How to Lead Your Team Like an Olympic Coach

Good managers, in a lot of ways, are like coaches. They teach, they correct, and they support their players (a.k.a., their employees) as they move from one level to the next.

So, what better way to learn how to be the right kind of boss than from the best out there–Olympic coaches? These are people who’ve turned strong performers into champions, pushed winners to keep winning, and trained the best to be even better.

Along the way, they’ve doled out some great advice for mentors just like them–check out what they have to say if you’re looking to improve on your management skills:

1. Manage Every Employee on an Individual Basis

Photo of Bob Bowman courtesy of Al Bello/Staff/Getty Images.

Bob Bowman, most known for coaching 23-time gold medalist Michael Phelps, realized people are individuals, and therefore they all need individual coaching plans:

“Some people respond to logic, others respond to motivation, while others just want to be left alone to do their job…Coaches and leaders alike must tailor their approach to the individual employee,” he’s quoted saying in a Fast Company interview.

This isn’t to say that you should favor one employee over the other, but rather that each person works, thinks, and is motivated differently–so, figure out what makes each of them tick, and act accordingly. Don’t assume one kind of management style works for everyone.

For example, maybe you do regular one-on-ones with one employee who likes to constantly get feedback, but send check-in emails to another because they prefer to communicate in writing.

2. Know When to Stand Back

Photo of Aimee Boorman courtesy of Aimee Boorman.

Aimee Boorman, the American gymnastics coach who’s trained and mentored gold medalist Simone Biles, knows that there’s only so much a coach can do before it’s up to the athlete to do the rest of the work.

“It’s her gymnastics…She has to perform it, and she has to make the choices to home-school and work the extra hours and do the extra flexibility work. That has been her choice. I’m just her guide,” she says in a Houston Chronicle interview.

You can give your employees all the tools and resources they need and outline every last detail of what you expect from them, but it’s up to them to follow through. The best managers don’t micromanage, but empower their direct reports to own their work and take initiative.

3. Keep Expectations Realistic (But Motivating)

Photo of Ian Barker Mark Dadswell/Staff/Getty Images.

Former silver medalist and Olympic sailing coach Ian Barker always strives to keep his athletes grounded, especially during the most emotional of times.

The key, for him, is to equalize your expectations: “The levels of expectation should be similar. And you must ensure you keep those expectations aligned through constant communication…It helps if you work together a lot,” he says in an interview on

A good boss, similarly, never expects too much from an employee too soon (especially a new employee). Or, holds them to an unrealistic standard. Instead, they communicate their goals frequently and openly, and create reasonable challenges. When something goes wrong, they give honest feedback (because they know the consequences if they don’t) and help them learn from the experience and do better.

4. Focus on Alignment

Photo of Ben Ryan courtesy of Ben Ryan.

Ben Ryan, who coached the Fiji rugby team to win a gold medal at the Rio Olympics, understands what makes a great team (he’s even written a bookabout it):

“My end goal as a coach is to create alignment amongst the team to make my role redundant so I can watch from the stands,” he stated at the 2016 World Rugby Conference and Exhibition.

As a manager, it can be easy to call all the shots and be the only one your employees go to for guidance, approval, or advice. However, by encouraging your team to work together (and work with other teams), you not only make your job easier but help your employees learn from one another and be independent. That’s ultimately where some of the best ideas come from.

5. Understand What Distracts Your Employees

Photo of Mike Krzyzewski courtesy of FIBA.

Your employees will go through personal issues, or have bad days, or feel discouraged. Mike Krzyzewski, who coached the U.S. national men’s basketball team to three gold medals, believes it’s a leader’s job to recognize these moments of distraction:

“You can lead better if everybody is not distracted…Asking people how they feel or if there is something that is bothering them demonstrates your concern. It affirms that they are an important part of the team,” he says in a Washington Post article citing his interview with Duke professor Sim Sitkin.

When it’s something serious, good bosses give their employees the space and time (or even time off) they deserve, because they know by doing so the person will come back to work more motivated and energized as a result.

6. Make Relationship Building a Priority

Photo of David Marsh courtesy of Mike Lewis/Ola Vista Photography.

David Marsh has coached 49 Olympic swimmers from 19 different countries. One of the big lessons he’s learned leading the U.S. women’s swim team is that relationships between teammates matter: “The magic happens when they all get along,” he says in an interview with The Charlotte Observer.

Some managers don’t care about the relationships their employees have with each other, as long as they get along with their employees. But, as Marsh notes in his interview, success is built on trust–and the only way your team will learned to trust each other is to stress the importance of relationship building.

Set up offsites, schedule after-work drinks or outings, encourage employees to tag-team bigger projects. Create a culture that’s based around teamwork and positive encouragement, not competitiveness and individualism. You’re guaranteed to make your employees happier and more productive.

Ready to build an Olympic-worthy team? Follow these tips, and you’re sure to win the gold (or, at least “Boss of the Year”).

This post originally appeared on the The Muse.

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