Bela Karolyi knew the U.S. women's gymnastics team would win gold at this year's Olympics. He told me so when I interviewed him in March. The girls had the talent. They had the drive. But, perhaps more importantly, as Karolyi tells it, they also had management.
Individual coaching is, of course, extremely important in gymnastics too. In our full interview, Karolyi tells a great story about how a "tiger" like Nadia Comaneci requires much different handling than a "timid little girl" like Kerri Strug. But, to achieve victory in the team events, one needs to get women who are accustomed to competing against each other to instead join together and build a collective strength that dominates the mats.
How do you turn fierce rivals into world-beating teammates? By creating a system that puts them together as much as possible, that makes their training more uniform, that gives them better benchmarks, that shows them how each person will contribute to the group effort. It's the same way you build strong, market-beating organizational groups.
Most of us remember the U.S. winning gold in the 1996 Olympics, after an injured Strug heroically landed her vault. After that, however, the national team fell into what Karolyi calls "disastrous condition". He argued, as he had before, for the creation of a centralized training program. But the U.S. gymnastics federation, and other American coaches, resisted. Karolyi understood this to some extent. After all, the system he'd created in Romania — where parents simply handed over their six-year-olds to him — wasn't feasible in the U.S. Still, even his arguments for a semi-centralized teaching regimen — through which all the top competitors would regularly train together and go away with "homework" (much like a management offsite) — were ignored. "What — send my kids to you?" was the attitude Karolyi remembers getting from his fellow coaches. As a result, he says, the American athletes weren't as ready for competition as the Russians or the Romanians or the Chinese.
The 1999 Gymnastics World Championships marked a turning point. The women's team performed so poorly that the U.S. federation finally gave Karolyi the go-ahead to create his program. "When we had that blessing, the clubs were interested in being part of it," he recalls. "Then when they saw the structure of the workouts, the intensity, the duration, the testing, the technical and physical improvements, they said, "Wow. Thank you very much."
It helped that he had also stepped down from running his own gym; other coaches no longer saw him as a competitive threat. And it helped when, in 2001, he ceded the role of national team coordinator to his "more diplomatic" wife, Martha. (Two points to which managers should also pay heed.) "Ever since, the national team has been better and better," Karolyi says.
Indeed, when it comes to Olympic success his recipe of talent plus drive plus individual coaching plus strategic team management is working. Following bronze for the U.S. women in Sydney, it was silver in Beijing — and, of course, gold in London.