8 Lessons Social Media Practitioners Can Learn from Gymnasts #CSL2012 #CiscoEmp

July 26, 2012 - 5 Comments

As a former gymnast, I am an Olympics nut. I’m pretty much going to turn into a couch potato for the next 2+ weeks. I wholeheartedly admire the athletes that represent any country and I believe in the spirit of the Games. Those of you who have competed in or committed to a sport in some shape or form know the discipline, persistence, sacrifices and hard work it takes to perfect a skill or improve your speed.

As I think about gymnastics, inevitably my mind starts drawing parallels between this graceful yet challenging sport and social media. Here are 8 lessons social media practitioners can learn from gymnasts. 

1. Dedication: if you’re not committed as a gymnast, you will not be able to reach your full potential. This applies to social media too. If you’re not dedicated to keeping your channels alive with engaging content, you will not be able to reap all the benefits of social media. Social is not just about campaigns or amplification; it is about delighting your audience with on-going engagement in a conversational manner.   

2. Focus: can you imagine performing flight series and multiple aerial elements on the 4-inch wide (10 centimeters) balance beam that is 4.07 feet (124 centimeters) high without staying focused? If the athlete loses her focus, she will wobble or maybe even fall, which will be reflected in her score.

The same concept is true in social media. Know your target audience and stay focused on delivering what matters to THEM. By doing so, you can help them tune out the noise and cut through the clutter. In addition, it will help you stay on budget and efficently use your resources.

3. Conditioning: if you have ever wondered where gymnasts get their bodies from, look no further than conditioning. Conditioning is a system of different exercises that help an athlete build strength, power, endurance, flexibility and agility. It is needed before the gymnast can learn or master a new skill, or perform high-intensity routines lasting up to 90 seconds. As you can imagine, this is an on-going activity and a key part of the training regimen.  

In the world of social media, “conditioning” is getting your house in order through gaining buy-in from your executives (blog 1, blog 2), educating your employees on your social media policy, training them on social media how to’s and recruiting subject matter experts not only to provide functional expertise to your audience but also to help your company scale its social media efforts.

A quick tip: it is very important to revisit the topics mentioned above and adjust your deliverables on a regular basis. Don’t just set things up at the beginning and then walk away.      

4. Visualization: is a technique many gymnasts use to “see, say and do”(1) a routine or skill. Without really performing the routine or skill, the gymnast moves his or her body using small arm sets (i.e. “little movements”) to feel the movement in the body and says his or her words while visualizing the skill. Essentially the gymnast plans out what he or she is going to do and how, and projects the desired outcome.

This reminds me of the principles of social media planning and aligning your plan to your business objectives. The more thoroughly you plan, the more concise, consistent and powerful outputs you can deliver.

Let’s pause here for a second. When I say planning, I mean not only planning your engagement (i.e. talking) but also listening. Lead with listening. (In fact, you should listen twice as much as you speak). This is a common challenge. As eager and enthusiastic you may be to jump in right away, it’s highly beneficial to listen first. Listening to (and familiarizing yourself with) your target audience’s careabouts, pain points, competitive considerations, etc can help your engagement strategy tremendously.    

5. Practice: despite all the visualization, there will be times that you will need to remedy a situation or just go with the flow. That’s where practice comes in. Practicing a skill over and over will help you handle unexpected situations. The same is true for social media. The more you practice, the “smoother” your interactions will become, the faster you will recover and the less you will panic.  

6. Experiment: gymnasts have a ton of courage and an insatiable drive to learn and improve. Without experimentation, there would be no new skills and the sport would become stagnant. “When [Nadia] Comaneci scored a perfect 10.0 on the uneven bars [at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal], her big skill was a handstand…In the 2008 Olympics, top athletes… performed high-flying release moves, one-handed pirouettes and flipped or twisted two rotations in the dismount. (2)”    

I’m sure you can see how this relates to social media. Experimentation should always be encouraged. Besides your own ideas, be sure to look to other companies, individuals, industries, segments, platforms and countries for inspiration. It helps move this discipline forward, push the vendors to deliver the next generation of tools and resources, connect with your customers in unique and meaningful ways, and ultimately differentiate yourself from the competition.

7. Mistakes: mistakes in gymnastics are inevitable. When gymnasts fall off an apparatus, they quickly get up and continue on.    

In the corporate world, mistakes are often times looked upon negatively. We want to talk about our successes much more than about our failed attempts because that’s what’s expected of us. We need to change our way of thinking about mistakes. They will happen. It’s our ability to recover as quickly and as gracefully as possible that will make the difference. The lesson to be learned from gymnasts is that if you fail, learn from your mistakes, correct them quickly and try again.

8. Leaves: the definition of a “leave” in gymnastics is “once the gymnast knows the technique for each event it’s a matter of working hard enough and leaving everything on the floor in practice and not holding anything back” (3).  To do so, they have to put their hearts and souls into the skill or routine they’re performing.

Just like you do. Give it everything you’ve got and be authentic.

These are the key lessons I think gymnasts can teach the world of social media. What’s your favorite sport or exercise and what can social media practitioners learn from it? I’d love to hear from you.



(1)Gymnastike, Mental Edge Mondays, Doc Ali on How to Visualize Your Gymnastics 

(2)Livestrong, The History of Women’s Gymnastics

(3)Livestrong, What Are Leaves in Gymnastics?

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  1. Great insights and analogy, Petra. While I can’t speak directly (as a gymnast), I do believe in the importance of a good coach.

    As it relates to social media, you might not have a coach (although there are plenty of social media consultants who provide that service), but you’ll be more effective if you apply learnings from all the wonderful people you interact with. So keep your eyes wide open and learn from those around you.

  2. Love the comparison between sports and social media; often think of sports as separate from business, but both are just as competitive and require dedication, conditioning and training.

  3. great article and perspective..keep the Olympics related social media articles coming..lots of interest and Cisco has lots to report I’m sure!