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Simon Hartley

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What can we learn from Olympic silver medals?


It isn’t just world-class athletes who are driven by a desire to come first, to win a Gold medal, to stand on the top step of the podium and to bask in the glory of winning. But in any event, there can only ever be one winner.

So one of the key psychological aspects of attaining a world-class level of performance is understanding how to handle not winning – and harder still, how to handle coming second.

Winning is relative

Like any other result, an Olympic medal is just a result.

Winning and losing tells us as much about the opposition as it does about our own performance. We could post an average performance and still win because the opposition has a disaster on the day.

But importantly, we still posted an average performance.

It’s a fact of life that there is only one winner.

People often get wrapped up in either the disappointment or the euphoria of the result rather than evaluating their performance and focusing on how they can improve it. Great athletes will always see the result for what it is. Of course, they love to win.

However, most will be more interested in their personal best and focused on pushing to achieve their potential.

Focusing on the result often leads to yoyo-like emotions, whereas focusing on the process leads to progress. In business, managers and leaders often set the tone.

Their response to a result often dictates how their team respond. For Becky James, who is coming back from a cancer scare and serious knee injury, a Silver in cycling’s keirin event is a real sign that she’s getting back to her best. 

Keep it in perspective

Whether the medal is Gold, Silver or Bronze, ultimately it is a metal disc on a ribbon. The importance lies in what that medal represents. You’ll hear many athletes talking about the years and years of work that they see bound up in that medal.

Olympic legend, Michael Johnson, described how he felt when he saw his 400m world record broken by the young South African, Wayde van Niekerk. He emphasised that, whilst his record may have gone, nobody can take away the achievement.

Michael Johnson, his coach and his team, know what it took. That’s what his world record represents and it stands forever.

People often get wrapped up in either the disappointment or the euphoria of the result rather than evaluating their performance.'

Business leaders have the opportunity to learn from Johnson.

They can instil a real sense of pride by going beyond the result, to emphasise what it represents and the achievements that they’ve made. Jess Ennis-Hill may well see her Silver from Rio as a greater achievement than her Gold in London, given the added challenges of motherhood.

Some athletes look devastated with Silver, whilst others are elated.

The difference is often down to expectation. If you expect Gold, but achieve Silver, you’re likely to feel disappointed. If, like Team GB Trampolinist Bryony Page, making the final was an achievement and you walk away with a Silver medal, you’ll probably be overjoyed.

In business, leaders and managers tend to set the expectation.

If we allow ourselves, and our teams to be driven by the expectation, we could be setting them up for a fall.

But it’s important to realise that expectations are actually a projection; a product of our imagination. If we allow ourselves, and our teams to be driven by the expectation, we could be setting them up for a fall.

The alternative is deal with reality, focus on our performance and how to improve it.     

Accentuate the positive

Silver can also be a stepping stone to Gold. When we see athletes appear at an Olympic Games, we see the very tip of the iceberg.

We don’t see the years of work, the progress in training, or the successes and failures through the four-year cycle. The Games are ultimately just another step in the journey.

Business leaders can help their teams use second-place in the same way that 2x Olympic Champion Andy Murray has.

In 2013, I was asked how Andy Murray has ‘suddenly’ become a Wimbledon Champion. I explained that there was no ‘suddenly’.

There is always a tomorrow.

His first Wimbledon title came after reaching the Quarter Final in 2008, followed by three semi-finals, being runner up in 2012 and then becoming the Olympic Champion. There were lots of stepping stones along the way.

It’s a fact of life that there is only one winner. Someone will always finish second. It’s how we respond to Silver that dictates whether we’re likely to get Gold next time, or whether we’re going to quit.

And it’s leaders, coaches and managers that set the tone.

Whether a Silver becomes a motivator or a de-motivator is matter of perception and choice. The very best coaches and athletes will always look to learn the lessons and go again.

For some, that’s tougher, because it might realistically be their last Olympics and their last chance for Gold. Gymnast, Lewis Smith, might possibly be in that position. But an athlete will still look for lessons to take into their post-athletic career and the rest of their life – and you could, too.

There is always a tomorrow.

The question is, how do we approach it?     

Simon Hartley helps both sports and business people maximise their performance. A speaker partner with the Academy for Chief Executives, he is the founder of Be World Class and author of several books.

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Simon Hartley


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