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Gavin Freeman - Business Olympian

June 21, 2017
Gavin Freeman
Gavin Freeman
Director of the Business Olympian
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Gavin was the team psychologist for the Winter Olympic team in Turrino 2006 and 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games. He was also Team Psychologist for the Olympic Archery Team in Sydney 2000.

At the professional level he has worked with a variety of athletes from the best sporting leagues around the world including the NBA, WNBA, and PGA, additionally he was a team Psychologist at the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

Gavin’s background is diverse as it is unique. He is a fully registered psychologist with experience in both the sporting and corporate world. A great cross section of experience of at the elite level in sport and business

His book, “The Business Olympian” released in June 2008 captures the mental toughness lessons learned from elite athletes and how these skills can be easily transferred into the corporate world.

Gavin’s second book, “Just Stop Motivating Me” was released in 2016. Just Stop Motivating Me is a new way of looking at why we act the way we do, how we can create smarter and more productive working and social environments. It further explores what is needed for individual to change the way they work / think and play. Introducing the concepts of “motivation to succeed” and “motivation to avoid failure” as part of a wider motivational continuum,

"The difference between good and great is the ability to perform consistently under pressure."
~ Gavin Freeman

Show Notes

My Story

I come from a family of accountants, so naturally I became a psychologist. I was at university searching for a way to craft a degree that would take me on a journey that would fulfil what I was interested in doing, uncovering the stuff that I didn’t even know that I didn’t know yet, but in which I would be passionate about learning. I never wanted to take a traditional pathway, at the time I don’t think I had enough awareness to realise it but I ended up taking a very interesting pathway. I met with the then heads of psychology and of human movement, informing them that they were not providing the option to do a double degree in both of these areas and in turn I asked for permission to do so. They were flexible enough to allow me to do a double degree in psychology and human movement, a sociology in sports and a sociology in sports psychology.

I was always interested in performance and how individuals were able to perform, from a psych perspective as opposed to a biomechanical perspective. Ironically, when I went to apply to do the double degree the following year, the two individual heads of the departments had actually left the university. The Dean then informed me that I could not do a double degree in these two fields, thankfully I already had the permission to do so in writing so was able to convince them to allow me to go through with the double degree in psychology and human movement. My interest lay in the psychology of movement, not necessarily sport, so from this the natural direction for me to follow was the path of sports psychology. I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the University of Southern Queensland to do a Master’s degree in sports psychology, upon completion I was selected for the role of postgraduate scholar at the Australian Institute of Sport (A.I.S).

I arrived at the A.I.S in 1998, at possibly the most fortuitous time given that the Olympics were being held in Sydney where Australia would have its largest team to date in attendance, the beauty of a home Olympics being that the home team does not need to qualify. This meant that not only did we have a bigger team of athletes but also greater opportunities to get into support positions for that team. I was attached to the archery team, who had never won a medal until the Sydney games where Simon Fairweather won gold.

Being part of the support structure of an Olympic team who won their first ever medal was a great way to start my career. Archery is a highly mental sport, it comes down to one of the core beliefs that I have around how we define the difference between good and great. I have a very definite view around this, it is not a technical difference but instead it is the ability to perform consistently under pressure. When you think about an archer, the ability for them to perform is given in that once you learn how to shoot an arrow that is a skill that you retain, the challenge is then to be able to shoot 16 arrows well. You can be the best archer in the world, for example take Simon Fairweather who won the gold medal in Sydney but in Athens got knocked out in the first round, this captures the vitality of the ability to perform under pressure which has underpinned all of the work that I have done in this area since.

Moving forward I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time at the AIS working in a variety of different sports and with a variety of different professional teams. I worked with the Tongan Rugby World Cup Team in 2003, which was a great insight into cultural differences and into how different individuals bring an elite mindset to a game where there is a common set of rules for all. Even looking at the different pre-game rituals, the Tongan team like the All Blacks have a hukkah and would sing in the changerooms. It is the different ways in which people approach their performance that has always fascinated me, understanding those insights around how we perform consistently under pressure whilst recognising the diversity and differences of the individuals who do so. What works for one athlete won’t necessary work for another, it is about challenging the status quo. The field of psychology, like many other industries, likes to think of the world in terms of models. When it comes to performance you don’t have these parameters, business is the same in that whilst commercially most organisations are around to generate profit in some form, they do so differently and have different values or ethics underpinning this. Although you can in simplicity say that money in is connected to expenses out and product delivered, they all do this differently.

