Mind over matter: lessons on mental toughness from the Olympics

February 17, 2014 - by: Dan Oswald 2 COMMENTS

Perseveranceby Dan Oswald

When I flipped on the television yesterday to check out the Olympics, I found myself watching the men’s Super-G Alpine skiing. By the time I had tuned in, the celebrated American skier Bode Miller was safely at the bottom of the slope and sitting in first place. This is believed to be the final Olympics for Miller, who has won six medals in this and previous Olympic competitions.

So as each skier attacked the course, NBC’s cameras would show Miller watching the competition to see if they eclipsed his time. I could only imagine what it was like for him to watch competitor after competitor try to knock him off the top of the podium, all while being watched by a worldwide audience of millions.

Finally it happened—a Norwegian skier topped Miller’s time, dropping him to second place. Then a Canadian skier actually posted the exact same time as Miller, moving them into a tie for second. Finally, the last skier of the day, an American, made his run. His time was better than Miller’s, moving him into second place and pushing the veteran into a tie for the bronze medal.

As I said, all of this took place as millions watched Miller’s reaction to each skier who followed him down the hill. What a position to be in. You don’t want to actively cheer against your competitors, but you sure don’t want anyone to bump you out of the gold-medal position. And when someone finally does beat your time, you don’t want to hang your head in defeat for all the world to see, but the disappointment has to be immense for someone who is skiing in his final Olympics. And when your less-celebrated teammate, on the final run of the day, knocks you back to the bronze medal, how can you be happy for him at the same time that you’re disappointed with yourself? You have to be mentally tough—not only to compete at the level Miller does but to handle the scrutiny that comes with it as well.

In Miller’s case, he still received a medal. What about others who had what might have been their one or last opportunity to grab a medal and didn’t? Take Lindsey Jacobellis, for instance. Jacobellis is the most celebrated women’s snowboard cross rider. She has won three world championships and eight gold medals in the Winter X Games. Eight years ago, she was on her way to Olympic gold when a little early celebration caused her to fall, dropping her out of medal contention. Of course, she was just 20 years old, so her youthful exuberance could be understood. Plus, because she was so young, she would have another chance.

But four years later, the favorite once again fell. Jacobellis recovered to claim a silver medal, but the top prize eluded her. So she returned to the Olympics for a third time with her eye on the gold medal, only to fall once again in the semifinals, costing her the opportunity to compete for the gold. Despite all of her success, Olympic gold has evaded her. And how does she react? She tells an interviewer, “There are worse things in life than not winning.” It takes incredible mental toughness for a 28-year-old with a dream to have that type of perspective.

But Jacobellis is right. There are things that are more important than winning. Just like there are things that are more important than closing the next sale or completing the next project. Sometimes at work we need to put things in perspective just as Jacobellis was able to do. At other times, we need the perseverance to come back time after time until we do succeed.

We must all develop the mental toughness to overcome adversity when things don’t go our way. Today we live in a world of helicopter parents—so named because they hover over their children to make sure everything goes the child’s way. If their brilliant son doesn’t get an A on that big school project, they pick up the phone and call the teacher. If sweet little Suzie doesn’t start on the basketball team, they drop in to see the coach to find out how their daughter could be overlooked. It’s parents in the role of fixer for their kids. As a result, many kids haven’t had the opportunity to experience the disappointments in life that help teach them how to handle adversity and build the character that would allow them to persevere. Are we really doing them a favor? And what will happen to them in the workplace when mom and dad can no longer intervene?

We talk a lot about talent management. We interview candidates to discover which skills they possess. We even have come up with tests that help determine which positions a person is best suited for. But do we ever stop to consider how important mental toughness is? Do we endeavor to find people who have come up against life’s obstacles and have found a way to persevere? On my team, I want the people who have the ability to continually fight to succeed despite the challenges they have faced.

2 COMMENTS

1 Sandy Senters
10:11:06, 18/02/14

I always enjoy your articles and this one certainly hits the mark! If everything is always given to you and there isn’t any opportunity for adversity and disappointment how will you ever be successful in today’s world? My mom always told us ….”life isn’t fair, if it were everyone would have the same house, same job, same number of kids, ect. and wouldn’t that be boring?”. Great job!!!

2 Mary Yoder
09:24:19, 23/02/14

I always enjoy reading your articles, and although I don’t watch the Olympics, I still
read about them online. Not everyone can have the same as everyone else.
Great job!!

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