Courtesy of Eric McQueen
We all know the story; in 2000, fifteen-year-old Michael Phelps ascended to the Olympics as the youngest male to qualify for the Games in sixty-eight years. He went on to dominate the competition for the next sixteen years and-in the process- transcended our sport to new heights. He scored record endorsement deals, sponsored an exorbitant number of new products flooding the market, and brought the business of swimming into the forefront. As he walks through the doors of retirement, he is most recently seen with Jordan Spieth on the greens at the rambunctious Phoenix Open, and announced he is giving venture capital a try.
We all know this narrative, he was a guy with skill, intelligence, ambition, and most importantly, edge.
So my next question is, who is the next elite swimmer ready to take the lead? With NCAA’s right around the corner, a few athletes’ come to mind. If someone does not step up, do we simply allow all that Phelps did for the sport, all that he worked to do, simply regress?
Like anything in sport and business, all good things must come to an end. However, unlike business, sports will always have the uncanny ability to thrive through paradigm shifts. Such shifts should always be welcomed by the next generation of athletes; it is a way to make an imprint on the sport and the business of their sport. It allows for the next generation of business-minded athletes to write the narrative in the manner they see fit.
How is this done? Well, let’s assume that near unmatched athletic skill, intelligence, and ambition are prerequisites that have been met by our next ambassador. The final component is ‘edge.’ Why is this term so important? Simply put, it sells.
Phil Knight said that “it’s not whom you know. It’s not how much money you have. It’s very simple. It’s whether or not you have edge and have the guts to use it.” So, what is ‘edge’? This idea will vary from athlete to athlete and business to business. But as I see it…
‘edge’s is understanding that failure can lurk around every corner, but if you meet it head-on, you will have the ability to keep going. It is understanding that ‘failure’ is not a prerequisite for success;
‘edge’ is the ability in an athlete to allow doubt to lose to confidence in every instance;
‘edge’ is controlling the one thing in your career which you have full control – effort;
‘edge’ is seeking and seizing opportunities and understanding the only thing in this life we cannot buy is time;
‘edge’ is maintaining razor-sharp focus and intensity that lifts those around him or her, to new heights;
‘edge’ is preparation. The long lonely days of staring at a line in the pool, the rack of free weights, the steps of the stadium. Most outsiders never see these days; all they see is success in the pool. In that vein, ‘edge’ is dependent on preparation. After all, success is never accidental.
This concept gives the modern swimming athlete an image in the pool, but also, out. Young athlete’s today have been entrepreneurs and marketers their entire lives. Few have lived without the fully-evolved world of social media. Without truly realizing, young athletes today have been marketing and advancing their own brand for years by simply engaging in the interconnected world in which we live.
What does this mean? We are experiencing a blended paradigm shift in the sport, which holds traditional and evolving business models. Our sport holds a plethora of fully-equipped business minds ready to transform the manner in which we look at the sport and its elite athletes. The foundation is there, the skill in the pool is there; it is time to unleash the two on the business world.
Let’s examine the traditional paradigm,
- Swim at a world-class, elite level;
- Peak the interest of various athletic companies;
- Sign endorsement and sponsorship deals;
- Repeat in a four-year Olympic cycle.
This model is horizontal in nature, meaning athlete’s continue to copy the things that work. It is easier to imagine because we know what it looks like. Swimmers need to look towards being more vertical or intensive in nature, meaning they need to start doing new things – forging creative progress. This requires doing something new, something that has not yet been done.
Athlete’s in the power five sports of football, basketball, baseball, hockey, and soccer, have taken their business prowess to new heights. They are starting trendy businesses, designing and manufacturing products and technology, providing services to global organizations, and constructing and managing non-profits with a global reach.
Endorsement deals, sponsorship deals, company ambassadorships, and an endless demand for stroke clinics, are the icing to a great season or career, but elite swimmers should be thinking bigger and bolder, and much earlier in their careers – the earlier the better. They should be thinking startups, ownership interests, technology which advances our sport, innovative charities to connect with a larger base of people of need. The modern swimmer with a business mind needs to have a more creative approach to their future and potential business ideas. The modern swimmer must perpetuate change with a sense of mission to change the world in a positive way.
I am positive there will be a sort of resistance to this notion by the old-school, tough-as-nails coaches out there, arguing that an athlete’s business creativity while focusing on the pool for the Olympics, is an unnecessary distraction. This could not be any further from the truth. Pursuing passions while training breeds creativity, creativity breeds a clear mind, a clear mind breeds self-actualization, and self-actualization breeds the strongest component to balanced training and competition success – positive mental health.
The modern-day business-minded swimmer should ask, how can I manifest the potential in myself, inside and outside the pool? I believe, wholeheartedly, that young, elite athletes must invest in themselves in all aspects of their lives, and never divest on looking too far into the past and/or the future. The time to capitalize on an athlete’s truest athletic and business potential is today.
What you do right now is your legacy. So, I ask, who’s next?