U.S. Olympians take page from companies like Toyota, Boeing

While athletes from around the world prepare to spotlight their exceptional physical skills in the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics this August, behind the scenes, Olympic coaches are taking a new approach to building a winning performance. They are turning to business improvement methods that have led to success for major companies like Boeing and Toyota, according to the Quarterly Quality Report from the American Society for Quality (ASQ), the world’s leading authority on quality improvement.

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’s the benefit of a business approach to managing processes and supporting the training, conditioning, and preparation of individual athletes and teams.

“A synergy exists between business and athletes,” said Michael Nichols, chairman of ASQ. “Obviously preparing Olympians certainly 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.”

Dave Johnson, national rifle coach with USA Shooting and coach of the men’s and women’s United States Olympic rifle teams, understands the need for strategies like these that support athletes in their quest for Olympic glory. As a result, Beijing preparations focus on details like fine-tuning shooting teams to prepare 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 manage their diets so well that they become a finely-tuned machine. And they emphasize 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 an unfamiliar environment. 

Jamie Beyerle of the U.S. Olympic women’s shooting team, who fell short of making the 2004 Athens Olympics, notes that she’s done a lot more strategic planning and structured goal-setting to make the 2008 team.
“Going into this trial and these Olympic games is quite different,” states Beyerle. “Last time, 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 that whole trial thing and ended up not making the team because I didn’t have the goals that I needed.” This time around, Beyerle’s paying much more attention to preparation for each trial and each event leading up to the Olympics.

Measurements are another way that Olympic coaches like Johnson stay focused on important goals. “Our whole staff sets job markers on what we’re trying to do,” he said. This measurement system also cascades down to the athlete level to evaluate individual progress through goals on elements like scoring and timing. In combat sports like Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling, the principal measurement is the outcome, as opposed to a sport in which the athlete is competing against the clock.  
ASQ’s Nichols notes that in wrestling, shooting or any event, whether it’s Olympic or school-level competitive sports, athletes can find a performance advantage. They simply need to take some advice from the business world: 

  • Learn from prior experiences – You may want to forget about that not-so-great performance, but analyzing where you went wrong can help you make major improvements to your next performance.

  • Set structured goals – Focus on both the short-and long-term and remember that every event counts, no matter how insignificant it may seem.

  • Sweat the small stuff – It’s the extra details that will help you get to the podium.

  • Use data to make decisions and plan – Don’t act on hunches; it’s important to gather data on your weaknesses and strengths so you can pinpoint where to focus most of your effort.

  • Create actionable measurements tied to goals Whether it’s scoring or timing, creating measurements will help you clearly see where you are coming up short and where you are successful.

  • Benchmark the competition In business, sports, and life, never underestimate your competition. Studying their strengths and weaknesses can only make you a better athlete.

Visit www.asq.org/quality-report/reports/200807.html to view the complete Quality Report.

The American Society for Quality, www.asq.org, has been the world’s leading authority on quality for more than 60 years. 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, Wis., ASQ is a founding partner of the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), a prominent quarterly economic indicator, and also produces the Quarterly Quality Report.