Like most people around the world, I’ve been watching the Sochi Olympics with excitement and admiration. The sad news of the killing of street dogs cast a pall over the events–but the Olympics have always been about our shared humanity (the reason that this video of Russian cops covering Daft Punk is so exhilarating), and triumph of the spirit over limits. But one of the biggest lessons I’ve had from Sochi came not from those who went on top of the podium, but those who failed to medal.
1. Shaun White was without a doubt one of the most closely watched and famous athletes going into the competition. Many people expected him to be the first American winter Olympian to medal in three consecutive Olympics–but after pulling out of the slope style event to focus on half pipe, he astonished the world–and possibly himself–with a 4th place finish in his main event. Afterwards, he was faced with reporters asking him exactly what went wrong, how he feels–all difficult answers to deal with, especially right when the thing you don’t want to happen, happens. But Shaun White did like a champion and answered calmly that it just wasn’t his night.
2. Shortly before men’s figure skating – short program started, Russian star Evgeni Plushenko pulled his back after a shaky landing from a jump. The whole stadium was watching him with bated breath as he clutched his back, and attempt another jump. But after consulting with his coaches, he announced that he will pull out. The audience cheered their favorite star, who skated like his nickname, Tsar of Ice, just a few days before in team competition and won gold for Russia. He told reporters that he is “a normal person” and that he was skating to make his wife and sons proud. This humble, candid statement was in stark contrast to previous interviews from just 4 years ago when he confidently declared he deserves the gold (he took silver). At Sochi, he gets gold for knowing how to exit gracefully.
3. In the men’s figure skating – short program, American Jeremy Abbott attempted a quadruple jump early on in his routine, and landed in a huge fall, crashing against the barrier. Some very suspenseful moments later, he pulled himself up–to the audience’s applause–and completed his routine, fully aware that his chance for a medal has disappeared.
What these three world-class athletes show is that the truly special quality isn’t knowing how to win: it’s knowing how to lose. Anyone can win gracefully and happily–winning is easy. But failure is the one that actually challenges us emotionally and mentally. The ability to come out of failure and follow through on your efforts, grace under pressure, and scrappiness–these are qualities that separate champions from the als0-rans.
Amazingly, even these athletes who seem to defy the laws of physics can sometimes fall. But they don’t let themselves be defined by those falls, and try again–which is why they are at the top of their game. Here is how you can apply “lose like a champion” strategy for your own success:
1. Be optimistic: According to a 2002 study surveying 10 Olympic medalists and their coaches, all athletes described themselves as “optimistic/positive.” 8 of their respective coaches also agreed that the athlete was optimistic. By contrast, only 2 of the athletes self-identified as “intelligent” and 4 thought they were “organized.” (None of the athletes considered themselves “nice.”) Yes, wishful thinking isn’t going to get you anywhere, but it is optimism that enables these athletes to handle the grind of training, and also perform their best in competition.
2. Believe in your uniqueness: In another study, the top-performing athletes were those who were considered “mentally tough”–meaning, they had unshakable belief in their abilities to achieve their goals. They also believed that they possessed unique qualities that are not found in other competitors. If you don’t already know what sets you apart, ask yourself–what are some qualities that you really admire in yourself?
3. Don’t identify with your failure: Remember, absolutely everyone sometimes falls flat on their butt. Champions, while acknowledging that they could have done better, don’t self-identify with failure. Failure is what happens sometimes, but it is not who you are. So learn from your mistakes, but don’t internalize failure as a part of you. If anything, the fact that you’ve failed once should have taught you something new–and it will bring you a step closer to success.
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Photo: Max Mayorov via Flickr