A win-at-all-costs mindset means Olympians miss out

Pursuit of glory can come at expense of healthier life balance and better long-term future

American athlete Sydney McLaughlin  competes in the Women’s 400m Hurdles Final   at the Tokyo Games. Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

American athlete Sydney McLaughlin competes in the Women’s 400m Hurdles Final at the Tokyo Games. Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

 

Janne Müller-Wieland was dropped from the German Olympic hockey team in May, despite being captain and having led the national squad to a bronze medal at the Rio Games.

Not being sent to Tokyo was a blow, she says. But unlike many of her fellow Olympians, she says her identity is not tied to her sport. She and her wife have recently had a baby, an experience she “wouldn’t change for the world”. She is co-founder of Unthink, a leadership development consultancy, and already has a record as an entrepreneur. Critically, she told me, “I know I’m more than just a hockey player.”

In interviews with Olympic medallists in the coming days, “What’s next?” is the question you are least likely to hear posed.

It is certainly a question many athletes, obsessively focused on their dream of podium glory, avoid putting to themselves.

In that, they are not dissimilar from certain successful businesspeople, dragging out their blinkered pursuit of glory at the expense of a healthier balance and a better long-term future.

It takes a lot to snuff out the dream of another chance at gold. The hope is kept alive by the extraordinary comeback stories of athletes such as Britain’s Dame Kelly Holmes, who overcame disappointments, injuries, depression and self-harm. Yet even after going on to win gold medals in the 800m and 1,500m in the 2004 Athens Olympics, she admits she felt depressed about the loss of identity and structure after she quit in 2005.

Retirement

One poll of US Olympians and hopefuls in 2001 suggested two-thirds feared their future after retirement and 43 per cent had trouble entering the workforce. Another, by the UK’s Professional Players Federation, showed half of former athletes did not feel in control of their lives two years after their careers ended, according to a BBC State of Sport investigation in 2018.

“It’s never too early to prepare for that jump,” says Mayi Cruz Blanco, head of sport solutions for recruitment agency Adecco, which works with the International Olympic Committee on career development for athletes. “But more often than not, athletes don’t have the awareness of that moment.”

Their fate does depend to some degree on their sport. The modern pentathlon is a “late-maturity” sport, says Joël Bouzou, who was able to “put two careers together at the same time” while competing in four Games for France between 1980 and 1992. Now president of the World Olympians Association, a networking and support system for anyone who has competed in the Games, he started as a PE teacher, then took qualifications in biology, law and economics in preparation for roles in philanthropy and sports administration.

Transition

Cath Bishop, an Olympic oarswoman who became a diplomat and leadership coach, points out that elite rowers generally do not give up their teenage years to training, unlike, say, swimmers or gymnasts. Class and background also play a part in providing the educational foundation for later success.

The transition to the workplace is bound to be hard, though, for any elite athlete. Bishop says it can be a surprise to realise that not everyone in the office is trying to “be the best they can be” every day. Müller-Wieland, who was part of an EY internship programme to bring sportswomen into business, recalls the shock of no longer receiving constant feedback.

Retired athletes, even if they are late to the workplace and short on technical skills, have much to offer employers in terms of drive, resilience and analytical nous, quite apart from the reflected glory of their medals.

A wider lesson, however, is that a narrow devotion to winning at any cost is not as productive as it seems. In business, it helps you “get the job done, but it’s not a great recipe for being creative or collaborative”, says Bishop.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021

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