Now that the awe-inspiring London 2012 Olympics are over and we're done celebrating the amazing physical performances of Gabby Douglas, Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, and so many others from around the world... We go back to our normal lives. But should we? Reflecting on the past two weeks, I can't help but feel astounding admiration for the emotional performances we witnessed. So many of these world-class athletes held themselves together in the face of devastating disappointments or through roller coasters of up-and-down results. Their examples of grace under adversity provide an important lesson for all of us to think about as we handle our own emotional situations at work, in our families, and in our communities. This is one Olympic experience we should all take to heart.
Our athletes' ability to hand this pressure is no accident. As part of the first Olympic/Paralympic Ambassadors program sponsored by the USOC, I helped to train the team heading to Beijing to think through the kinds of things that could go wrong: weather, injury, unfair judging, bad behavior among competitors -- even simple disappointment in their own performance. As much as they needed to visualize their physical success, they also needed to visualize the way they wanted to behave in front of the cameras on the world's stage when things were not going perfectly.
Since the athletes are so focused on their own training and the intricacies of their sport, they can easily forget that they are ambassadors for their countries and that everything they do reflects on their teams, their countries, and their personal legacies. No one wants to be remembered as the martial arts competitor who kicked one of the Olympic judges when he didn't like the ruling, the bad sport who threw a tennis racquet at a line judge, or the swimmer who cursed out someone from another country as a competitive tactic. For those who are young and competing in their first Olympics, the pressure of being in the limelight adds a whole new dimension to their sport. Thinking through how you want to show up to the world, whether you win or lose, requires the same kind of personal discipline as physical training.
On camera, we saw Michael Phelps gracefully handle his first defeat in 12 years at an Olympics, even while he calmly told us that he went behind the bleachers and screamed after he failed to medal in his first event. Had he thrown the temper tantrums on camera that he surely felt while facing multiple disappointments, it would have been harder for us to celebrate his historic accomplishment of becoming the most decorated Olympian of all time. Usain Bolt, also, was a study in handling setbacks. He came into the games with an equanimity in public that surely did not reflect the turmoil he felt inside. We saw Oscar Pistorius stay positive and supportive of others even though he did not run his best time in the 400m, and then again when his relay team went down for the count. Sadly, Lolo Jones was not able to contain her feelings on camera as she was sharply criticized in the press and did not achieve the results she hoped for.
Emotional intelligence isn't only important when things aren't going your way. It is equally important for our athletes to be ambassadors when they are winning. Shaking hands with opponents, thanking their parents and coaches, singing their national anthem... These are the little things we see that make us look up to our heroes as people with character, not just incredible athletic machines.
So what does this mean for you and me in every day life? We need to think through how we show up to others -- whether we are winning or not. We can visualize the behavior we want to display when we are angry, when we feel wronged by others, or when things don't go our way. How do you want your children to see you behaving when you are stuck in bad traffic? What would your boss think of a furious tantrum at an airport when you missed a flight? We all need to take a moment to see what's in the mirror.
Acting like a champion in life does not come naturally -- it does require training and discipline. Read up on emotional intelligence or take a course in positivity. Find ways to manage your emotions. For example, try taking deep breaths and maybe even giving yourself a time-out to recover before speaking. Research shows that smiling, even when you don't feel like it, can potentially help to reverse a chain reaction of bad feelings. Negative emotions do need to be expressed and not repressed, but champions can manage when and how those emotions manifest themselves so that they leave a positive legacy for their friends, colleagues, family members, and their countries.
To me, that is what being a true Olympian really means.
And P.S: Don't forget that the Paralympics are starting up August 29th!
Watch it all on YouTube. See many examples of grace under fire, heroic effort, and great athleticism in basketball, volleyball, track racing, hugh jumping and much more!
For more by Bonnie St. John, click here.
For more on emotional intelligence, click here.