To Be Elite – Finding Intrinsic Motivation

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is. – Yogi Berra

How to become the best? It’s something that has crossed the mind of virtually everyone. From self-help books to motivational speakers, an entire industry has flourished for centuries. 

Today, managers read volumes about how to motivate employees, how to coach them, and conjure epic performance. We talk about innovation and creativity, persistence and the urgency and increasing competitiveness of the workplace.

I had the great fortune to spend the summer deep in the mountains amongst the next generation of what I’m sure will be world class Olympic skiers. There were a few things that struck me in watching these teenagers train – lessons that I felt I could take back to my own work – and I thought I would share a few thoughts.

  • Commitment– it took me multiple days to travel to the site of their training – no one is there on a whim – it’s a deliberate commitment to train
  • Smiles – everyone on the mountain – from Mt. Hood in Oregon to Zermatt Switzerland was smiling, working together to be their best, compliments and high fives were everywhere
  • Prepared and equipped – people were ready to run – no one showing up unprepared
  • Dedication – there is a queue before the lifts open – there are no stragglers or laggards
  • Unattended – everyone was racing on their own or for their peers – no pointy haired boss in sight – certainly there were coaches, but the racers approached the coaches for advice, not the other way around
  • Collaborative, not competitive – ski racing seems like a zero sum game – winner take all - but these racers were buddies outside the gates – laughing and riding the lift together, hanging in packs as friends
  • No coach in sight –the stereotypical screaming coach was not to be found – there were certainly experts giving advice, but fear and intimidation was not an observed “motivational” technique

As I watched what I’m sure was the field training for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, I was struck by a few characteristics not seen in business today.  

Malcolm Gladwell talks about 10,000 hours and deliberate practice – a great paper from K. Anders Ericsson

Deliberate practice makes a difference.

There was no real visible coach – peer review was much more common. I’m sure coaches were watching every turn from the course – I’m sure they were amongst the on-slope crowd, but they observed and did not seem to jump in post-run to lambast. I’m sure there was film to be reviewed off the snow, but these kids were free to rip on their own and hear more from their peers on the ride back up. They were all friends. And what struck me – and the difference between a world class athlete and the rest of us – from which I think we can all learn – is after a day of running gates at an elevation of 12,000 feet, when the rest of us were relaxing and recuperating sore muscles, these kids were jogging in packs around town - still training with smiles on their faces.

As managers, we all want to our employees to bring that joy, that dedication, that collaborative spirit to their work – to help them find that bliss where they will enjoy a run after a rigorous day on the slopes.  It struck me that, unlike the movies, there were no screaming coaches – just happy faces, content to run gates in September. I’m not sure if it’s the strength of the goal (Olympic or World Cup Champion) that motivates the racers, or perhaps some words of wisdom from a coach. It was powerful to see.

Bringing this to the workplace makes me realize how much I have to do as a manager to unlock and empower that inner drive and spirit that everyone has…

Everyone’s path through the gates is unique – and a manager’s job to coach – continuous improvement – is important, however, the journey ultimately rests on the shoulders (or knees) of those who are actually making the turns… and all of us can learn from the dedication of these kids in search of greatness.

Relentless pursuit of excellence requires everyone involved to aspire to greatness… and it’s inspiring to be able to see how those dedicated to world class exercise train all day long, year round.



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