An Olympic Story: What Success Means in Sales and Sports

7 min read

We are all driven in life to ‘be successful’ at what we do. But too often we fail to think about what success really means for us. A couple of weeks ago, the Xactly EMEA team had an inspirational offsite at the Lee Valley White Water Centre, the site which hosted the canoeing events for the London 2012 Olympics. Our speaker was Olympian Etienne Stott, one of team canoeists at the 2012 games, who shared his incredible story. Etienne began canoeing when he was only ten years old, and quickly decided that he wanted to compete and build a career around his passion. He partnered with his best friend Tim Baillie, and together they formed a canoe slalom team and aimed to compete at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. However, their qualification day was a nightmare, and the pair failed to earn a place. Despite being fast enough on other occasions, Etienne and Tim weren’t able to deal with the high levels of pressure. This was a major setback, and it took the pairing a whole year to recover before they decided to carry on and target the London 2012 Olympics to compete for gold. In the run up to 2012, preparations were going well –  Etienne and Tim benefitted from their rivalry with fellow British slalom canoeists David Florence and Richard Hounslow. These talented adversaries turned out to be a great asset, as they pushed Etienne and Tim to practice their mental toughness and perform under pressure. But just 18 months before the Olympics and six months before qualification, disaster struck when Etienne dislocated his shoulder during practice – a career threatening injury for a canoeist. At this critical time both men pulled together and concentrated on dealing with the reality of their situation. The pair worked hard to build on what they had, rather than waste time and energy on the things they couldn’t manage or control. Etienne battled his injury and managed to recover just in time for the duo to seal a qualification place for the Olympics. But with only 12 months until the games, his injury put a whole new perspective on the contest. He and Tim were forced to adjust their expectations. For Etienne a key realization was the fact that the chances of winning the Olympics are incredibly low. Of the 108 billion people who have ever lived, there have been only 10,000 modern Olympic gold medalists – putting the odds at 10.8 million to one. Etienne realized that hanging his entire career satisfaction on that one key achievement was not logical or healthy. Rather than going for gold, success for both men would mean giving their best performance on the day. Together with their coach Etienne and Tim broke down their route to success into two skills. As well as their technical proficiency, the pair realized they needed to improve their delivery under pressure. Etienne strongly believes that being able to perform despite high pressure is a skill that can be practiced and honed over time. He and Tim addressed their fears and used techniques like mindfulness, to ensure they had the mental framework in place to perform on the day. The London 2012 Olympic Games saw Etienne and Tim competing to crowds of cheering home fans. The pair performed well in the first round of qualifications, but qualified in last place in the semi-final. In their final run, they were a whole 2.5 seconds faster than anyone in the semi-final. They watched nervously as their competition took to the course – and as crew after crew competed, no one matched Etienne and Tim’s time. Finally their rivals Houndslow and Florence completed their run and gave a stellar performance, but finished 0.37 seconds behind Tim and Etienne. The pair became Olympic champions, with Houndslow and Florence joining them on the podium in second place, for a landmark moment in British sport. Etienne’s story was truly inspirational and offers real lessons for how to approach success both in business and, in particular, sales roles:

  1. Despite setbacks from injury, Etienne and Tim focused on what they had, not what they had lost. It’s the same for the sales pipeline. Sales teams need to focus on what they have in the pipeline and how they can close that business, rather than focusing on lost business or wishing the pipeline looked different.
  2. Etienne and Tim readjusted how they would define themselves. Rather than setting out to achieve gold they looked to do the best they could. Sales people often get caught selling against their competition rather than to the customer. Instead they need to look at their unique value as a company, their USP, and not putting down the competition. The customer will buy if the salesperson presents what the customers needs.
  3. At the Olympic final, Etienne and Tim went first in the race and their time was not beaten, making them the Olympic gold medalists. When presenting an RFP, it doesn’t matter what order you present in. If you present a phenomenal RFP, then you’ll get the sale.