Learning and the Olympics


I am on Olympic come down. Suddenly that micro-universe is no more and I am sad and wistful. It was such a special experience and one I will never have again. I am glad that I made the effort to be there and be part of it. The outstanding moment of all those hours of watching and walking and security checks was seeing Mo Farrah win the 5,000 meters in a full stadium where 80,000 people were on their feet and shouting. He went from a trailing last place in the early laps, to second, and hit the front in the final lap. Then that burst of speed that reassured you in the dying seconds that he was going to win for sure. He could almost have planned the run for maximum drama, taking us from dread to extraordinary tension, then excitement and finally relief. It was an epic in 13 minutes.

But what of the overall experience? And what has that got to do with learning? Well more and more, the longer I reflect. But here are a few initial thoughts that may strike a chord:

1. Context is critical. Couple that with a great atmosphere and you have a really potent mix. The focus on the main event was easy as everything else went so smoothly. You entered the stadium ready to enjoy the experience. Learning is so much more than the actual programme of study, and the detail of how you line up the experience is a very important part of the whole package. See things through the eyes of your learners and remember that their journey is not the one to the seat, but starts well before that. The coming to learning is as important as the event itself.

2. The organisation has to be spectacular. There are so many obvious analogies for the Games Makers, the signage, the process of getting into the venues that I need not labour the point, however, it is still worth making over and over again. And if you have high numbers then getting the organisation right is more important still, as one small failure can overload the system and cause chaos. As organisers, it is all about numbers. For the learner it is about the individual or the very small group.

3. Attention to detail pays off. Not just in the preparation of the athletes but in the colour choice, logos and badging, everywhere attention to detail was plain to see and it was critical to the overall success. How much of the online experience, for example, pays attention to the log-in process, the colour scheme and the quality of the experience?

4. It is the team that really matters even if an outstanding individual gets the attention. That raft of support is fundamental. The athletes worked very hard for months before the Games in order to deliver that one second or one minute or one swim, perfectly. What sustains the individual is the team and the coach. Why more learning is not team focused is beyond me and that team focus should be in support, preparation as well as implementation.

5. Coaching really works. There is only so much you can achieve on your own. You need someone to stretch you, you need someone to support the behavioural change. In sport it seems obvious, in learning less so even if the same conditions apply.

6. Preparation is everything. The task was abundantly clear to each individual, and nobody went into to the process without a plan and without support. Great performance requires both physical and mental preparation, and the belief you could do it, helped ensure that you actually did it. Hesitation was always punished.

7. Creating a learning world is critical. The process of learning is rather like the Olympics: a metaworld. There was a sense that you were entering a different reality with a different focus once you stepped into a venue. That is hard to explain to anyone not there, but that sense of moving from one place to another place was very powerful and helped the focus. Learning should be like that. You should be entering somewhere consciously different that holds your attention even if that concentrated burst lasts fifteen minutes. The quality of the whole learning environment is very important and not enough attention is paid to it.

8. Technology matters. Technology was everywhere and crucial but it was a means to an end. It dominated most of the the processes, yet the athletes numbers were still fastened to their chests by small safety pins even if the numbers themselves were chipped and gave exact reading for speed position etc. Safety pins (invented by the ancient greeks) were fit for purpose and no one trie to mess around with them, but the more sophisticated technologies made everything else possible. The invisible technology processes made everything work and their lack of intrusion was part of their success. The less we were aware of the underpinning technology, the more we could appreciate the features that were made possible by technology.

9. Recognition is crucial. The amazing acknowledgement of success or contribution by fellow team members was clear and obvious. A congratulatory hug or a commiseration was constant throughout out the two weeks. Everyone was recognised and everyone’s contribution was acknowledged. The primacy of the team was self-evident.

10. Always celebrate. You could never accuse the Olympics of cutting back on celebration! But celebrating success, and celebrating achievement was wonderful and hard not to get involved. If we make a big point of acknowledging physical and athletic prowess, why not intellectual effort and achievement. You rarely see big smiles on the faces of a group who has just finished a learning programme. But there could be! And perhaps there should be!

The feeling that you were left with was of a well oiled machine that directed everything towards the success of the performers. Everyone had a single aim in mind which was to make the whole experience, that led to that, as perfect as possible for all concerned. Imagine a learning environment that operated on similar principles. It would be amazing.


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