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5 business lessons from the Olympics with Kristof De Smet - CEO Energy Lab

The Tokyo Olympics were something special. Athletes outdid themselves more than ever and many Olympic, World and Personal Records were broken. But beyond the sporting feats, I can draw five important learnings from these Olympics. Learnings we can apply to our own business life and work ethics. Let me take you through them.

Kristof De Smet Square
“Mental pressure prohibits us to perform at our best”Energy Lab CEO - Kristof De Smet

1. Mental wellbeing should always be one of the top priorities—if not the number 1 priority.

‘R’ for retired. The whole sporting world was shocked when American gymnast and crowd favourite Simone Biles pulled out of the team competition. Why? She was burdened by heavy mental pressure. Up to this day it remains a misunderstood issue, as the American Gymnastics Federation originally stated she retired due to a ‘medical problem’. Even sporting journalists dared to speculate she could’ve ‘faked’ it.

But just as mental stress prohibits Biles from being 100% focussed when attempting an extremely difficult jump or exercise without endangering herself or her team, an employee cannot perform at his or her best and make considered choices when coping with mental issues and/or stress.

2. Never stop setting goals

Top athletes don’t just stop when they beat their Personal, National, World or Olympic record. No, they almost instantly set their sights on their next goal. For example, one of the first sentences Belgian marathon runner Bashir Abdi ousted after winning his bronze medal was this: “I am incredibly happy, but I’m eager to return once more for gold.” By constantly setting new, small objectives and working towards them as a company and as a team, we inch closer to those bigger objectives, those big dreams we want to fulfil.

3. Stop saying yes to everything

Time is precious, and so are our resources. Athletes are familiarised with this problem. Runner Kevin Borlée decided to withdraw from the 400 m semi-final to be 100% fit for his 4x400 m event. He knew by heart his medal chances were bigger in that discipline. Sometimes you have to save your strengths and talents and not say yes to every opportunity, because the real opportunity could lie elsewhere. His decision was the right one as they set a new National Record, unfortunately, he and his teammates missed out on a medal by six tenths of a second, finishing fourth. But it’s often hard to say no, especially when you’re passionate about what you do. Saying no from time to time will allow you to focus more on the projects that really matter at that time and give you purpose, instead of investing (and often wasting) your time and energy in a million small tasks.

4. Winning does not always give you ‘gold’

As German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” Defeat or just missing out on silverware might prove to be an invaluable lesson for even greater success down the road. Great Britain’s diving poster boy Tom Daley was bombarded as a ‘sure thing’ for gold in Rio in 2016, after winning bronze in spectacular fashion 4 years before in London. However, he had to settle for bronze once more. Daley, who already made his first Olympic appearance aged 14 in Beijing 2008, overcame his feelings of disappointment, and was finally rewarded with gold after winning the synchronised 10 metre platform dive in Tokyo. 

5. Celebrate victories, however small they might be.

Victories, how small they may be, are still victories and are reason to celebrate. You don’t necessarily need a podium finish to be over the moon. Exemplary of this is Belgian female marathon runner Mieke Gorissen. For her, finishing the race was already reason enough to be satisfied. When the reporter told her she finished 28th, tears of joy started flowing. It shows that finishing first doesn’t have to be your main measurement of success. Use the small successes to lift team morale and celebrate, how little they might seem sometimes. Reminding yourself and others of what went well and paying attention to the positive aspects in life and work can be an eye-opener … especially after a difficult period.


These parallels show that our working life is a form of professional sports in many ways. We also have to perform at our best, and that sometimes requires making difficult choices, setting new goals and maintaining our mental resilience.

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