The closing ceremonies of the London Olympic Games take place this upcoming Sunday, and we (non-participants) are likely all feeling the same mix of emotions. Relief because we’ve been hooked on watching all the events and cheering on Team USA, and we can finally go back to the regular schedule of our lives. Excitement because it’s impossible to watch the Olympics and not be motivated by all the phenomenal athletes and their stories.
In our current, slow-to-move-as-molasses economy, it’s pretty easy to get discouraged, but that’s what’s so fascinating about the way Olympic athletes go about their business: there’s no economy as nonlucrative as amateur athletics. Athletes toil for four years between Games and a lifetime beforehand to win medals, and even winning medals doesn’t guarantee any substantial financial reward, save for a few marquee sports and breakout stars. We can all learn some valuable lessons from the 2012 team and apply it to our own careers:
Know When To Move On
Gymnast Gabby Douglas was just 14 when she made the decision to leave her hometown of Virginia Beach, Va., and get coaching from Liang Chow in West Des Moines, Iowa. Chow had coached gymnast Shawn Johnson to gold and silver medals at the 2008 Olympics. In just two years, Douglas found herself at the top of her sport when she won the all-around gold medal in London on August 2. In a media interview prior to the Olympics, Douglas had acknowledged that if she wanted to reach her goals, “There’s a price [she would] have to pay.” Not all of our goals can become reality if we stay in one place or one company for the duration of our careers. Sometimes a big change, no matter how painful, is necessary in order to get us to the destination we seek. Douglas had the wisdom to realize that at age 14, but as she said recently, “All the sacrifices…I have to look back and say, ‘Wow, it was all worth it.’”
Be Motivated by Critics (Being Underestimated Isn’t Always a Bad Thing)
After the 2008 Olympics, who ever thought swimmer Michael Phelps could be an underdog? Yet that’s exactly what he was going into the 2012 Olympics, outshined and in a few races outperformed by fellow USA swimmer Ryan Lochte. But after being defeated by Lochte in the 400-meter individual medley, where Phelps finished a crushing fourth place (you could see the devastation on his face), Phelps came back strong and ended up defeating Lochte in their final showdown. Oh, and then he won another individual gold. And then one more team gold medal. Not too shabby.
If the most decorated Olympian of all time can be underestimated, none of us should think we’ll be as stellar in the eyes of our supervisors as we are in our heads. We can use others’ expectations to define us, or we can follow Phelps’s lead and crush our opponents (um, projects) without the pressure of number-one status.
Do What’s Best for YOU, No Matter How Unpopular the Decision
You had to see it to believe it: track sprinters Jeneba Tarmoh and Allyson Felix finished in a dead heat for third-place (and the final Olympic berth) for the 100-meters at the 2012 Olympic Trials. It was unprecedented, and so the tiebreaker procedures were devised a bit on the fly: there would be a coin toss OR a runoff to determine the winner who’d go on to compete in the 100-m race in London. Both athletes agreed to the runoff.
Then Tarmoh, who’d never competed in the Olympics, made a controversial decision shortly before the scheduled runoff: she pulled out, saying she’d been “robbed” of a victory (which even the later-overruled photo finish judge had said was hers). The spot automatically went to Felix, who’s gone to the Olympics twice already (2004 and 2008). Tarmoh’s decision caused an uproar — even a lot of armchair athletes were enraged that she “gave up” so easily. Tarmoh stuck by her decision.
Only we can decide what is best for us and our careers. Maybe Tarmoh would have won the runoff. But if she’d lost, it would have been emotionally devastating and thereby affect her subsequent performance in relay events, where she just might win a gold medal. She doesn’t see herself as a quitter, nor should she.