Triathlon Culture

A few weeks ago, I was at the Guelph Lake Triathlon Weekend to support some of the participants. The event was amazing: the weather was perfect, the location was beautiful, and there are worse ways to pass the time than watching a bunch of good-looking people in spandex. What really stood out, however, was the triathlon culture.

The participants in the swimming-cycling-running events were all amazingly supportive of one another. On the Saturday morning, there was a Try-a-Tri for people who were just starting out. There were at least as many supporters as there were participants, and people were cheering for everybody, be they in first place or last. I’m not sure if it was the endorphin rush or simply the good weather and camaraderie, but everyone seemed very happy to be there.

The triathletes themselves were the poster children for intrinsic motivation. Nobody was making these people train for weeks, wake up early on a Saturday, and run full-speed into a chilly lake. These people were there because they wanted to be there: not for pay and not for any particular future benefit, save for a feeling of satisfaction and bragging rights.

It all got me to thinking that perhaps we should try to integrate a little bit of triathlon culture into the workplace:

Encourage company ambassadors. Recently, I was at an event with a number of people training for Ironman Canada in attendance. As I’ve often wondered what it is that makes a fully-sane adult decide to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and then run a marathon, I tried to find out what drew them to the challenge. Almost everyone I talked to started out as a spectator, cheering on friends or family, and simply caught the bug, thought “I can do that,” and signed up. And these converts made such good ambassadors for the sport that they almost had me signing up. In most organizations, there are enthusiastic people who can act as champions for projects and change efforts. Companies would do well to encourage these mentors and role models as they are naturally skilled at motivating others.

Expect change and prepare for it: Triathletes know that they will be swimming, cycling, and running. Since very few athletes seem inclined to swim in their bike helmets and running shoes, they must be prepared to change during the event. In order to assist with this change, there is a special transition area where athletes can store their bikes and switch gear for the next leg of the race. Triathletes practice transitioning before the race, so that they are not scrambling around on the day, stuck inside a wet suit or trying to remember where they put their running shoes. There are lots of volunteers to help. (At big events, like the Ironman series, they even have volunteer “strippers” to help athletes out of their wet suits: a selfless role that…) Preparing, practicing, and enlisting people to help can help smooth any kind of change, including changes in the workplace.

It’s important to let people run their own race. While there are some very gifted athletes out there, few triathletes are equally good at swimming, running, and cycling. While one might be at the back of the pack in the swim, one can make up time on the bike; the people one passes on the bike may be better runners. Eventually, triathletes stop looking at what the guy beside them is doing and start to run their own race. Often companies treat their employees as though they are all sprint competitors running the same heat, comparing everyone’s monthly sales figures, or number of successful hires, or lines of code written. It’s hard to look ahead when you are always looking to either side. Companies can encourage people to run their own race by being creative with bonuses, job titles, and career paths: many roads lead to Rome.

Slow and strategic wins the race. In many organizations, people are judged on speed of execution: how quickly leads are converted to sales, how soon a deal can be brought to market, how quickly funding is increased. If you work in a publicly held company you have, at most, three months to move the needle. There is a tendency to be fast out of the gate, racing to the finish line as quickly as possible: a greyhound chasing the rabbit. It can work well for a while, but eventually people get burned out: there aren’t many 70 year-old competitive sprinters. Triathletes are much more strategic in nature. Pacing is key: there is little use in swimming so fast that you are too tired to cycle, and you need to conserve some energy for the run. Triathletes don’t just rush out of the gate. They plan and they set a reasonable pace. Companies would do well to think like a triathlete: More fox, less hound.

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