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Olympic Training Programs Have a Lot in Common With Business Performance Improvement Methods
How do you get to the Olympics? Hint: It takes a lot more than practice, practice, practice.
Behind almost every Olympic athlete there may be an army of specialists whose work extends beyond coaching to include taking care of the many processes to be managed, resources to be deployed, planning to be done, and goals to be met. If that sounds like a complicated enterprise it’s because it is. The people who manage that athletic enterprise actually use some of the same quality tools and techniques that typically are used to manage performance in business enterprises.
“A synergy exists between business and athletes,” said Michael Nichols, chair of ASQ. “Obviously, preparing Olympians doesn’t require an assembly line approach, but the same types of goal-setting and measurement-tracking methods used in manufacturing and other industries can help spur athletes to optimum performance.”
Aiming for GoldWhen Jamie Beyerle of the U.S. Olympic women’s shooting team steps to the range in the new Beijing Shooting Range Hall this August it will mark the culmination of her six-year dream of competing in the Olympics. For the 24-year-old native of Lebanon, Pa., it was a dream once denied. She fell short in her bid to go to the 2004 Athens Olympics, even though she had been shooting very well at the time and had realistic expectations of making the team.
“I’ve been working for this for quite a while,” Beyerle says. “So it’s really rewarding that you put that much time and effort into something and you get something back.”
“Going into this trial and these Olympic games is quite different,” states Beyerle.
This time around, she’s paying much more attention to preparation for each trial and each event leading up to the Olympics. “The best thing I could do after 2004 was to learn from what I didn’t do.” She admits she let her success distract her from the rigorous and systematic preparation that was required. “I was winning everything in women’s small bore in the U.S. and I had a couple world medals under my belt,” she says, and she looked beyond the trial. “I thought I could go in there and just shoot and I’d be fine. I just wanted to win a medal in the Olympic games, and so in my preparation I just skipped over that whole trial thing and ended up not making the team because I didn’t have the goals that I needed.”
Jamie Beyerle of the U.S. women’s rifle team has her sights set on Olympic gold.
Photo courtesy USA Shooting
Beyerle’s structured goal setting is paying off at each step of her path toward the Olympics. In her favorite event—women’s three-position rifle—she won the gold medal in the 2007 Pan Am Games, captured the top spot in this year’s Olympic trials, and most recently won the silver medal at the World Cup in Milan. In Beijing she will also compete in the women’s air rifle event. She credits her coaches, the people who got her involved in the sport, and those who supported her over the years for her current success.
All the Stuff Outside the Margins
Beyerle’s coach, Dave Johnson, is one person who knows about all the extra activities and strategies that support the athletes in their quest for Olympic glory. He is the national rifle coach with USA Shooting and he serves as coach of the men’s and women’s United States Olympic rifle teams. Johnson was rifle teams coach at the 2004 games in Athens and was a competitor in 1992 in Barcelona.
Johnson acknowledges the importance of practice to an Olympic-class athlete, but he’s also aware of other requirements. “We could spend a lot of time just shooting bullets and pellets downrange and practicing,” he says. “But what gets the folks on the podium oftentimes is all the stuff I say is outside the margins—the detail.”
That detail includes the elements of strategic planning and goal setting for the team and the individual athletes, priority setting, selection and tracking of measurements linked to goals, establishing processes for learning and continuous improvement, and managing and coordinating time and resources.
After the 2004 Athens games, USA Shooting conducted an after-action review with the United States Olympic Committee to assess performance against the strategies, goals, programs, and plans that had been established for Athens. That review set the foundation for strategic planning for Beijing. “We tried very hard to learn from the lessons we experienced,” Johnson said. One of those lessons was reinforcement of the need to pay attention to detail. “We had some areas where we came up just short from lack of attention to detail, and some other areas where we were very successful due to those same things,” he said.
As a result, preparations for Beijing are focusing on details like fine-tuning the members of the shooting teams to be prepared for the environment they will face in Beijing, such as heat, humidity, and poor air quality. The team coaches and managers are helping the athletes learn their diets so well that they become a tuned machine. And they are emphasizing mental strategies to help competitors deal with the expected and unexpected such as pressures of internal and external expectations and distractions from the crowd, the media, and the unfamiliar environment.
Beyerle describes how these preparations affect her: “Dave, my coach, works with me on a lot of the technical aspects. He’ll help me out with my positions and also some mental stuff. And then I have a sports psychologist who I work with a lot more on mental preparation, visualization, and everything that goes along with the mental game. I meet with a nutritionist about once a month. And of course we have our sports science section where people are constantly working on how we can help our athletes get the edge—whether it’s some kind of testing or some kind of training tool.”