I remained with the AIS for a number of years, before going on to being part of the support staff of the summer Olympic games in Athens, however was not able to attend because my son had just been born. I was then team psychologist for the Winter Olympic team in Torino, Italy in 2006. When you say the word psychologist most people seem to come to one of two conclusions, the first being that you can read minds which always amuses me or the second that you are the team cheerleader, that you are building people up and getting the motivation going. This could not be further from the truth, if there was ever a situation where you did not need a person motivating you, it would be at the Olympics. If you think about it, if someone is not motivated to go to the Olympics there is nothing that myself or anyone else can say to them to make them perform on the day, it has to come from self-generation.

During the Olympic Games, the goal of the sports psychologist is not about motivating the athletes, it is actually about helping the individual to understand the environment in which they are operating in to enable them to be able to perform under pressure. It is about recognising the distractions, recognising what can cause us to deviate from our goals when we are put under pressure. Whether you call it nerves or stress, it is the impact and emotional interpretation that an event has on an individual. Nerves means something different to everybody, you might define it as being stressed or feeling the pressure, all this is just a cognitive descriptor of an emotion which is ‘I am feeling something which is different from the norm’. Athletes will often train in a bubble, away from a competitive environment, my goal in the training phase is to create that competitive feeling. It is about replicating the environment to enable the athletes to become comfortable with ambiguity, this is no different from the corporate world. Discipline is a word which is thrown around a lot, we often think of it in terms of following, following within the parameters which we are given, I view it differently. I think of it as being focused around recognising the ambiguity that exists in our world and then determining how we operate within that world. My role at the actual Olympics comes down to reminding and refocusing the athletes on the work that we have done to date. Athletes will often get to a point where they will come to you on the day and tell you that they have forgotten how to do the very thing that they have spent the last 10 years training to do. Of course, they haven’t forgotten but the environment around them becomes challenging, they often succumb to that pressure. It is this that becomes the psychology of movement.

It seems as though the corporate world faces these same subtle challenges, albeit on a different playing field. It was around 14 years ago that I began to transition from the sporting world into the corporate world, recognising the opportunity to apply my skills and knowledge within this new arena. Ironically, at the time I faced a huge amount of backlash in terms of not being able to get a job. I was applying for learning and development roles and for analyst roles within the learning and development space. My argument for employment was that I have a Master’s degree in psychology and had built training programs for top performing athletes however, the consistent response that I was receiving from recruiters was that I could not do this in a corporate setting. For some reason, I could not build a workshop or understand the business world. As frustrated as I was by this, instead of giving up, I went back to do an MBA in order to be able to prove that link between my psychology background and the corporate world. It’s amazing how easily perspective can be changed, I found that a particular recruiting company and two other companies that I had applied for previously were suddenly requesting interviews as soon as I changed my CV to reflect that I was studying an MBA. I was then offered roles with both those companies, nothing had changed in my world other than having applied and being accepted into the MBA program. The irony of the MBA is that they gave me course credits for a number of subjects I had done during my Master’s degree. It was interesting at the time to see the lack of insight that some organisations had around skills that individuals have which can be transferred across. I don’t think that the same thing would happen today, I think that most organisations now realise that innovation and diversity come from a variety of different areas, people are now able to move into roles in which they have no formal training but where companies recognise the value of a differing perspective that they can bring.

