Technical ability is only one component of success. Anyone who has ever tried to win a race, a client or a job knows that emotional strength – being in the right state of mind – can make or break an opportunity.
The value of understanding the humans behind the athletes isn’t lost on Olympics freestyle skiing coach Jean-Paul Richard. His team included the three Dufour-Lapointe sisters, of whom two, Justine and Chloé went on to win gold and silver medals respectively. Their sister Maxime finished 12th.
“Sports, work, life – everything is about human relations,” Mr. Richard said, adding that the only difference between managing relationships in the business world and sporting world is the context.
“In my experience, if the athletes are really talented with technical skills but if they are not strong enough on the mental or emotional side, they can’t work at 100 per cent. So I started to believe that if I fix the mental and emotional side, everything comes into place at the end,” Mr. Richard said.
The magic behind an athlete’s success is often invisible, Mr. Richard argues. On the ski hill, success may to attributed to an athlete’s technical skill, or within a company, success may be pinned on the executive team’s ability to motivate staff. Yet under the surface, the ability to manage the emotional ups and downs that come with pursuing a big goal as an athlete, or being able to steer the diverse personalities on a team, can be a huge reason behind their successes.
Mr. Richard said that his experience with the Canadian team in Sochi and his time as the head of the Swedish ski team, from 2008 to 2011, gave him the opportunity to develop his approach to coaching, where the emphasis is on mental preparation and managing emotions.
“I think the recent success we had in Sochi, it’s because of the attention we have given to the way the team worked together, where respect and collaboration is an important aspect of performance. Sometimes it is difficult for some people to understand this approach, because these aspects of the performance are invisible,” he said.
Understanding what makes a winning team tick takes on added complexity when managing three athletes from the same family, as was the case with the Dufour-Lapointe sisters. According to their coach, the girls’ shared history made for a rare situation.
Mr. Richard and co-coach Marc-André Moreau needed to adapt their approach and recognize that while they may be sisters, Justine, 20, Chloé, 22, and Maxime, 25, remain different as athletes. They also needed to coach the entire team differently to manage the relationship between the young women and the rest of the team. In some ways, it was akin to managing a family business.
“It’s difficult to create a real team dynamic when you have three sisters [in] a group of six,” Mr. Richard said. The sisters, he explained, are extremely close as they spent summers living on a boat together and skied together. The coaches realized that the rest of the team just couldn’t be as close as the three sisters, so to adapt they ensured all team members knew they were respected and understood this unique team dynamic.
“One year before [the Sochi Games], we established a law between us and the athletes, [that we could] be able to say everything. During the final, [the fact that] we were honest and we communicated in a outstanding way, I think is the reason for our success,” he added.
Rethinking how to get the most out of people is not only an approach that Mr. Richard brings to his athletes but to his colleagues, too. Just as the concept of co-CEOs is emerging as a new model of leadership, Mr. Richard and Mr. Moreau decided to coach as equals, instead of the traditional senior and junior relationship.
Mr. Richard concentrated on the “macro” elements, such as planning, strategy and the athletes’ mental and emotional preparation, while Mr. Moreau, a former Olympic skier, focused on their technical abilities. This, Mr. Richard said, allowed them to bring their full potential to the team and he believes it made them the best coaching duo on top of the moguls course in Sochi.
It’s like the old adage: You hire for skills, but you fire for behaviour. It could be said that the most successful leaders recognize potential on the basis of skill, but realize potential with good coaching, whether on the slopes or in the boardroom.
Leah Eichler is founder of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Globe and Mail presents the Canadian Olympic Committee’s Coach Reward Program, which recognizes the coaches of the Sochi 2014 Canadian Olympic Team medallists. As part of this series, we will be asking six Olympic coaches who are receiving the awards to share their stories on motivating, leading and managing talent.