Prepare To Be Judged: Business Lessons from Olympic Figure Skating

sports business lessons from figure skating

Figure skating is the oldest sport in the Olympic Winter Games.

Since 1924, the sport has been the centerpiece of the games, often times being the sport most often talked about, either for the champions who emerged, or, at other times, for controversy derived from the way in which athletes were "scored."

Many competitors and coaches (as well as fans and viewers) of Olympic competitions have felt deprived of a gold medal, or a place on the podium, due to a vague or opaque scoring system. No other sport in the Olympics has such a system of judging to determine medal winners. Most other events are determined either by head-to-head competitions or by timing and scoring.

Sports and business are often compared favorably.

Many CEOs are former athletes and some organizations like to hire former athletes, citing their ability to collaborate, "to work like a team," or to demonstrate their competitive zeal and other traits and characteristics that some find desirable.

If you Google, "Why you should hire athletes," you will see millions of returns.

However, unlike all other Olympic winter sports, figure skating may the one in which we can find the most application for careers and employment in sports.

Why? It's both somewhat complication and simplistically straight forward: the scoring system -- judging.

Olympic figure skaters are awarded a score, based on two primary aspects. The first is a technical elements score, how they performed against a standard laid out in advance. Jumps, spins, footwork and other elements each of which have a point value and are required in one’s program. The more difficult the move, the higher the base value.

figure skating as a microcosm for sports business
Figure skaters are judged subjectively by a high level panel. You can expect the same in your work environment.
The second is the program component score of an overall artistic impression, which is based on skating skills, and also on style and composition elements and how a skater interprets the music to which a program is choreographed.

Those two aspects are totaled together for a final score.

In our work environments, we see something similar to the figure skating scoring. In assessing our own work, someone, or a group of people, has set forth a system of required competencies (to fulfill the job) as well as the “style” in which you incorporate those elements in your job.

You can have a very high score on your basic work technical competencies -- completing tasks on time, knowledge of the business, satisfying the clients -- and then comes the assessment on “style.”

Do people like working with you? Are you empathetic? How do you correct mistakes by your employees?

Those are the business versions of your artistic score.

Just as there is controversy in Olympic figure skating scoring, so too is there misunderstanding in employee assessment and annual reviews. There is not a person reading this post who hasn't, at some point, felt misunderstood, or at least disappointed, by an assessment at work. It's as straight forward in a business context as judging is in figure skating: even though it’s necessary, we don't like being judged or necessarily agree with how we are judged. At times, we think the evaluations don't account for everything you do at work. Or, we think the evaluator -- your boss or a next level leader -- has some bias that negatively impacts you in particular.

Today, we can summarize the attitude of many people in the workforce in two words: "don't judge."

We would rather be assessed like Olympic bobsledders or skiers with the simple standard of who gets down the run the fastest. Or, like Olympic speedskaters: line up against 4 or 5 other competitors and see who crosses the finish line first at the end of the number of laps.

If careers in sports and business only worked like that.

In business, and in careers, we would prefer an objective scoreboard, as most sports provide. We don't like to put our careers in the hands of people who judge our hard work, as in Olympic figure skating. But, on reflection, figure skaters may actually have things figured out: perhaps we should get comfortable with someone else's judgement impacting how high or how far we go in our careers.

The best skaters in the world know what is expected in their performances before they begin. From there, they complete the program with a certain style.

Putting those two elements together skillfully and gracefully, as world-class figure skaters must, might mean a gold-medal career in sports and business for you.

Submitted by Marty Conway and Bobby Goldwater. Adjunct Professors of Sports Management at Georgetown University.
By Marty Conway and Bobby Goldwater | March 15, 2018
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