In March 2020, PUMA CEO Bjørn Gulden and Norway's 400 metres hurdles world champion Karsten Warholm met up with us to talk about how important it is to prepare to perform – in sports and in business.
Karsten, at what stage did you realize you were a gifted athlete?
Karsten: For me, it’s always been a process. I started when I was about eight years old in 2003 or 2004 and all I thought about was having fun and being with my friends. If I can pick one moment, it was when I won the Junior Championships for under 18-year-olds in 2013 in decathlon.
Bjørn, at what stage did you realize you were made for a career in business?
Bjørn: It was probably when I couldn’t be an athlete and I had to do something else. I was around 20, when I couldn’t be a soccer player anymore because I injured myself. So I had to change my ambitions to something else - which was sports business. When you can’t play, you still want to be a part of the industry. That was when I knew sports business was something I wanted to do.
Karsten, what would have been your plan B if you hadn’t become an athlete?
Bjørn: A model!
Karsten: A model, yes, for sure (laughs). I actually studied economics for a couple of years. I wasn’t that good and I couldn’t do it with my running. It’s hard to say, but whatever I do, I want to do it with passion, and it has to be something I like very much. It’s hard to say, maybe I could have been Bjørn’s assistant?
Bjørn: But what do you want to do when you aren't running anymore?
Karsten: Like I said, I want to be your assistant.
Bjørn: No, I’m sure you don’t want to be my assistant (laughs).
Karsten: I’d do a great job.
Bjørn: Would you like to be a coach?
Karsten: For sure I wouldn’t want to be a coach! I’m not patient enough, I think. My coach is a very patient guy, I don’t have the same skill. I’m not smart enough.
Bjørn, what would you have loved to become, if you hadn’t become a business manager?
Bjørn: The best soccer player in the world, the Number 1. If you’re the best at something, it must be a wonderful feeling. And you can only have that in sports. If you win a championship or if you win a medal, you’re achieving something that nobody else can do. This feeling must be extremely nice.
Karsten: That’s true, that’s true.
Bjørn: I think it’s something only athletes can feel. I was a Norwegian Football Champion. I know it’s a small thing, but just that feeling of winning something that nobody else has won is cool and I always get goosebumps when I see Karsten winning, or Usain winning, or a skier winning.
Karsten: I can relate to that. When I look back, I played soccer too, when I was a kid. The feeling of winning then, and the feeling now - it’s not so different to be honest. It’s mostly the same.
Bjørn: But it’s kind of cool to be the best in the world, right? It’s different to win a small championship or standing there and being the world champion. I think the same is true for having set the world record and knowing you’ve done something that nobody has ever done before. It must be cool.
Karsten: You know, when I was a little kid and I ran in my hometown, my hometown was my world, so this felt really, really good, too.
“I just wish that my competitors don’t train as hard as I do, because then I have a chance.”
Karsten, how much of your success is down to talent, and how much is down to training hard?
Karsten: I think all sports come down to genetics, you have to have some of it. But at the same time, it’s not everything. I think many of my competitors are more talented, to be honest. That is what makes me do the work every day. I know that if I do the work, I can beat them. I just wish that my competitors don’t train as hard as I do, because then I have a chance.
Bjørn: How many hours do you spend on being the better athlete?
Karsten: I train between 5 and 8 hours a day. That’s probably 30 and 35 hours a week. We train a lot and we have to be in the position that we are in.
Bjørn: So it is a full-time job, right?
Karsten: It is, absolutely. And it is the same for my coach. It is a passion. If you want to be the best, that is what you have to do. I guess it’s the same for you, always thinking about work, working, travelling…
Bjørn: I guess it’s not work anymore, it’s a lifestyle and work is what you do. There’s no difference between being in the office, at home or on the plane. Work is your lifestyle. You don’t think about anything else. I guess for you as an athlete, it’s the same. Unless you have a two-week break, where you can party. The rest of the time you are working on being a better athlete, regeneration, taking it easy.
How much of your success at PUMA is down to your skills and how much to working long hours?
