Anyone else have Olympics 2020 fever?
I'll be honest, as a Canadian I typically only get into the Winter Olympic (for obvious reasons).
Yet, after being stuck at home for the past year and a half, witnessing the first delay of the Olympics in over 75 years, and getting a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes thanks to Tiktok and Ilona Maher, I have been fully swept up in the Olympic excitement.
Another reason I find myself glued to the TV at midnight watching sports where people run around a track jumping over hurdles, but then, every so often, jump over an oversized hurdle into a pit of water (I'm looking at you, steeplechase, you oddball event, you) are the stories behind the athletes.
The Olympics are a time when media correspondents and color commentators regale us with stories of how these elite athletes overcame failure, heartbreak, and major life setbacks with sheer strength, perseverance and resilience to fill the time we and the athletes wait for the sound of the starting gun or the scores to be posted.
And we lap it up.
They are inspirational and aspirational.
We watch them in awe because they're super-human, right?
Like Canadian rower Kasia Gruchalla-Wesierski winning the gold medal just 6 weeks after breaking her collarbone. Or fellow Canadian Winter Olympian, Joannie Rochette winning the bronze medal in figure skating (and the hearts of fans around the world) at the Vancouver Olympics just two days after her mother died suddenly of a heart attack. And, of course, the Olympic GOAT, Simone Biles, snagged a bronze medal days after pulling out of the individual and team gymnastics events citing mental health concerns.
It's their sheer strength, determination and resilience that allow them to persevere and, in some cases like the ones above, still win an Olympic medal, right?
But I'm here to tell you: Olympians—they're just like us.
Okay, well, maybe not just like us (considering their bodies can bend, stretch and jump in ways not thought humanly possible), but many have the same mental and emotional struggles we do.
In fact, recent studies have shown the rates of Olympic athletes suffering from depression and anxiety may exceed the rates of the rest of the population, which isn't surprising. Not only is there the intensity that comes with training for a sport at an elite level, but also the pressures of the media, fans, and couch critics alike.
So how do they get past these struggles and still maintain their GOAT status? The same way the best leaders do. And the same way you can too.
#1 They understand themselves
It's an understatement to say these athletes really understand their physical bodies.
They know their strengths. They know their weaknesses. And they know the minute something is off in their left pinky.
But, more recently, they're learning the importance of understanding their mental health too. Where they're mentally strong. And where they're not. And they're starting to not only admit this to themselves, but also to the world with athletes like Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, and Naomi Osaka leading the way.
No longer can the connection between the mind and body be ignored. Especially when there can be devastating consequences when not addressed.
Adam Grant, famed organizational psychologist (who Libby and I also stan) captured it best: "As a diver, seeing her get lost in midair was terrifying. This isn't about toughness—she can push through pain. It's for safety—being disoriented is dangerous. Gymnasts have been paralyzed by landing headfirst."
They've spent years understanding what makes them tick. Mind and body.
#2 They Focus On Their Strengths
Athletes spend hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of training time working toward marginal improvements, as the difference between making the podium or not can be thousandths of a second...literally.
While many would think it would make sense to focus on the areas of weakness and try to strengthen them, athletes like the Usain Bolt, dubbed the World's Fastest Man, recognized that he could improve more by focusing on his strengths (the last 25% of the race) versus his weaknesses (leaving the starting block). In fact, his time was worse when he focused on his weaknesses!
They know what they're good at and work towards improving and strengthening it to improve overall.
#3 They Build Muscle Memory
Athletes also spend countless hours honing their skills to get it to the point where they can practically perform in their sleep. And the performance is a culmination of skills building and stacking during the previous four years. I'd even say the Olympics isn't really the work. It's the presentation. The work is all of the practice put in prior—almost all of it behind the scenes and away from the cameras.
I was reminded of this slow and steady build when my daughter started gymnastics lessons this summer. She is desperate to learn to do a cartwheel. Talks about it all the time. So, of course, she was pumped to start gymnastics and learn how to do one. She ended the first class a bit disappointed because rather than mastering the cartwheel, she was taught to place both hands on the ground and then do a side hop. After a few classes, however, she's getting closer and closer to the full cartwheel rotation.
In addition to the obvious benefit of improving your skills and abilities. Starting with the basics also builds confidence. It's unlikely there would be many ski jumpers, gymnasts, divers, etc. without the aid of lakes, foam brick pits, mats, and trampolines. With respect to Simone Biles, for instance, gymnasts, in a recent article in Bustle, suggested that going back to the basics was one of the strategies of getting rid of the "twisties", the mental block plaguing gymnasts when they lose orientation mid-air and not in control of their mind or body. As you can imagine, a potentially deadly combination.
They become the best and are confident they're the best only after mastering all the basics and building from there.
#4 They Don't Go It Alone
In an Olympics year where no family, friends or local crowds are in the stands, it can be easy to forget that the involvement of this support system, along with focused coaching and mentoring, are also necessary to rebuild your mental health.
Coaching and mentoring can help the emotional and mental strain even when no physical ones are present.
Canada's most decorated Olympian, 21 year-old swimmer Penny Oleksiak, has shared how the world's most decorated Olympian, Michael Phelps, took her under his wing (which happens to be a very large wingspan) to help her through her post-2016 Olympics reality when the expectations of 2020 started to outweigh the euphoria of winning 4 medals at 16 years old when no one expected her to win any.
Kasia Gruchalla-Wesierski sought coaching and mentoring support from former Olympian Silken Laumann to help her with not only the physical, but also the mental grind of coming back after a major setback, as she had suffered a tragic accident herself two months before wining bronze in 1992.
What do all athletes have in common? They're not doing it alone. They cannot do it alone.
And this is where they are just like you.
As leaders, we tend to think we need to know all the answers and fear showing vulnerability or weakness. Or we don't have a strong support system professionally and don't know where to turn to in order to find one. Or we feel the pressure of providing the support to those who report to us and don't put on our own mask first.
You need a community. You need coaching and mentorship. Even if you're the GOAT boss. Especially if you're the GOAT boss.
If the best athletes in the world can't do it alone, then neither should you.
Lucky for you, on August 9th, we have a FREE live group coaching session focused on this topic that will not only provide coaching to you, but also help you support others who need coaching support.
Click here to sign up for our next coaching session in our Summer series: Creating Coaching Conversations.