5 work-life lessons we can learn from the greatest Olympians

Aug 03, 2021

5 mins

5 work-life lessons we can learn from the greatest Olympians
Anna Santos

Content creator

Astronomical salaries and global attention aside, the world of sport shares many themes with our world of work. Though our performance won’t be televised and our every move logged on social media, just like athletes many of us do work in teams. Our skills are constantly evaluated and we’re judged by the results we produce. Some of us also act as mentors and coaches. With the long-awaited 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo about to wrap up, let’s take a look at 5 lessons we can learn as workers from the world’s best Olympians.

  • If it’s not right up there, it won’t be right anywhere

  • Take a stand

  • Learning never stops

  • Change the game

  • Strike a winning pose

1. If it’s not right up there, it won’t be right anywhere

This summer’s Olympics produced the ultimate display of peak physical performance from many athletes. But the decision of Simone Biles to withdraw mid-competition from several of the women’s gymnastics events to focus on her mental health sent a clear signal about the crucial role that mental well-being plays in the lives of athletes. “I say put mental health first because if you don’t then you’re not going to enjoy your sport and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to,” Biles said.

Whether or not we can manage a Yurchenko double pike, we can take a page from Biles’s book and prioritize our mental well-being in the workplace: be on the lookout for mental exhaustion, detachment, and lack of motivation, some of the common symptoms of burnout. More than 75% of US workers surveyed admit to feeling burnt out in the past year, while 24% believe that taking mental-health days off is one of the solutions that can stave off or reduce burnout.

By acknowledging our mental state, knowing our limits and when to step back, we give ourselves time to realign our mind and body to regain our motivation and productivity. By recognizing that her mental health was not where she needed it to be to function effectively, Biles avoided risking even more before it was too late.

2. Take a stand

Many of us know the story of the Black American track-and-field legend Jesse Owens, who claimed four gold medals in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, an event Adolf Hitler had hoped would showcase the “supremacy” of the “Aryan race”. Owens’s inspiring performance was a display of both athletic excellence and courage in the face of tyranny. The idea that sport, with its singular focus on physical prowess, is insulated from real-world events has been shattered time and again: only recently, we have witnessed athletes all over the globe uniting in the fight against the racism and inequality they face daily in their profession and their lives.

We must learn from Owens and stand up for what we believe in, in our work life. We must guard against moral injury — the damage that can occur when our beliefs and moral codes are constantly challenged in the course of our career. Companies are waking up to this, and we’ve seen an increase in employee advocacy in recent years. In the tech industry, employees question the ethics behind tech products and their impact on society at large. Meanwhile, a growing number of entrepreneurs are striving to create businesses that focus on sustainability and provide liveable wages for their workers.

The notion that work exists in a bubble separate from the real world is being shattered as workers take a stand to protect our rights and create solutions to address inequality.

3. Learning never stops

As the most-decorated Paralympian in history, the swimmer Trischa Zorn reeled in 55 medals, 41 of them gold, in a career that spanned seven Paralympic Games, from 1980 to 2004. Her dominance in the pool, where she won the freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly, remains unmatched to this day.

Before the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney, Zorn was invited to train full-time at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, a first for a Paralympic athlete at that time. Zorn’s legacy was already secure but she grabbed the opportunity to learn and further develop her skills, even delaying her law studies for a year to focus on training.

Continuous development prevents us from resting on our laurels and getting stuck in our role. When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, many businesses discovered the value of upskilling, which helped them survive the crisis. Learning has become a valuable currency in the job market: 94% of workers surveyed said that having opportunities to develop professionally played a major part in their decision to remain with a company. Meanwhile, 52% of companies that foster a culture of learning become more productive, while a whopping 92% are likely to be innovative — which brings us to our next Olympian.

4. Change the game

At the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, Dick Fosbury claimed gold in the men’s high jump using what was then a revolutionary technique. Up to that point, jumpers approached the bar facing forwards or sailed over it feet first. Fosbury, a civil-engineering student who hadn’t had much success with the usual techniques, changed the game when he developed a method in which he jumped with his back to the pole and cleared it head first, arching his back over it to follow. The Fosbury flop was a product of both his engineering and athletic background, two unrelated fields brought together by his creativity and experimentation.

Like Fosbury, having an innovative mindset is important at work — and not just in our CV or job description. Innovation leads to growth, not stagnation. It creates or adds value to a product or a service. But creating something new also involves a degree of uncertainty, which we’ve been programmed to avoid. Innovative teams are those that challenge themselves, accept the reality of failure, and commit to seeing the work through.

In the same way, an innovative organization attracts like-minded talent seeking a workplace that empowers and includes workers to participate in creating novel strategies and products. Like an athlete training for peak performance, these processes take time, effort, and commitment. In Fosbury’s case, his innovation resulted in a gold medal and a technique that has since become standard practice – until another innovative athlete comes up with something better.

5. Strike a winning pose

That iconic photograph of Usain Bolt sneaking a sideways glance and smiling at the competition trailing behind him in the men’s 100 meters semi-final became the image of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Along with his gold-medal performance in three consecutive Olympics, Bolt will forever be identified with his signature post-race “Lightning Bolt” victory pose. It’s a celebration of, not a brag about, his achievements – a concept many of us still struggle with in our careers.

We shy away from recognizing our wins, expecting that others will pay attention without any prompting from us. We equate self-promotion with braggadocio, a mistake that hinders us from developing our career. In a survey by My Confidence Matters, 79% of women respondents admitted to a lack of confidence at work and believe that this negative behavior will prevent them from taking on leadership roles.

By not speaking up, we miss the opportunity to show the value we add to an enterprise and risk being overlooked or relegated to the background as a consequence. Imagine if we had just a smidgeon of Bolt’s confidence in owning our abilities. Let’s celebrate those wins, and the world – in our case, our followers on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram – will celebrate with us.

So here we are at the finish line. The Olympics may wrap up in a few days but the games continue. Like world-class athletes, we will have good days and bad days at the office – we should just be thankful there aren’t a billion people watching us.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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