The Olympics are a pressure cooker unlike any other environment. Happening just once every four years, they are often a once-in-a-lifetime chance. A lifelong dream realized.
A tenth of a second can be the difference between heartbreak and triumph. A decade-long dream can be crushed in a single minute. After years of training, the bright spotlight is suddenly switched on. The media scrutiny is intense; the stakes high.
So how do Olympians perform under such pressure? And what can we learn from them? Here are lessons from five Olympians.
1. Love to compete (Michael Phelps). When U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps arrived to the Beijing Olympics, he had some extra baggage packed… heavy expectations. Speedo had offered him a $1 million bonus if he brought home eight gold medals. The entire event schedule was shifted so that his races would fall in TV prime time. Yet Phelps was able to withstand the pressure because of what his coach calls a natural competitiveness that only grew deeper the more he achieved. Bowman recalls first witnessing Phelps’s competitive nature while watching him react to getting out in an intense game… of “wall ball.” Phelps is fueled by doubters and genuinely enjoys competition. It’s that competitive mindset that many other elite performers share—like Kobe Bryant’s 60-point performance in his final game.
2. Resiliency over perfection (The Magnificent Seven): The U.S. women’s gymnastics team that brought home the country’s first team gold medal in the 1996 Olympics will long be remembered for their grit. That resiliency was on display in the defining moment, as Kerri Strug vaulted her way into the hearts of Olympic fans on an injured ankle. Resiliency is a great predictor of performance. Individuals and teams that are mentally tough and adapt to unforeseen circumstances are better positioned to perform under pressure.
3. Keep it light (Usain Bolt): The World’s Fastest Man happens to be a global superstar with an outsized personality. At Rio, Usain Bolt will try to shake off a hamstring injury to win an unprecedented triple-triple—three gold medals in three straight Olympics. The lighthearted champion is known not just for his blazing speed but his dance moves, his penchant for fast food, and his carefree approach to life. “You can always go fast when you keep it light,” his mother reminds a young Usain in this short from Gatorade.
4. Ask what’s possible? (Dan Jansen). Jim Loehr, a friend of mine, is a prominent sports psychologist who has helped elite athletes overcome the mental barriers inhibiting their performance. Jim told me the story of Dan Jansen, the Olympic speedskater who famously overcame repeated Olympic heartbreak to capture gold in his final race. One of Jansen’s goals while working with Jim was to break the 36-second barrier in the 500 meters. At the time, it was thought to be physically impossible. Jim had Jansen write the number “35.99” by hand in his training log every single day. His point was that self-limiting beliefs (ie the 36-second mark is physically impossible) lead us to expect certain outcomes. By instead asking, “what’s possible,” Jansen wrote his own story and became the first person to break the barrier. After he broke the mark, the barrier crumbled and multiple others did within the next year.
5. Keep perspective (Missy Franklin). Four-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer Missy Franklin offers up this advice: “If I’m ever really stressed out or nervous before a race, I start to think about the things that aren’t going to change in my life, regardless of what the impact of that race is.” By focusing on the things in her life like family and friends that will always be there no matter the result, Franklin is able to put things in perspective. That perspective is key to being able to relax and focus in big moments. It’s her way of reminding herself that her performance doesn’t define her as a person.
Game Changer Takeaway
Learning how to deal with pressure is important for all of us. Pressure can be debilitating if we don’t learn the strategies that work for us to simplify and re-focus. Pressures at work can creep into other aspects of our lives, inhibiting not just our performance at work but affecting our relationships and our sense of self. But what if we wrap these five takeaways around pressure in your life and go for gold? As you are watching the Olympics, watch with a newfound respect and appreciation… and maybe pick up a few strategies of your own.
Molly Fletcher helps inspire and equip game changers to dream, live and grow fearlessly. A keynote speaker and author, Molly draws on her decades of experiences working with elite athletes and coaches as a sports agent, and applies them to the business world. Her e-learning courses spark both personal growth for individuals and corporate development for organizations. Sign up here to receive our monthly newsletter.