I was able to make the transition and began my journey into the corporate world where I spent very little time working for other people as I had always had the dream of starting my own business. I then wrote my first book The Business Olympian, I always knew that I was going to write a book. I was being interviewed at the time by a reporter from the Financial Review, it was a traditional interview about the behaviour of athletes and why they do what they do. I wasn’t thinking about it much at the time, but I flippantly turned to the reporter and made a remark along the lines of ‘this is a boring story, I have done this so many times, I am writing a book around how the mindset of elite athletes will transfer into the mindset of elite corporates’. I wasn’t actually writing this book at the time. The reporter asked a few questions, as it was a topic I had been thinking I threw out some suggestions about what athletes do which I thought corporates could learn to do, I was making it up as I went along. The following Friday I received a call from my father who said to me that he didn’t know that I was writing a book, to which I responded neither did I. He told me to read the back page of the Financial Review, sure enough there was an article about the book I was writing with a massive picture of my head alongside it.

I ended up writing the book and put it through to every publisher in order to get it done which still took three or four years. It was all amount the mental toughness aspects. It was writing the first book which really catapulted me into starting up my own business, a consultancy business focused on performing under pressure and how we build high performing teams in an organisation where we have individuals who understand the concept but who may have never put it into practice. Using the sports analogy was key, they loved it and It really resonated with individuals, especially when people realised that they didn’t need to do the physical` part but only the thinking like an athlete. Fast-forward a few years, I wrote a second book around motivation and how we actually motivate and understanding the concepts of motivation within individuals in the workplace. This time I thought I had better plan the book before announcing it, the publisher of the first book then went on to publish the second.

This has all been the start of the journey, what is fascinating has then been the way that it has meandered through the corporate world. While I am still working with high performing teams, I now do this from a very different way from in the beginning. The business has evolved and grown, we now have people working with us, we are in a space now where what the Business Olympian group does is focus on high performing teams but in a number of different areas in a strategic innovation mindset. The biggest part of our business is helping organisations build high performing teams in situations of crisis, think back to the awful events of the Lindt Café siege or the Bourke Street Rampage. Thinking about how organisations respond to this, it doesn’t even have to be such large scale catastrophes but smaller threats such as cyberattacks or internal whistle blower leaks. Those things that effect their ability to protect their people, to operate and to protect their reputation. We help organisations to build plans, we train them and then test them with very realistic simulations for organisations in order for them to evaluate the plans prepared and the training provided to deal with such a situation. We recognise that whilst the senior leaders are experts in their own rights, CEOS, CIOS, CFOS of large organisations, they are also smart enough to realise that crisis management is something that they do not do on a regular basis and in which they try actively to avoid. They recognise that due to this there is potential to upskill them to respond. We have seen such significant catastrophes where CEOS have not responded appropriately, which has led to significant impacts on their business and on themselves.

If you remember back to the bush fires that ravaged Melbourne in 2010, Christine Nixon who was Chief of Police at the time, went off to get a haircut in the middle of the fires. While in isolation what she did is not wrong, the perception that it created did significant damage to her professional reputation. The more recent example would be the ride fatalities at Dreamworld, looking at the response of the Ardent Leisure CEO at the time, who has voluntarily stepped down since. There were four people killed on a supposedly family friendly ride, the Ardent Leisure CEO and the Chairman did not handle the situation appropriately, being caught out directly lying to the media about being in contact with the families of the victims. One of the reporters in the media conference stood up and said ‘no you haven’t, I have got them on the phone right now and you have not contacted them’. The impact that the lie had on the reputation of the business cannot be measured, how do you rebuild and regain trust? You cannot get it fixed, you can’t just go and purchase more trust. If you think about in the sporting context, it is the same. If you break the trust within a team, how do you then go about repairing that trust with your teammates, with your staff and with your community? There is no hard and fast rule about how you go building trust, the way that trust is built depends on the organisation and its operational context.

