Olympic Lessons

How To Win When Stakes Are High

By Liz Bentley

My son and I were among the many people captivated until 2:14am Thursday morning watching the women’s hockey team win the gold for the first time in 20 years over Canada.  It was an epic event, fought hard by incredibly talented athletes.  All night long we studied the roster, the coaching staff, and every pass, play, turnover and line change the teams made.  When Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, the 6th shooter in the shootout, did the “oops I did it again” move –  a move that took her 4 years to perfect by skating around tires – to score the winning goal, we went bananas.

On that same night, while the US hockey team was achieving their dream, Lindsey Vonn was watching hers slip away. Arguably the best downhill skier in the world got the bronze in the downhill and got disqualified in the combined race for a missed gate. As heartbreaking as that is, it’s honestly what makes the Olympics so relatable.  It’s not just about the winning and the incredible fights to victory.  It’s about the human story of challenge, dreams, hard work, anguish, and sometimes defeat.
While I personally feel the Olympics stories can be over-hyped and over-played at times, there are so many great takeaways from this event. I travel the country helping executives be Olympians in the workplace. There are so many comparable things that Olympic athletes and senior executives do to standout and succeed. They both:

1. Measure Results – They keep the real score of how they are doing for themselves and versus others.

2. Own Their Work - They take responsibility for their actions, see their work through to the end and don’t blame others for mistakes.

3. Work Hard – That means they don’t quit when it hurts.  In the sports arena, hurting typically involves the physical pain of growth whereas in the workplace, it comes in the form of mental anguish from tough feedback. In both cases, the high performers work through the pain to reach new heights of success.

4. Have Discipline – They have the discipline to do the things they don’t like to do and learn to do them well. We can all do what we like, but to become great we need the discipline to do the work that is hard.

5. Keep a Focused Mindset – They can stay focused and concentrate for long periods of time to succeed at what they are doing.  This means they can stay in a problem long enough to solve it and use their mindset to drive performance. 

While all of that is interesting and critical to success both in sports and business, here is what we can learn from these Olympians that’s not so obvious:

· Everyone, even the most successful and confident person, is scared of failure and has moments of doubt. My favorite part of Shaun White’s gold is not that he won it. It’s the way in which he overcame his own doubts. After a poor second run, he needed to a perform back-to-back 1440s, which he had never done before.  White says he spent half the chairlift ride back up to the top questioning his abilities, and then the second half deciding that he could do it. “You could come up on any other day, when all these people aren’t here, and ask me to do that, and I’d be terrified because there’s no motivation. But when you’ve got the Olympics, and you’ve got the dye on the pipe and the world watching, there was no doubt in my mind I was going to do the trick. I just had to land it.”

· Practice is paramount.  When fear does take over our body, our brain can override it if we have practiced enough to create muscle memory so our body will know how to perform.  This is true for all performance arenas and is demonstrated by Alina Zagitova, the 15-year-old Russian figure skater who won the gold.  She noted that she overrode her nerves when she got on the ice by letting her body and mind do what they loved.  She said she just went into motion and left it all on the ice.
· Mental pressure kills us.  When we put too much pressure on ourselves, we fail. That’s not to say we can’t handle pressure. Pressure and attention are part of the deal once you get really good at something.  As soon as you become famous, people place expectations on you.  Everyone is under immense pressure to perform at the Olympics.  But you have to manage those expectations and not lose sight of the fact of why you are competing – for the love of the sport. And you can’t let the event define you or you will choke, i.e. Lindsey Vonn. The pressure will overwhelm you and you will fail. It’s a fine line to walk.

· You've got to be all in. The world is just too competitive.  If you don’t show up all the way, there is no way you can compete.  You have to be committed to yourself and your purpose all the way through. The US Men's Curling Team is a great case in point. After being on the verge of elimination throughout a long portion of the tournament, they fought their way back and won the country's first ever gold medal in the sport. This was on the heels of coming in second to last at Sochi. As John Shuster, the team's skipper, put it, "From the day that the 2014 Olympics came to an end, every single day was with this goal, was with this journey in mind."

Watch Liz discussing why we need to perform at our peak in today's competitive business environment

From the Olympics, we learn that athletes are all real and regular people in the great fight of life. They are scared, they doubt themselves and their talents, and they fail.  But what got them to the Olympics, what separated them from everyone else and got them into the top positions in the world was stepping into that fear and not giving up no matter how difficult the obstacle. 
So here’s what we need to remember as we get up each morning to fight the good fight: anything is possible. And what I can tell you from my travels and work with hundreds of clients and companies is this: we all have what it takes to go the distance.  It’s not really about talent or innate traits.  It’s much simpler than that. It’s about reviewing the list above and stepping into your power with no excuses.  You can do as much as anyone else.  You just have to get out of your own way and start showing up all in!