Take the Olympian spirit of Jesse Owens into your business

Not everyone is a competitive or sporting person, however there are lessons which we can take from Olympic athletes and apply them to our business ambitions, behaviours and efforts. Each Olympic athlete strives for peak performance and achieving a personal best, they have the determination and mind set of a winner, choosing to move forward even when it is uncomfortable – how can we emulate that in business?

Olympians are not like ordinary people. Let’s face it, most of us are not motivated enough to get up at 4am and practice our hearts out for six hours a day, seven days a week. Most of us couldn’t handle the pressure of having ‘the world’ watch us, carefully scrutinising our every move. But for the Olympic athlete, this is what drives them – competition, challenge, defeat and victory – and they come alive, living for that moment of opportunity to win.

Olympians start out as ordinary people who learn to take on traits that are extraordinary. These characteristics are the key to their power and ability to conquer fears, insecurities, physical and mental barriers, and bounce back in the face of adversity when things don’t go their way. Olympians have a drive to meet their goals, overcoming barriers with a commitment to themselves, a purpose where success becomes the focus. The clarity of what has to be achieved to win gets them out of the comfort zone, determined to do whatever was necessary to make it happen. We can learn how to take these traits and apply them to our business and become more successful.

There have been many great Olympians, but few can compare to Jesse Owens. This was a tough man who knew what he wanted to accomplish and set out to do just that.

The seventh child of Henry and Emma Alexander Owens was named James Cleveland when he was born in Alabama on September 12, 1913. A teacher was told “J.C.” when she asked his name to enter in her roll book, but she thought he said Jesse. The name stuck and he would be known as Jesse Owens for the rest of his life.

As a child he was boisterous, and used to go wild in the school playground, always getting into trouble. Then one day, the greatest of his life he said, the junior high track coach plucked him out of a playground scuffle and set him to work training for track meets. Owens attributes all of his future Olympic successes to that coach, Irishman Charles Riley

His promising athletic career began in 1928 in Cleveland, Ohio where he set Junior High School records in the high jump and long jump, set a new high school world record by running the 100-yard dash in 9.4 seconds and created a new high school world record in the 220-yard dash by running the distance in 20.7 seconds.

At the Big Ten Championships in Ann Arbor on May 25, 1935, he set three world records and tied a fourth, all in a span of about 45 minutes. Jesse was uncertain as to whether he would be able to participate at all, as he was suffering from a sore back as a result from a fall down a flight of stairs. He convinced his coach to allow him to run the 100-yard dash as a test for his back, and amazingly Jesse recorded an official time of 9.4 seconds, once again tying the world record.

Despite the pain, he then went on to participate in three other events, setting a world record in each event. In a span of 45 minutes, he accomplished what many experts still feel is the greatest athletic feat in history.

His 100-yard dash run equalled the world record of 9.4 seconds. Ten minutes later he made one long jump and cleared 26ft 8.25in, breaking the world record by more than half-a-foot. It was 25 years before anyone broke that record. Nine minutes later he slashed three-tenths of a second from the world 220-yards record and 26 minutes later he ran the 220-yard hurdles for his fourth world record of the day.

In the summer of 1936 Jesse owns arrived at the summer Olympics in Berlin. Jesse Owens, the son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave, achieved what no Olympian before him had accomplished – he became the first track & field athlete to win four gold medals in a single Olympiad. This remarkable achievement stood unequaled until the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, when American Carl Lewis matched Jesse’s feat.

Although others have gone on to win more gold medals, he remains the best remembered Olympic athlete because he achieved what no Olympian before or since has accomplished – during a time of deep-rooted segregation and Hitler’s master race theory, he affirmed that individual excellence, rather than race or national origin, distinguishes one man from another.

Athletes didn’t return from the Olympics to lucrative advertising and product endorsement campaigns in those days, and Owens supported his young family with a variety of jobs. One was of special significance – playground director in Cleveland. It was his first step into a lifetime of working with underprivileged youth, which gave him his greatest satisfaction. After relocating to Chicago, he devoted much of his time to underprivileged youth as a board member and former director of the Chicago Boys’ Club. Jesse Owens died from complications due to lung cancer on March 31, 1980 in Tucson, Arizona.

There are many quotes attributed to Owens, here are a few which I think resonate into what we can take into our business lives, from his sporting life and achievements:

We all have dreams. In order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline and effort.

I always loved running – it was something you could do by yourself and under your own power. You could go in any direction, fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs.

If you don’t try to win you might as well hold the Olympics in somebody’s back yard. The thrill of competing carries with it the thrill of a gold medal. One wants to win to prove himself the best.

One chance is all you need, a lifetime of training for just 10 seconds. It all goes so fast, and character makes the difference when it’s close. The purpose of the Olympics is to do your best. As I’d learned long ago from Charles Riley, the only victory that counts is the one over yourself.

To a sprinter, the hundred-yard dash is over in three seconds, not nine or ten. The first ‘second’ is when you come out of the blocks. The next is when you look up and take your first few strides to attain gain position. By that time the race is actually about half over. The final ‘second’ – the longest slice of time in the world for an athlete – is that last half of the race, when you really bear down and see what you’re made of. It seems to take an eternity, yet is all over before you can think what’s happening.

From the remarkable achievements of Jesse Owen, here some key Olympian traits to take into your business, and push to achieve that personal best.

  • Vision: Athletes have a clear vision of where they’re going, they are purposeful about it as a clear goal, and avoid distraction which saves time and energy.
  • Run Through: Olympians run through their events mentally before they even do them – this gets them in the ‘zone’ and gives them an edge; visualise your business success, and get this energy.
  • Discipline: Olympians may not love getting up at 5am but they know they have to put in the time – so must you be strongly disciplined.
  • Personal Growth: Athletes know they need to ‘push’ them when they want to quit. The key is clarity on seeking personal growth.
  • Never Quit Attitude: Olympians feel like quitting at times – just like us – but they push through and know they won’t win without tenacity.
  • They Lose a Lot: Olympians often lose more than they win, but it’s their strong, determined spirit that keeps them moving forward when others would quit. This makes them winners
  • Block out Negativity: Olympians may feel stress, frustration and anxiety, but they blocking these out with positive mind sets

When you run a business dealing with the Monday to Friday stops-and-starts, having the blue sky thinking of what you want to achieve and equally the washing the pots of some low level tasks filling your head, it can sometimes overwhelm you. However, it’s the people who persevere with determination and a plan and vision that will succeed.

As business professionals we must choose to meet each day with the knowledge that our path holds both obstacles and opportunity. The competition will be tough and the conditions unpredictable and unforgiving, but that’s what it takes to turn a vision into a reality.  So dig deep and unleash what drives you – not for money or fame, but for the pure joy of doing what you do best, and doing it to a new standard – aspire to be a Jesse Owens and achieve a lifetime personal best every day.