The current direction of the business very much aligns with the concept of my third book, Just stop motivating me. It is a very different take on the concept of motivation, most leaders will agree that they often reflect on how much of their time they spend trying to motivate their people to do the things that the need them to do. You almost deskill yourself in your technical skill and what you were trained to do in order to quickly upskill yourself in what you weren’t trained to do. The head of an Accounting Practice is no longer spending their time doing debits and credits, most of their time is spent with clients or managing staff which is a completely different role. We often get caught in this rut of feeling like we have to motivate our people, this is where I think we get it all wrong. The book is aligned with telling managers that we need to think about motivation differently, people do not need to be motivated, we just need to understand their motivations. I believe that every person is motivated, they are just motivated by different things and in different contexts. In the days of caveman motivation came from survival, we then moved into an industrial society where we saw the works of people such as Maslow come through who talked about a hierarchy of needs, certain needs which need to be met before other needs can be fulfilled. We then started to get conflicting information that people were being motivated out of order, suddenly we started seeing people volunteering to do things unpaid where money had always been considered a motivator. There has to then be something more to motivate. Most organisations still use the concept of the carrot and the stick as well as positive and negative reinforcements, for example the use bonuses and performance management. I question though how successful this model is, what happens to those background staff who are working as hard as possible but who do not get a bonus because the company has not met certain targets or has not performed well. What happens to that motivation when they realise that the bonus is not coming? I like to look at motivation more across a continuum as opposed to a carrot and stick or positive and negative. The book says to the reader that you as a leader need to stop motivating your people, you need to understand what it is that motivates them. I think that people are always motivated, the continuum shifts from being motivated to succeed to being motivated to avoid failure, it is the different contexts in which they are in which drives this.

Someone who is motivated to succeed sees failure simply as a stepping stone to success as opposed to someone motivated to avoid failure who is overly concerned with the negative evaluation of themselves by themselves or by others. In some scenarios, we may be very motivated to succeed whilst in other scenarios, even where doing the same task, we might be motivated to avoid failure. Take for example public speaking, some people love it but even if you hated it, I could get you to stand up and deliver a public speaking engagement. The difference would be your motivation, those who love public speaking would be thinking this is great, if I make a mistake I will learn from it whilst those who hate public speaking will still do it but they are always thinking I better not stuff this up.

During the research for my second book I put out a call to a number of CEOS and the like for a series of interviews, one of the most fascinating interviews was with Nelson Mandala’s personal bodyguard. I asked them all questions about my personal theory of motivation in order to see whether it actually held true. All of them still used the word motivation but did not describe it in the way that motivation is actually used. For example, I interviewed John Durkhan, the CEO of Coles, while he used the word motivation he never described it in terms of him being the motivator, it was more about creating the environment and context for his people to be self-motivated. He was very aware that there was no way he could motivate 100,000, so he didn’t even try. The interviews that fascinated me were where the actual individuals challenged themselves, CEOS who meet with all those who do not report directly to them or who before going to work actively determine what mindset to bring into the workplace that day. It is more than emotional intelligence, it is a conscious decision to understand one’s self and the impact that you have on other people. You cannot have emotional intelligence, the interactions with others, unless you first spend some time with yourself.

Inspiration quotes

I have already mentioned the quote behind my theory ‘that the difference between good and great is the ability to perform consistently under pressure’, the other bit of insight I would like to leave you with is that when most people are faced with a challenge the mindset tends to adopt what is referred to as an ‘aim, adjust and fire’. The brain says I am going to aim for that, I am then going to adjust or tweak it and then I am going to pull the pin and fire. The reality is that this is not what happens, realistically we actually aim, adjust, adjust, adjust and adjust again, sometimes we do still fire but often it is too late, we have missed an opportunity or we have fired in the wrong direction. Rather than us always using the ‘aim, adjust, fire’ the question is how can we implement an ‘aim, fire and then adjust’ mindset, where we fire and get the feedback from which we can learn and can adjust? This is much more aligned with my motivated to succeed approach where failure is just a stepping stone to future success. I have built a questionnaire available on my website which you can complete which will give you an idea about your propensity to sit on both sides of the motivational continuum.

Recommended Reading

Ironically as an author, I am not a great reader but there are a few books that I have read recently which have really resonated with me. The first is Richard Branson’s My Life which I found a fascinating insight into the way he thinks as an individual who is very much motivated to succeed.

The other book that I have read recently is Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book, David and Goliath, which is a great insight into how small takes on big and how innovation can often overcome years of establishment. Both of these books capture the essence of my motivational theory.


You can visit my personal site gavinfreeman.com.au, which is moreso about the speaking side of things and the books or our business site businessolympian.com.au which has all the corporate consultancy type work.




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