The Olympics have come to an end with resounding victory for Team GB, who finished second, smashing their 48-medal target and even surpassing the medal haul of the 2012 London Games. Hopes that hosting the Olympics would leave a strong legacy have been realised – and investment in the next generation of Olympians seems assured.
But apart from dusting off the trainers and getting down the gym again, can those of us in the far less sporty world of legal share in the glory? What are the lessons for our careers that we can take from this great Olympic story?
- Well, perhaps the most obvious one is the need for investment. Throughout these games, we have been reminded that investment courtesy of National Lottery funding has fuelled the success of Team GB. Lesson for you? Don’t stick with a firm that isn’t willing to invest in its people.
- We all know that raw talent isn’t enough. No-one gets to the Olympics without a whole lot of hard work too. But that isn’t sufficient either. The mind-set is also critical – you have to believe that you can be successful, that you have what it takes to win. If you don’t think you’re good enough, consider if there are steps you can take to change your thinking (more on that later).
- Don’t give up. Failure and set-backs along the way are inevitable. Think of show jumping gold medallist Nick Skelton, who retired 16 years ago after breaking his neck in two places, only to come back to become Olympic champion at the age of 58. Sometimes you can achieve the seemingly impossible.
- Your destiny is not set in stone. Super heavyweight boxer Joe Joyce was a cheerleader and artist before he took up boxing. Seize opportunities to learn new skills and try something new. Who knows where it might lead?
- You don’t need to go it alone, even if there’s only one prize on offer. Vicky Holland beat her best friend, flatmate and training partner Non Stanford to take the bronze medal in the triathlon. She gives so much credit to Stanford that she said afterwards, ‘Half of this medal is hers.’ Never forget those who give you a leg up – success is rarely achieved in isolation.
And if you watch these sporting champions and think they inhabit a different planet – that you could never be that focused or talented – then think again. For even sporting legends face their inner demons. It’s just that they find ways to overcome them, when we might give up and settle for second best.
The psychology of success
Take Andy Murray’s recent spate of victory, including becoming the first tennis player to successfully defend an Olympic gold title. His success has been ascribed to a change in mind-set, no doubt brought about by many factors, but not least his decision to embrace a good sports psychologist.
And in this field, there is hope for us too. Huge advances are being made in neuroplasticity – the idea that the brain is malleable and that we can change our minds. In his book, The Brain’s Way of Healing, distinguished scientist and medical doctor Norman Doidge argues that conscious thought and action can be so powerful as to rewire the brain, contributing to healing in even profound conditions such as Parkinson’s, stroke, autism and traumatic head injury.
This thinking is translating to our everyday lives too. In a recent publication, The Stress Test, psychologist and neuroscientist Ian Robertson takes the idea that ‘the software of experience can re-engineer the hardware of the brain’ to argue that ‘everyone can learn to better control their own mind and emotions’, turning what might be perceived as negative stress into something positive and of practical advantage.
It’s about understanding how the brain works and interrupting the autopilot response. Strategies might range from changing your posture to increase ‘arousal in the brain’ to changing the context of psychological symptoms. So if your racing pulse tells you that you’re anxious, tell yourself that you are, in fact, excited instead. The symptoms are the same but the emotional impact and practical outcome are different.
It’s easy to be sceptical – but these theories (together with the closely related cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness) are already used widely to improve performance in sport. And they could have a huge impact on your daily life.
You may not be aiming for Olympic gold, but what could you achieve if you applied some of these techniques to your next job interview, major pitch or presentation?
In sport, the importance of the mind has long been accepted and work to improve mental strength prioritised. But we are slow to translate these and other lessons to the world of business. With the huge success of Team GB this year, maybe it is time for us to catch up…