals and taking steps to complete them, it’s tempting to think you’ve arrived. However, it’s important to avoid taking your foot off the pedal. Take stock of what you’re doing as a team and keep everyone moving and motivated – never let yourself get too comfortable.

Make an effort to get out of your comfort zone by experimenting and taking advice from others on what isn’t working. I started as a long jumper and became a heptathlete, then found I was good at hurdles. As an athlete, I was the best in Britain. But if I was going to be the best in the world, I had to change my event.

If you reach a stage where you’re truly satisfied that your goals have been achieved, it could be time to move on.

Surround yourself with the right team

After surviving the startup stage, your business will experience growth. At this stage, you can no longer rely on yourself alone and your team becomes vital. As an athlete, I always surrounded myself with the right team where each person brought their own set of skills. It’s daunting to put trust in strangers, whether in sport or business. But you should accept their help rather than questioning it, and avoid putting up barriers.

My openness was crucial in attracting the help that got me to the next stage. Patience is also integral. I often watch athletes take on new coaches, only to replace them when they don’t win. You shouldn’t be ruthless in hiring and firing even if the fit doesn’t seem right; instant rapport is rare and often needs be nurtured.

Read more: Patience is a virtue: Why older bosses are better

Stay grounded to adapt to change

Starting a business and changing career is incredibly daunting. I retired from athletics two decades ago and had to plan for radical change.

Surrounding yourself with people who understand you and can give constructive feedback is crucial. Even when I did things well, it was important for my coach to tell me where to improve. The same concept applies to a business. Even if your profit has doubled, you need to understand how to ensure it happens again.

A new business is a drain on your personal life and can temporarily cut you off from family and friends. It’s important to look after yourself, in terms of work-life balance and resilience — you don’t want to burn out. In both business and sport you need to deliver over and over and this requires real commitment. Hard as it is to fit in, exercise and nutrition will make you sharper.

Discover more business advice from Sally Gunnell at

Related articles