The Olympics Are Life’s Training Table

My third note on the Games of the XXX Olympiad follows, and I’ll send you my fourth and final note on this inspiring subject and ready metaphor next week.

The branding strategy of the Olympic Committee hasn’t convinced anyone that the games have been an international balm–an event that called us to our senses and then moved us to lessen world strife.  Many of the athletes have competed against each other at numerous international events in the years leading up to these games in London.  For them, then, the Olympics is part of a cycle or process, though indeed the culminating part.  Plus, its purpose is to show them how they and their nation’s training program in their sport compares in excellence and single-mindedness to others in their field.  Any idea of “strife” on the athletes’ minds is purely athletic and organizational, not political.

Thus, for me the very best thing about the games is not that it offers a hint of coming World Peace but the powerful life-and-work lessons it gives me. What I learn from observing the assembled actions of these fine world athletes are teachings well worth absorbing.  Even more useful, what I see is some interesting homework assignments!

What follows are some of my takeaways from the past two weeks. The essence of my observation is that Success is an incredibly complex beast.  One that’s extremely hard to train.  And that at the end of the day, the souls able to claim a spot on the winners stand understand that prevailing in any sport is as much a process of exploration and discovery as a honing of raw talent and divinely bestowed gifts.  So here are some of my top picks of lessons I’m working on putting into practice:

Redemption is the most compelling expression of resolve. Olympics commentators talk about an athlete finally winning an event “because it is his or her turn.” Reminds me of two kids sharing a bike–one rides it for a while then the other tot says, “Hey, it’s my turn!”  That’s good for them, but “turns” doesn’t apply in the context of competition; even if the event were coin-flipping, we can guarantee that sooner or later it would be your turn.  Competition is not an exercise in statistical probabilities.

Several weeks before the games, Englishman Andy Murray lost the Wimbledon finals to Roger Federer on the Centre Court of the All-English Tennis Club. Murray found himself at the same venue as Federer sought to win his first Olympic gold medal. Again representing his countrymen on their native soil, Murray felt immense pressure to win. Later, some asked whether Murray’s Olympic victory was as great an achievement as a win at Wimbledon. The short answer is who cares! Murray beat the finest tennis player in history as he sought an achievement that had just recently eluded him! What Murray taught us is that “hoped-for redemption” is not enough because hope is a passive emotion. Chanting the mantra “I hope I beat Federer” is a worthy expression of hope.  We must have hope, think hope and even say hope from the beginning of any challenging endeavor to the very finish line of it!  However, making what we hope for a reality also requires a steeled determination; this is the hard truth about any attempt at redemption.  At changing around a situation that seemed as good as lost forever to us.

No one wants to let the team down. A team is a fiction–a cultural reality, not a natural one. Unlike mortal beings, it doesn’t live or breathe, yet each team has a distinct personality. Most important, a team will only succeed if its individual members steadfastly seek the same goal. Watch the replays of the swimming, running, or gymnastics events, as those athletes most often compete individually. You will see that their desire to win seems to increase when they compete as part of a team.

Therefore, in any enterprise we need to highlight the achievements of our star players, so others will vicariously adopt those traits and adapt their own pace of play to the high level of the stars’. They will come to view what others have achieved as a harbinger of and a template for what they hope to achieve. But never forget that the social nature of our species informs us that the greatest satisfaction we achieve in life or business is being part of a team of mutually supportive individuals seeking a common goal. “Seeking” is a key word here, too, in the sense that like our subtle, complex beast Success, there are many, many possible levels and degrees of how the seeking is carried forth. We need to remain aware of that.  Great organizations take full advantage of this fact, aware of the seeking as well as the success or outcome.

You can’t have too many role models. When first debriefed after a great performance, many of the Olympic athletes referred to another star athlete that they admired and had tried to emulate.  Sometimes their role model competed in a different sport, curious when you think about it. Michael Phelps, for example, often speaks of his admiration for Michael Jordan. Certainly Jordan’s passion to win was palpable. Just like Michael Phelps’! Who hasn’t in their heart thought “Boy, I want to run like him” or “Ski like her”?  When I was growing up just outside New York City, there wasn’t a kid in my neighborhood—actually, many grown men included, who didn’t want to somehow morph into another Mickey Mantle, the legendary New York Yankees centerfielder. We wanted to walk like him, hit like him…golly, we even wanted to strike out like him!  No wishy-washy swings in the Mick! When he struck out, it was as though he were screwed into the dirt, turning on his axis faster than fast.

Could we be another Mantle? Probably not, as his physical gifts were rare indeed. When you first grab hold of any such dream, the mirror or the stopwatch might return some stark reality to your aspirations; but if you don’t seek to emulate the best of the best, what are your chances of being anything but average?  Again, the fierce devotion and discipline of the seeking make it the key word.  Hope + Seeking may tell you that you will not be able to hit a baseball 500 feet, but you could still achieve a Hall of Fame batting average!

National pride–the great consolidator.  Around the world political discord is natural to the unfolding and developing democratic process. But such discord is a largely unwelcome, counterproductive infection of the soul of societies everywhere when it becomes extreme and entrenched. Discord and strife happens in companies as well where it can become a habit of behavior day to day, sapping all thought of hope + seeking. While watching the Olympics, I saw that there may only be one cure for this malady. National Pride!

When we watch one of our athletes compete for our country, all that destructive incivility that comes between friends and adversaries alike is put at bay. When people come together in feeling pride in their nation, any previous inability to reach common ground they have experienced is forgotten or greatly minimized.  If we could only bottle national pride and sprinkle it in the halls of power, things could be a lot different for the 210 weeks before the next Olympic Games!  And also for the 11 weeks before the November 6, 2012, national election.  So this past, two-week scene of Olympic enactments of national pride, over and over, country by country is a valuable memory I want to retain and work on as another piece of homework in my life and business during the days to come.

About Santo Costa

Sandy Costa is an internationally respected speaker and business leader. Check out Sandy’s website at
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