The following blog originally ran on the Sustainable Brands website on August 30, 2017.
The Athlete’s Secret to Success: How Elite Athletes Win by Playing the Game with Purpose
Swarmed by a crowd of cross-country ski fans all under the age of 12, I felt like I’d just won my first World Cup. In the beginning, I wanted to be a soccer star. I, along with most of the girls my age, idolized Mia Hamm and tried desperately to snag the #9 jersey on every single one of my teams. By high school, however, I realized that my future on the field looked grim. I made the soccer team as a freshman but not because I could bend it like Beckham – I simply ran more than anyone else on the field. By sophomore year, I turned my full attention to cross-country skiing, a sport that better suited to my somewhat uncoordinated long limbs, my love of the outdoors and my seemingly endless supply of energy. Fifteen years later, I qualified to race in my very first World Cups in Quebec City, Canada.
Primarily an individual sport, cross-country skiing combines the endurance of marathon runners with the speed of sprinters and the power of jumpers with the strength of rowers. Races range from three-minute sprints to 50km marathons. Training includes a mix of roller-skiing, running, skiing, biking, weight-lifting, swimming, yoga and bounding, and totals 800-1,000 hours per year. As a full-time skier, my days are built around double training sessions: intervals in the morning and strength in the afternoon, mental coaching sessions, bodywork, nutrition monitoring, recovery, ice baths, sponsor outreach and obligations, planning, racing and resting. Like most sports, the object of every ski race is to win. However, after spending thousands of hours training, preparing and throwing every fiber of my body into the singular goal of being the best in the world, none of that guarantees that I will win … and more often than not, I don’t. So, why do it?
In less than six months, a unique collection of the strongest, fastest, most graceful and powerful human beings on earth will assemble in Pyeongchang, South Korea for the most prestigious sporting event in the world: The 23rd quadrennial Winter Olympic Games kicks off in February 2018 and will award the best in winter sport a gold medal. But for every gold medalist at the Olympics, there are thousands upon thousands of non-gold-medal athletes who have spent years and maybe even an entire lifetime training and preparing only to come up short.
At first glance, the purpose of sport – of any game or competition – is to win. However, those that win, and then win again and again and again, play for something more than finishing first. Winning alone is simply not sustainable. Even the Lindsay Vonns and Serena Williamses of the world occasionally lose. If winning were everything, then losing would reduce an athlete’s self-worth to nothing. The best in the world are the best because they develop a deep and authentic commitment to their sport beyond winning. Nearly every top athlete partners with a cause that matters to them outside of competition – a foundation that provides sports scholarships to youth, a community development organization that gets kids outside and active, a nonprofit that empowers women and girls through sport, or an organization dedicated to protecting our winters. The best athletes recognize their unique position to positively impact a larger audience with their actions and to mentor and inspire others along the way. Commitment to a greater purpose allows top athletes to bounce back more quickly after failure, to continue working and fighting through setbacks and missteps, and to outperform their peers time and time again because they are working for something bigger than themselves. An athlete’s purpose, and hence his/her self-worth, is tied to more than a gold medal. Purpose guides an athlete’s actions through both the uncertainty of competition and the hurdles of failure.
Similar to sport, success in business requires a mix of hard work, talent and purpose. Without a reason for being beyond profit, companies, like athletes, fail to reach their potential. Purpose creates a connection with consumers and helps inspire and engage employees. According to Imperative’s 2016 Workforce Purpose Index, purpose-driven employees experience higher levels of fulfillment in their work and are more likely to be in leadership positions than non-purpose-driven employees. Purpose also builds community and brand value while simultaneously producing a positive social impact and growing profit. ENSO’s 2017 World Value Index revealed that an astounding 79 percent of consumers believe business can be a force for positive social and environmental change but only 41 percent actually trust business leaders to do what’s right. Companies that work to close this gap have an enormous competitive advantage in their ability to connect to consumers and prove their brand value. Purpose gives business the power to achieve financial success while working towards lasting positive change.
A quick glance at the results sheet after my first World Cup revealed a respectable, but altogether unimpressive, 47th place finish. 47th place at a World Cup earns you exactly zero dollars. In fact, as an athlete I often spend money to compete. In a somewhat fringe sport such as cross-country skiing, sponsorships are few and far between, and the potential for profit provides a minor, if nonexistent, incentive to perform. When I first decided to pursue skiing full-time, I needed a purpose beyond profit. Yes, I wanted to win, but I also wanted to compete for more than personal glory. I recognized the opportunities sport had given me, the confidence sport had instilled, and the skills such as teamwork, goal-setting and resiliency that sport had helped me develop. I partnered with the Women’s Sports Foundation and Fast and Female to help share those same opportunities with the next generation of women and empower girls through sport.
Although I finished my first World Cup a few football fields from the podium, the kids that swarmed me after the race didn’t seem to notice or mind. To them, my place or profit from the race didn’t matter. To them, I was a snapshot of the opportunities and grand possibilities of their future. To them, I was just a skier chasing and fulfilling a dream with purpose.