10 things business can learn from the Special Olympics

As a first time spectator to the exceptionally inspiring Special Olympics in Sheffield, I started last week with a compartmentalised view – The Games would be a personal experience with little relevance to my work. Now I realise the Special Olympics has something important to teach business – here’s my top 10 take-outs:

  1. PASSION: If I could bottle the passion I witnessed at the Games and sell it to businesses I’d be a billionaire by the end of this week. Players were here for the love of it. Their passion led them to exceptional performance and saw them endure event after event with total commitment to give their all.
  2. PREPARATAION: These were the best of the best so all the athletes were prepared but I couldn’t help but admire the preparation and confidence of the Wales delegation. They had their athletes media trained in advance… “For when they secured their Gold, Silver and Bronze medals!”
  3. LEADERSHIP: Team motivation is critical to performance. I watched in envy as coaches interrupted play in order to reconnect and motivate their teams and provide additional direction. Seeing coaches adapt their leadership style to respond to the mood of the team was also fascinating – in teams where anxiety was high, coaches adopted a very calm manor. Where spirits were more boisterous, more agitator coaches emerged.   The key was fluid leadership – adjusting and readjusting to the team’s needs.
  4. TEAMWORK: I’ve heard it said a million times. “We need to work together because our sum is stronger than our individual parts.” I’ve never seen that more clearly than at the Special Olympics. At these Games it is clearly visible that you are only as strong as your weakest player.   Supporting weaker players by giving them the opportunity to improve often feels time consuming and frustrating but those who did, saw the greatest improvements over the course of The Games.
  5. DIVERSITY: What you don’t see in other competitive sports is what diversity affords teams.   The Special Olympics celebrates mixed teams: old and young, male and female, tall and short; greater and lesser ability. One assistant coach told me that in his dugout session, he had been overwhelmed by how much his players really respected each-others individual strengths, which played out on court.
  6. COMPETITION: Competition in business might not be as kind as you will witness at the Special Olympics but your competitors can always teach you something. What you see in spades at The Games are lessons in sportsmanship. Also, those with the humility to recognise their competitors’ strengths can learn from their plays and interactions with them.
  7. COURAGE: Everyone has a story at the Special Olympics but these are stories of ability over disability and triumph over adversity. In business, it takes a lot of courage to admit your weaknesses. I overheard one player speaking to their adjudicator: “Please can you remind me what end I need to score?” He pointed for her. “Don’t be mad if I need to come and ask you again in a little while – I’m a bit forgetful”. Her learning disability meant she had a weakness but she faced into it. Doing so led her to score two goals for her team.
  8. KINDNESS: There were nearly 1,000 volunteers giving freely of their time to host these Games. I saw one team invited by the coach of another to join their warm up, even though they were just about to compete against each other. But my hat goes off to the adjudicators who, throughout these emotionally-charged games, beautifully demonstrated the fine balance that is always needed between kindness and fairness – understanding when to step back and allow play to continue and when to step in to stop it.
  9. SIZE MATTERS: But big isn’t always best. “They are all so big,” one tiny female basketball player said through tears to an adjudicator in her first competitive basketball game. It was a fair comment. She was the only female in the game and the opposition had four huge guys towering over her – I can see why it would have been intimidating. By the following game she was using her size to her advantage, weaving in and out, being closest to the ball when they dropped it. The Special Olympics is also small in size compared to The Olympics or Paralympics yet it manages to punch above its weight – this Games hosted 19 sports; 2,600 athletes; more than 15,000 spectators and secured worldwide media coverage.
  10. DETERMINATION: I witnessed one athlete stumble and fall hitting the ground… hard. He was bruised and winded but he was determined to continue. I asked him after the game why he’d continued playing – ‘the team needed me’, he stated simply. It’s possible to hit rock bottom and bounce back. Indeed that’s what the Official Special Olympics Anthem is all about. “We’ll stop at nothing” beautifully captures the importance of fighting to get back up again when we all inevitably get knocked down. When you see these brave athletes pushing themselves to the limit regardless of their individual disability, you find yourself questioning your own resilience and leave determined to be, well, more determined!

These Games cast a spell over all those attending – whether athlete, volunteer or supporter. The past week was like being suspended in time. Immersed in the Games, it was possible to forget the outside world, be completely uplifted, and remind myself of what life is all about. Being a part of the Special Olympics is truly something very special – it has the power to open eyes, minds and hearts – both personally and professionally.

Published by

Alex Duff

Freelance Communications Professional

2 thoughts on “10 things business can learn from the Special Olympics

  1. Glad you enjoyed your first Special Olympics, I expect you are hooked now ? So uplifting, you forget the “outside” world while there. My daughters done five now and I think I get as much pleasure as her, meeting the athletes / family members. Long may it continue! Rob.

  2. That was beautifully put. I attended the games as head cycling coach for the Northern region. I underestimated how the games would effect me, I will talk about this amazing experience the rest on my life. This was the first games I have attended and I cant wait to support our athletes to the next. We are looking forward to catching up with the new friends we made.

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