Let me caveat the following by saying that I’m not a “sports-person”. I’m not competitive, I don’t have “a team” and this comic resonated real hard for me when I first saw it. Quite frankly, I’ve never totally understood why it matters if one group of random people wins over another. Now, it’s not that I know absolutely nothing about sports; I did spend a few years working for a pro soccer team, and I do live with a football junky. But my life is sort of sports-adjacent; sports aren’t central to me. Except for the Olympics. I really love the Olympics.

And, having just spent the majority of my free time for the past couple weeks watching the Olympics, I think there are a few lessons that came through loud and clear (to me, at least) and that I wanted to share with you. Even if you’re not a sports-person, or at the very top of your field. (And I’m going to gently side-step the issue of whether the Olympics should have been held in the first place in the middle of a pandemic!)

There’s a big difference between pressure and stress

I watched an interview with Caeleb Dressel, an Olympic swimmer. And he said something that stuck with me. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something along the lines of “The pressure is always there; it’s up to you whether you turn it into stress.” Super insightful.

Life can be overwhelming. Life is full of pressure. Even when you’re not trying to win the gold. But it can help to define what’s within your control and what’s out of it. I believe that only things we can truly control are our own actions and reactions. So, when pressure shows up, how will you react?

How can you apply this practically? I’m a big fan of having a little mantra, or something I can say to myself when the pressure’s on. When my kids were little, I’d say “These are problems we can solve.” Now, it’s morphed into “I can only move forward.” Whatever it is, it’s something to say to myself when I feel myself turning pressure into stress that brings me back and helps me focus on what I can control.

You know yourself best

Here’s where on stand on Simone Biles: I’m 100% with her.

There was an incredible amount of pressure on her at these games. And she listened to herself, and decided to do what was right for her. She made decisions to support her own mental (and physical) health, even though she knew how much crap would rain down on her. She knew herself, and she did was was right for her.

Have you ever stayed in a job too long? A relationship? Have you worked right through pain and illness, putting yourself at greater risk? Do you have a tendency to work too much and burn out?

Here’s the thing, no one really knows what’s going on with you, but you. You know yourself best and you know what’s best for you. When you’ve stayed in that job too long and it’s sucking your soul, you know. When you’re working too much and you need a rest, you know.

But here’s the hard thing, the thing we can learn from Simone Biles: Don’t just listen to that voice, do something to support it. Will other people like your decisions? Not necessarily. Should you do what’s right for you anyway? Absolutely.

Anxiety and excitement are two sides of the same coin

Do you ever look at those Olympians on the diving board, or at the running blocks and think: “How can they be so poised? Aren’t they nervous?” And honestly, I don’t know any Olympians, so I have no idea how they really feel. But one thought kept running through my head while watching these Olympians waiting for the race to start: “anxiety reappraisal”.

What the heck is anxiety reappraisal? Well, it’s a dead simple trick that lots of folks use when they have to do high pressure things, which, in your world, might be more along the lines of public speaking, or presenting in a big meeting.

Anxiety reappraisal is this: When you feel all those physical feelings of nervousness or anxiety, tell yourself you’re excited. Why? Anxiety and excitement are both feelings of arousal and have a lot of the same physical symptoms: heart racing, butterflies in the stomach, sweaty palms. So the mental jump from nervous to excited isn’t too far away. And, when you’re exited, you’re thinking about how something could go well, while when you’re nervous, you’re usually thinking the opposite. What would you prefer? What is more likely to lead to your success?

So, next time you’re feeling nervous, try telling yourself you’re excited instead, and see what happens.

What did you learn from the Olympics this year?