3 Key Diversity Recruiting Lessons from High-performing Olympic Coaches

By Naheed Afzal

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Every four years, the world watches with sheer amazement as Olympians do what they’ve trained their lives to do: compete against the very best in their sports.

Thousands of hours boil down to minutes. Winners are determined by fractions of a second.

Throughout the games, we learn about the inspiring stories of the Olympians who have overcome mountains and valleys to get to where they are today.

Right alongside them are their coaches: the recruiters and strategists behind these Olympians’ greatest achievements.

What can we learn from the coaches that not only discover these talented individuals, but lead them to victory as they compete in this worldwide competition that hosts 11,551 athletes from 207 nations?

When it comes to recognising talent and building a diverse team of high performers, these are some lessons you can take away from Olympic coaches to recruit, develop, and lead your own Olympic-standard workforce. One that thrives on the diversity of skill, experience, and thought.


Lesson #1: Tap into candidates’ sense of pride and community

Competing on a country’s Olympic team is a unique opportunity.

As humans, we tie certain emotions to the parts of ourselves that make us different from others. That emotional pull draws us to niche communities that share those differences too.

Think about the last time you were in a new city and happened to meet someone who was raised in your hometown. Did you feel a stronger connection with them than other people you’ve met? Do you take pride in being a part of the communities you identify with (LGBT, a woman in tech, an engineer, etc.)? Of your accomplishments, which are the ones that stand out to you the most?

It may not come as a surprise to learn that giving athletes the opportunity to represent their country in a global competition is a powerful recruiting tool for Olympic coaches who look to build their teams with “in-house” talent.

Identify what makes your organisation unique through the eyes of your candidates. Why did your current top-performing employees choose you? What makes them proud to be a part of your team?


Lesson #2: Expand your talent pools

This year, Qatar made the news by building their Olympic handball team with talent from 17 different countries.

In Qatar’s case, the country’s wealth enabled them to pull top talent away from their home countries with high salaries and perks. Your organisation’s appeal, however, may have nothing to do with financial gain.

Maybe your organisation can offer a better work-life balance for women who are struggling to nurture both their families and their careers.

Maybe your industry has a culture that favor individuals of one ethnicity or background, making it difficult for anyone else to grab hold of opportunities in the field they’re interested in.

Perhaps your competitors have strict education requirements that exclude anyone who may have the drive, but not the finances to afford higher education. You could set your organisation apart by offering financial reimbursement to employees as they work for your company while pursuing their degree.

If you give your candidates a compelling reason to consider the opportunity, then you can find talent in under-served markets.

Knowing what your particular candidates want in an opportunity is key. You might not be recruiting sportsman. Maybe you’re keen to recruit more women or find hidden talent in minority communities that your competition’s overlooked.


Lesson #3: Value talent with different styles

The U.S. women’s gymnastics team has enjoyed a long run of success these last years under coach Martha Karolyi’s leadership. Karolyi, who is Romanian, built a team of gymnasts with different styles and approaches to the sport.

The New Yorker’s Reeves Wiedeman shares the following insight about these differences in a recent article that centers around U.S. Gold Medalist Simon Biles’s success in the 2016 Games:

"The Soviet style was very much embedded in the culture of Russia—the relationship to ballet, the ideas of risk, originality, and virtuosity,” Elizabeth Booth, a lecturer at the University of Greenwich, who writes the blog Rewriting Russian Gymnastics, told me. “The American style is about executing elements to maximize the score, rather than considering a routine as a whole.”

Wiedeman goes on to observe the stylistic differences between two leading members of Karoli’s 2016 team, Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles:

“Douglas, who flies on the bars, is stylistically closer to Nadia Comaneci [a former Olympic gymnast from Romania and the first person to be awarded a perfect 10 in the sport’s history] than to Biles.”

Creating a team with athletes that have different approaches, outlooks, and styles makes the team agile and able to excel collectively as a team because each team member stands out in different events.

When recruiting and developing your organisation’s team, look to discover how your employees approach their work. What are their influences? Where do their strengths lie? Where can they add unique value to your organisation?  How do the individual members complement each other?



Your goal may not be to win a gold medal, and you may never venture into the world of competitive athletics. If you apply these principles to your diversity recruiting practices, however, then you’ll be able to outcompete others in your market like a coach dominating their sport in the Olympic Games.

Need help putting this all into practice? Schedule a free consultation to discuss your goals and define the best approach for your organisation. Call +44 (0)20 7627 3358 or email [email protected] to book in a time today. 

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