Bjørn: Someone will define it as working long hours, I would define the job as my life. Of course, it has to do with the effort you put in. I don’t think you can run a company like this and be on top of what you need to do only because of skills. There are tons of people with better skills than me, but it is the same as with Karsten. You define the thing you want to do as the best thing you can imagine doing - and then you live it. It’s definitely a passion for what you do and you cannot count this in hours.
Karsten, how do you stay motivated during training ahead of a major tournament?
Karsten: I always think about it in terms of progress. For me, this is what it is all about. I don’t think too much about winning, I only think about improving. As time goes by, I become better and then it’s also easier to improve. Now, I’m 14 hundredths short of a world record. So just a little bit of improvement now will make a lot of difference. I only think about that. Of course I want medals, everybody wants medals, but I think about improvement. That is my motivation: to become a new, better version of myself.
Bjørn: What he didn’t tell you is that he trains in a group with only women.
Karsten: That is true, I just run after women.
Bjørn: Is that a coincidence?
Karsten: I would say no. It’s because I don’t have to compare myself to someone else in the group, because I only compare myself to my competitors. In this group, I have friends and it makes the time go by faster.
Bjørn: Isn’t that hard? To train with so many women six days a week?
Karsten: I think it’s tougher on them, to be honest. I always speak my mind during training and they probably want to rip me apart for what I say and do in training. They’re very patient with me and I appreciate that.
Bjørn: You’re the first male athlete I have heard about who only works out with women.
Karsten: I’m just ahead of my time. You should tell your people at Dortmund to do the same.
“When you do things you like, it doesn’t cost you as much.”
Bjørn, how do you stay motivated to deliver at work?
Bjørn: I don’t think about motivation because it’s automatic. I think if I lost motivation, I’d have to stop doing what I’m doing. When you do things you like, it doesn’t cost you as much. If you’re down about something, there are always so many great things you can do, that will bring you back again. I need to go to the mountains sometimes to go skiing and get some energy to get through the long days. I think you sometimes need to break out of it for a few days and then the “motivation” comes back. The fun part about heading to the mountains to ski is that it’s again sports. To be very honest, going to a sports event and getting those goosebumps motivates me for the rest of the job. I go to the Olympics or the Track and Field World Championships and it is part of the job. That’s motivation in itself. I love to see the warmup of these guys more than I love the competition. Because that time, when they prepare to compete, is an unbelievably interesting part in itself. I try not to get in the way, but I watch them and I used to watch Usain a lot. The hour-and-a-half before they go into the stadium and walk into that tunnel and how they do it: That’s the same as if you’re doing a speech in front of 2,000 people. You need to get the focus from somewhere. And the athletes have something we all can learn from when it comes to performing. Karsten, in the final hour before the competition, is that something that Leif* tells you to do or is it something that comes naturally to you? * (Editor’s note: Leif Olav Alnes is Karsten Warholm’s coach)
Karsten: It is something that you work on for many years. I’m not too sure what we do that is special. We do a warmup, but there are no questions asked. We just know the routine and we do it. So we almost do the same thing every time.
Bjørn: Before the start you always jump as high as you can and then you hit yourself. Do you know why you do that?
Karsten: That goes back to me when I trained on my own. When I train alone, I have nobody to race. This started in Norway when I train on my own. I just scream and hit myself to get the adrenaline pumping. And now I do this before a competition.
How important is it to prepare to perform?
Karsten: I think it’s everything. When I talk to many athletes, I get a feeling that to them it’s mostly about the 2-3 weeks before the championship. To me, the whole year counts and the work I do six or seven months before is the most important. I think it’s the same for PUMA. You can’t just sell things during Christmas and close for the rest of the year. It’s work-in-progress all the time, you have to be on your toes. I also rest a lot, before competitions. I think you have to put in the time you have for training and use this time very wisely.
Bjørn: Preparation is everything. I don’t think you can perform if you’re not prepared.
Karsten, how important is it to learn from your mistakes?
Karsten: I think it is really important to learn from your mistakes, but it’s even more important to learn from other people’s mistakes. Because then you don’t have to make those yourself. If I make a mistake, I try to only make it once. That’s my philosophy.
Bjørn: I think that as you get older and you go through different stages in your life, sometimes you didn’t even realize the mistakes you made until you get older. I think mistakes make you more experienced. It’s the same thing as with preparation. Seeing mistakes is part of your preparation. I think learning from experience is the same, whether those were mistakes or not. You get better at everything when you get experience. Experience is important.
