The Olympics Can Teach Us about Hiring

What can the Olympic Games teach us about hiring?

We know that the best athletes in the world are very dedicated. They have spent tremendous amounts of time and effort practicing to reach the highest levels of competition.

Hours of practice, years of experience…all this time can make a difference.

But not quite how you might think.



Practice doesn’t make perfect

If you looked at each athlete’s résumé for their previous experience and time spent practicing, what would you learn? Could you pick the winners?


Research has found that the amount of time athletes invest explains around 18% of the variation in performance outcomes.

The remaining 82% of the variation in athletic performance has nothing to do with how much time they put in.


If you really want to pick the winners, this clearly isn’t the best way.


Who takes home the gold?

But we’re talking about the Olympics here.

These elite athletes have incredible stories! They have sacrificed many more hours, days, weeks, and years than your average athlete. Shouldn’t that make a bigger difference?

Quite the opposite.


The amount of time that Olympic athletes invest explains around 1% of the variation in their performance outcomes.

The remaining 99% of the variation has nothing to do with how much time they put in. If you used time spent to pick the medalists, it would be almost the same as guessing at random.


Experience means less at higher levels

Practice makes a big difference at the lower levels. Amateurs benefit the most from getting more experience.

But as you move toward the top, time matters less and less. At the highest levels of experience and expertise, it’s barely a differentiator at all.


What can this teach us about hiring?

Résumés are much more useful for some things than they are for others.

Previous experience can show us if someone’s meets a basic standard. Does this person qualify to be here in the first place?

But it rarely shows us how well someone will actually perform.

Businessman Crossing the Finish Line --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis


We already knew from a previous analysis that time spent practicing is a very weak indicator of professional performance.

But perhaps now we know why the effect was so weak. The employees in this previous analysis were in moderately- to highly-skilled positions. Much like the Olympians, these are the positions where we expect variations in time spent to make the least difference.

Practice and Performance



Image credits: aklwitz, TLVandmore, meridican

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