10 lessons that businesses can learn from Team GB’s Olympic success in Rio

For the past two weeks, I have quite literally been glued 24/7 to one screen or another (and sometimes two at the same time) soaking up every amazing second of the Olympics Games in Rio. In addition to getting my sports fix (two whole weeks of back-to-back coverage), as a hugely patriotic Brit, the highlight of the Games for me was the stunning success and unbelievable second place finish for Team GB. Such focus, such belief, such dedication.

However, as I headed into the office each morning, bleary-eyed with the so-called ‘Olympic hangover’ (caused by lack of sleep and frequent emotional weeping) it became apparent that my more fashion-focused colleagues were not feeling the joy. “I just hate sport” said one, and “there’s no relevance beyond the Olympics” said another. Deeply wounded and determined to make my colleagues see the light, I began pondering Team GB’s success and wondering what lessons, if any, we in the fashion industry could learn from them.

Turns out there’s quite a lot. From marginal gains and total teamwork, to succession planning and ruthless prioritisation it’s all there for brands and businesses to learn from.

So here are the 10 lessons I think fashion can learn from Team GB, and indeed Olympians in general:


Lesson 1: Small changes can add up to a big difference 

British Cycling champs

British Cycling champs

“The cumulative effect of marginal gains” is a philosophy that revolutionised British cycling and sport in general. Introduced by the team’s performance director Dave Brailsford for London 2012, the concept focuses on the idea that making lots of small, incremental changes can add up to a big difference. Every individual aspect of what it takes to win a race is broken down into its component parts: from the position of seams of the speed suits, to the impact of excess dust in the mechanics work areas. All assumptions are challenged and re-evaluated to see where the smallest improvements can be made and therefore, advantages gained.

Lesson 2: There’s really is no ‘i’ in team

Time and time again throughout the Olympics we saw people playing and working hard for each other to achieve the collective goal. In the women’s triathlon for example, Team GB’s Lucy Hall set a blistering pace the swimming and cycling sections, tiring out the other competitors so that teammate Helen Jenkins could conserve energy and push for a medal in the run. Sir Bradley Wiggins also talked about a ‘Total Team’ mentality, commenting there were ‘no star players in their pursuit of excellence’, just the right people with the right skill set to achieve the task in hand i.e. Winning gold medals.

Lesson 3: Ruthless Prioritisation

Other countries have questioned how, after a poor showing at the World Championships in March, Team GB’s cycling team have dominated at the Olympics. The answer is far from sinister and comes down to one thing; ruthless prioritisation. With the £30 million funding the team receive from the National Lottery solely dependent on their success at the Olympics, winning at the World Championships was deemed unimportant and all focus and resources directed at Rio instead. The BOA (British Olympic Association) has been equally ruthless in its allocation of lottery funds to other sports, investing heavily in the sports or ‘core products’ Team GB has been historically good in (rowing, cycling, athletics) to create a solid base and cutting funding from sports and athletes that don’t deliver.

Lesson 4: Build out from a strong core

While continually investing in its ‘core product’ sports, Team GB also recognised that there are always new opportunities arising outside them. Rugby and golf, both very popular sports in the UK, made their Olympic debut in Rio and Team GB came away with a silver in the 7’s and a gold in the golf for Olympics super-fan, Justin Rose.

Lesson 5: Understand the power of strategy and goals

With its 4-year cycle, the Olympics provide athletes with a set of clearly defined targets and one unambiguous goal: to win a gold medal. It is this simple clarity and singularity of purpose that helps drive and motivate athletes to compete. Constantly monitored and assessed, they are kept on track to ensure they are capable of achieving their goal. For Team GB, the power of the shared goal was also a key motivator, with medal winners time and time again referencing not only their joy at their individual success but also in contributing to team’s overall medal target.

Lesson 6: Work your plan and run your own race

Once your strategy is in place it can be all too easy to get distracted, especially by the competition. After winning gold in the team pursuit, Sir Bradley Wiggins said to win, the team simply had to ‘work their plan’ regardless of what their opposition were doing.

The returning hero. Sir Bradley Wiggins

The returning hero. Sir Bradley Wiggins

Swimmer Michael Phelps (yes, I know he’s not a Brit but as the greatest athlete of all time, he knows a thing or two about success) talked about the importance of focusing only on the finish line  and the job in hand and not being sidetracked by those around you, stating ‘Winners focus on winning, losers focus on winners’


Lesson 7: Get up when you fall down.


Quite literally in the case of Mo Farrah who fought back from a fall to retain his gold medal. The ability to bounce back and view failure as an opportunity is a key trait of successful athletes. After missing Beijing in 2008 due to stress fractures in her right foot, Heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill retrained herself to take off for the long jump on her left foot, while rower Katherine Grainger called her silver in Rio her “adversity medal” after returning to rowing post-London gold after a 2-year break. Even athletes, like Tom Daley and Lutalo Muhammad whose Olympics didn’t quite go to plan, showed their resilience and fighting spirit, by immediately vowing to learn from the experience and succeed in Tokyo 2020.                



Lesson 8: Success in infectious

One thing that became very apparent in Rio is the success of one can drive the success of others. Although Team GB got off to a slow start, once the medals did start coming the whole team’s confidence just grew and grew. As well as medal winning performances from established Olympians like Mo Farrah, Laura Trott and Jason Kenny, Team GB claimed medals in a number of new events including trampolining, diving and women’s triathlon, rugby sevens and golf. In fact, Team GB won more gold medals (16) across more sports than any other country, surpassing the overall target in the process.              


Lesson 9: Build a star team Investing in new talent and the next generation has been a key factor in Team GB’s success and resulted in improved performances for the last five Olympic Games. Succession planning has ensured the retirement of Olympic legends like Sir Steve Redgrave from rowing and Sir Chris Hoy from cycling have not meant an end to winning but rather inspired others to drive it further. Likewise, gymnast Max Whitlock (22), track cyclist, Becky James (23) and Swimmer Siobhan-Marie O’Connor (20) are all Rio medalists who have emerged from Team GB’s Talent Identification Programme that finds and nurtures the next generation of Olympians.          

Top night receiving my medal and capturing this selfie with the heptathlon girls and Bolt on the track after he won! A photo posted by Jessica Ennis-Hill (@jessicaennishill) on



Lesson 10: Believe and love what you do

Andy Murray, Sir Bradley Wiggins, Mo Farrah and Jessica Ennis-Hill; what links these athletes (apart from winning) is that they are authentic and real; they are driven, passionate, have experienced victory and defeat, they speak their minds and are true to themselves. What you see is what you get and it is because of this they are able to inspire and lead others. However, there is perhaps one Olympian who above all others personifies authenticity and self-belief and that is of course, the  triple-triple gold-winning Olympic god, Usain Bolt*. His laid-back confidence and playful antics, along with his unbelievable talent, have turned him into one of the world’s most loved and inspiring athletes.

*Yes I know he’s Jamaican but you can’t talk Olympic success and not mention Usain Bolt can you?


Want more? Check out the 3 ridiculously good marketing tactics you can learn from the Olympic Games here.

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