What were the most difficult situations in your career?
Karsten: I haven’t had that many setbacks in my career. In that respect, I’m lucky. But actually, the most difficult part of my career is actually now, with this coronavirus going around. All the facilities are shut down and that is probably the most difficult, because I have to find solutions to do my job. I always try to do the right thing, but it’s very difficult to be honest.
Bjørn: Are your facilities closed?
Karsten: Yes, they are. I can now train at the Norwegian sports center, but there are only three athletes allowed in at the same time. It’s very hard to find solutions. This is probably the most challenging time of my career to be honest.
Bjørn: Same for me. I think that this is the first time, where I haven’t done anything wrong and I’m still in an unbelievably difficult situation. Normally, when you’re in trouble, it’s because you’ve done something or not done something, so you can find the reasons for that. But here, you’re going from hero to zero in days and there is nothing you could have done about it, because you don’t know how long it will last or the mechanism to solve it. So you’re in a waiting pattern. You still have a huge responsibility to juggle financially, mentally and physically. It’s a unique situation because there is no recipe. The last 72 hours from a “What shall I do?” point of view have been the most difficult.
Karsten, what advice would you give an athlete who wants to become a world champion?
Karsten: For me, the key has been to surround myself with good people. When I got an award for best male athlete in Norway this winter, I said that everybody needs a hand to hold. And I think it is very important that you choose the right hand. I think apart from hard work, of course, it is very important whom you surround yourself with.
Would that be a coach?
Karsten: That would be a coach, the whole team who supports you. The coach is probably the most important, but there are also all the others who support you. Also, I chose to work with PUMA, for example. It’s not just something you do for the money, it’s about what feels right to me. PUMA has the PUMA family, which is a really great thing. I compare it to where I come from. I tried to do everything for a reason, and I try to choose carefully. That goes for everything.
Bjørn, what advice would you give someone who wants to be CEO.
Karsten: Oh, I’ll better listen now.
Bjørn: I think if your goal is to be CEO, you’re starting at the wrong end. I think you have to like the business you are in. If you do that for a while and you do it well, you can become the CEO. But if you start as a young person and say: “I want to be the president or I want to be the CEO”, it might be the wrong attitude. I think the way of becoming CEO is: you prepare, you live, you work and then I think you qualify by getting experience. I think it’s very difficult to start by saying: "I want to be the president of a big company” because, let’s face it, there are many things that have to happen for you to get there. Part of it is luck and the biggest part of it is timing, because you never get the chance to have one of these great jobs unless the timing is right. I never thought about being a CEO, it just came naturally. I think you need to have a thing for leading people in the sense that you take responsibility and that you can work with many people in a complex environment. If you’re honest, being the CEO is nothing else than being the personnel manager or being a coach. It’s the same thing. You’re 100% dependent on the people and you can’t do anything yourself. It’s about managing people. If you like to work with people and you can lead people and get people to do things better, you can be a good CEO.
What is your view on postponing the Olympic Games to 2021?
Karsten: I think postponing the Olympic Games was the right thing to do in this situation. The pandemic affects the whole world, many people are of course worried and there are no clear answers for how long it will take to get control over the situation. I am glad decision to postpone was already taken in March, so the athletes had a chance to readjust their plans and change their focus for the Olympics in 2021. I am really looking forward to my second Olympic Games.
Bjørn: I very much endorse this decision. At the center of it all, the athlete has to be in a fair competition. There is no drug testing now. I really believe that these big events are more than the sport itself. The Olympic Games for me are a symbol of how the world can come together in a way that nothing else manages to do. Because of all the smaller sports, it’s something that is much bigger than the World Championships in Football. That’s why after this crisis, the Olympic Games will play an even bigger role than ever before, because every country in the world will be coming out of a crisis. The Games will be very emotional, and I think for the athletes, it will be an unbelievable experience. Tokyo is a really nice city, short distances, a good climate, and the Japanese are very excited about sports. All the ingredients are there, and they have made the right decision to make sure we do it with fairness and the right timing.
Thank you both very much for your time.