Bringing together all of these support specialists and all the necessary resources is a logistical challenge. Bringing them all together at the right times so that competitors peak at the right times becomes a just-in-time challenge. It is a challenge that would be familiar to anyone who has employed just-in-time methods pioneered by Toyota and the lean enterprise deployment strategies in use at Honeywell. “A lot of my time is spent on exactly that,” states Johnson. “That’s one of my roles, managing that time and access for folks.”
Setting priorities is also a key role.
“Just like in a business, you could do a hundred different things to get to a goal, but what are the most important things? What do you really need to do that will get you the farthest towards the goal and not distract the entire organization off the prize? As a unit here, with our shooting team, all the way up to our executive officer, we try to focus exactly on that.”
Measurements help Johnson and his shooting team focus on the really important things. “We set out markers,” he says. “With our whole staff we have job markers on what we’re trying to do.” USA Shooting uses other markers to manage goals and expectations in its partnership with the U.S. Olympic Committee. The measurement system also cascades down to the athlete level.
“We sit down with our coach at least once a year” to discuss goals and dates for accomplishing them, states Beyerle. These markers evaluate how the individual is progressing and determine continued eligibility for the resident athlete program at the Olympic Training Center. “We work on score goals, performance goals, any kind of goal that is going to help get me get to the world level,” says Beyerle.
Marching Their Way to Beijing on a Performance Excellence Plan
The athletes aren’t the only ones undergoing intense preparation for Beijing. Scores of entertainers will participate in festivities before, during, and after the games, and there is evidence of quality methods in their training regimens, too.
A Systems Approach to Sports Performance
In competition at the Olympic level, where differences between first place and middle of the pack can be razor thin, competitors are looking for anything that can give them an edge. That includes seeking performance gains by doing a better job of managing the processes supporting the training, conditioning, and preparation of individual athletes and teams.
“Not surprisingly, the process improvement behind athletic performance improvement bears a strong resemblance to performance improvement methods commonly used in businesses,” says Nichols.
Michael Massik sees it from his vantage point as executive director of USA Fencing, where he oversees the administrative and business functions for the sport of fencing in the United States. With prior experience in manufacturing quality assurance, Massik says, “I find that I do carry over a lot of the fundamentals.”Alan Ashley, of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Performance Services Division, also understands the relevance of applying quality principles and methods to training and coaching of Olympic athletes. “Applying systematic improvement processes and approaches to athletic performance is definitely the direction we’re going in.” He says these things are happening more and more in sport. Ashley serves as the USOC’s team leader for acrobatics and combat sports.
In Greco-Roman wrestling, Ashley points out, there is an annual plan for the team that is very structured. The plan identifies critical needs for the team and then builds in testing to see if the methodologies for meeting those needs are effective.
That strategy is part of the approach that U.S. Greco-Roman coach Steve Fraser is using to build up a once-struggling team—an approach that borrows from his former business experience in turning around underperforming Domino’s Pizza stores.
At the U.S. Olympic trials Dremiel Byers (lower) defeated Timothy Taylor in three matches to claim a spot at 120kg/264.5 lbs on the men’s Greco-Roman wrestling team.
Photo by Larry Slater, USA Wrestling
Physiological testing is also important in wrestling, so coaches and trainers establish relevant physiological parameters for each athlete and then perform various measurements against those parameters.
As for performance measurements, in combat sports such as Greco-Roman wrestling the principle measurement is the outcome, as opposed to a sport in which the athlete is competing against the clock.
“In combat sports it’s difficult to establish metrics,” says Ashley. “But that’s what we’re working hard on—better metrics.”
The wrestling coaches try to gauge the capability of each athlete to compete in any particular competition. It is competition-specific. They take it one competition, one opponent at a time. Scouting the opponent is therefore critical. Ashley states that in wrestling “there are really no standardized benchmarks,” although they do employ a modified form of benchmarking. “You identify common characteristics that can confer a competitive advantage,” states Ashley. The essential task then becomes a matter of figuring out optimum performance characteristics for each athlete.
Tips for Quality Training
Whether in wrestling, shooting, or any Olympic event or high-level competitive sport, athletes can find a performance advantage. One way is to simply look to the quality systems commonly found in the business world:
About the American Society for QualityThe American Society for Quality (www.asq.org) is the world’s leading authority on quality. With more than 93,000 individual and organizational members, the professional association advances learning, quality improvement, and knowledge exchange to improve business results and to create better workplaces and communities worldwide. As champion of the quality movement, ASQ offers technologies, concepts, tools, and training to quality professionals, quality practitioners, and everyday consumers, encouraging all to Make Good Great®. ASQ has been the sole administrator of the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award since 1991. Headquartered in Milwaukee, WI, the 60-year-old organization is a founding partner of the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), a prominent quarterly economic indicator.