Adversity, the Olympics, and Leadership

Adversity, the Olympics, and Leadership by Dr. Scott Yorkovich

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If you haven’t already heard about Michael Phelps’ historic feat in the Olympics, you’ve been purposely avoiding the news. (In case you do not know, Phelps is now the most decorated Olympian in history.) I’m a bit of an Olympics junkie. I try to observe as much of the Olympics as I reasonably can and this becomes somewhat of my own Olympic event. (I love DVRs and time shifting technology!) Over the years, I’ve followed Phelps’ story a bit for its lessons in discipline, focus, and excellence. His story also provides insights for the pitfalls of success and fame. (He’s made some rather bad decisions.) Over the past few days, what has intrigued me most, though, were comments made by his coach, Bob Bowman, about how he made training difficult for Phelps.

In an interview after Phelps earned his 19th Olympic medal, Bowman talked about how he trained not only Phelps’ body, but his mind, too. He wanted to toughen Phelps so that he would not be distracted or disoriented by adversity. This paid off during the 2008 Beijing Olympics: Phelps’ goggles had become filled with water during his leg of a gold-medal winning relay. After the race, Phelps said he couldn’t see a thing and had reverted to counting his strokes—something they had done in workouts, so he knew the correct timing and distance. Through it all, Phelps remained calm and maintained focus on his job, and helped win the race.

Bowman has used a variety of techniques to toughen Phelps. In addition to grueling physical workouts, Bowman has hidden Phelps’ goggles, stepped on and broken Phelps’ only available goggles, intentionally arranged for transportation to be late, and messed up the schedule so that Phelps would miss a meal. Through these unexpected, surprise conditions Phelps still had a job to do if he wanted to be the greatest swimmer of all time. We don’t know how Phelps’ story would have unfolded had Bowman not been so positively devious. My bet, though, is that he would not have won gold with those water-filled goggles.

Kayla Harrison is another gold-medal winning Olympian from the United States. Harrison, 22, is from Middletown, OH. She is the first woman from the United States to win gold in judo. In an interview yesterday, she acknowledged having been sexually abused by a former coach. When asked about how that shaped her as an athlete, she said, “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, but I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t gone through something like that.”

In Phelps’ case, the adversity was planned and well intentioned. In Harrison’s case, the source of adversity was evil. In both cases, adversity shaped these people to be stronger in many important ways. Arguably, the adversity helped them become Olympic champions.

Most of us are not Olympians, but leadership is a “sport” of sorts. It is a competition. It is hard. It requires endurance, focus, discipline, and courage. There are rules. There are allies and enemies. There are teammates and coaches. There are winners and losers. There is growth. There is success. There is failure. Virtually every aspect of what it means to be a world-class athlete has application to what it means to be the most effective leader you can be.

Including inviting, accepting, and dealing with adversity.

The question is not whether you have adversity in life. We all have adversity. What do you do with it? Do you ignore it or do you consciously measure the adversity and strategically determine the best response (and then follow through)? Sadly, I think most leaders tend to ignore adversity. Initially, it appears to be the easier, least conflict-laden response. In the end, ignoring it creates more difficulties, more conflict, and impedes your growth as a person and as a leader.

The next time your “goggles fill with water,” stop and measure the problem. Examine the adversity for how it can make you stronger, wiser, calmer—a more effective leader.

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