Time Management Secrets of 13 Olympic Athletes

Photo: Kevin Kruse
Photo: Kevin Kruse

This article was originally published on Forbes.

How do Olympic athletes maintain their focus, discipline and energy? How do the unsponsored athletes juggle their rigorous training with their “day job” and family obligations? What are the time management and productivity secrets of Olympians?

I recently had the chance to interview 13 Olympic athletes from around the world while researching my new book, 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management. The athletes varied in gender, sport and nationality and their advice varied, but there were also clear themes that emerged.

Photo: Kevin Kruse
Photo: Kevin Kruse

Similar to the other ultra-productive people I interviewed, Olympic athletes stressed the importance of scheduling everything on the calendar and having clear priorities.

What was unique to this group was how often they brought up the importance of sleep and the need for recovery. Maximizing energy, not just time, was a common refrain.

Shannon Miller is the most decorated gymnast in American history. As a member of the 1992 and 1996 United States Olympic women’s gymnastics team she won a combined seven Olympic medals. Miller emphasizes the power of the calendar—scheduling down to the minute:

During training, I balanced family time, chores, schoolwork, Olympic training, appearances, and other obligations by outlining a very specific schedule. I was forced to prioritize…To this day, I keep a schedule that is almost minute by minute…Grabbing a power nap to facilitate recovery instead of wasting an hour online. Focus on those things that bring you further to your goal each and every day. Every moment counts!

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Toby Jenkins emphasized the power of mentors and coaches to save literally years of time. Jenkins competed in the Athens Olympics in water polo for Australia. Today he is CEO of Bluewire Media, a web strategy and digital marketing firm. His advice:

Find someone whose work you trust and admire and who has already done specifically what you want to do. Ask them for help and then filter their advice for your own situation. It's not about saving an hour or there. It's about saving you potentially years to get to goal.

Sara Hendershot, an Olympic rower for the United States, competed in the 2012 Olympics and is currently training for Rio 2016. Sara focused on the power of “no”.

Part of being an Olympic athlete is just that there are a lot of things that I have to miss, and moments or events that I have to skip. I've almost just gotten to the point where I'm used to having to say “No” to things. It's just getting good at knowing your limits and not trying to overstretch those limits because when I do, that's the times that I get injured or I get sick.

Will Dean, an Olympic Rower for Canada, competed in London 2012. He is currently training for Rio 2016. Among other things, he talked to me about the power of “no” and recovery.

Don't feel bad about saying no to people if you're too busy. People will always want your time, and while many things might seem small, they can add up quickly. You have to prioritize your sport and your health, only add to that if it doesn't compromise those two things. Realize that good time management doesn't mean filling your day with non-stop productivity. To be at your best, you need some down time. Don't feel bad about napping, watching some TV, or going for a walk. Don't sacrifice your sleep. Sooner or later, it will catch up with you.

Briana Scurry won two gold medals as the starting goalkeeper for the United States women’s soccer team in 1996 and 2004. Her advice:

About 6 months before an Olympics, I would relate all the decisions I made to the ultimate vision of winning gold. The simple question I would ask several times a day was “Will this activity help me perform better and therefore help us win gold?” This question guided me in the right direction. Even if the activity was taking the day off or stepping back for a bit to get better perspective, being mindful of that vision helped me choose the best course of action in order to achieve the goal.

Roy-Allan Burch, an Olympic swimmer for Bermuda, competed in the 2008 and 2012 games. He is currently training for Rio 2016. His advice:

Each day is dedicated toward a vigorous amount of training and when not training, it's important to maximize recovery for the next workout…Having a detailed schedule to follow makes maximizing each day easier. Rather than thinking about what needs to happen in an allotted time, one can just execute the training or recovery that needs to take place.

Katie Uhlaender is a three time Olympic skeleton racer for the United States, and 2012 world champion. Her advice:

One of the most important parts to managing your time well is having an agenda, meaning you have a focus each day and a goal each week. When you are an athlete and constantly training and competing, rest is incredibly important so that you are able to be at your very best physically and mentally. It is important to also schedule time for yourself, to rest, or to refocus. 

Andrew Weibrecht, an Olympic skier for the United States, won a bronze medal in 2010, and the silver medal in the 2014 Olympics. His advice:

The sport that I do is so all consuming in terms of travel and commitment that when I am training and competing that is all I focus on, and when I am off sport I am totally detached. It is more about productive compartmentalizing and making the most of the moment whether that is time off/rest or sport.

Chris Carmichael, a cyclist for the United States, competed in the 1984 Olympics. His advice:

Rest is perhaps the most overlooked and undervalued aspect of time management. In training we have to teach athletes to focus on prioritizing quality over quantity, and to achieve higher training quality an athlete has to be properly rested and recovered between hard efforts. Rest, therefore, becomes part of training rather than the absence of training. 

Julie McDonald, a long-distance freestyle swimmer for Australia, won a bronze medal at the 1988 Olympics. Her advice:

For me, it's about scheduling my time. If I don't schedule my time I get distracted and am not productive. So I allocate time for exercise, charity, work and fun! That way I stay organized.

Scott Danberg has appeared in five Paralympics representing America in track and field, swimming and powerlifting. He is a Fitness Director at the Pritikin Longevity Center. His advice:

As much as one may believe they need to “live and breathe” their sport, life balance, specifically interests outside of the sport itself, is as important a quality for athletic success as the sport training itself.

Vince Poscente, a speed skier for Canada, competed in the 1992 Olympics. Today he is CEO of Big Goals Fast Institute, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Age of Speed. His advice:

The biggest time waster, especially in a competitive landscape is to try to do it all. Start every day listing off your five MITs (Most Important Things) and get those done first.

Erin Hamlin, an Olympic luger for the United States, competed in the 2006 and 2010 Olympics, and won a bronze medal in 2014. Her advice:

When it comes to training, I guess I have just always prioritized it so it was easy to make time for. It has also allowed me to put other things off because training is more important at the time.

Although we might not all be training for the 2016 Rio games, we are definitely all striving to achieve gold in our careers and with our families. How will these time and productivity tips from Olympians get you closer to the finish line?


Kevin is the author of 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management: The Productivity Habits of 7 Billionaires, 13 Olympic Athletes, 29 Straight-A Students and 239 Entrepreneurs.

CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at https://leadx.org/preview.