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How The Olympics Teaches Us About Self-Knowledge and Self-Mastery


Tara Carcillo

Date Published

Oct 07, 2016
6 minute read

As we are all glued to the television this week watching the riveting performances of the 2016 Olympics in Rio, it is a perfect opportunity to reflect on the latest insights on leadership and peak performance coming from premiere athletes and coaches in the world. We love the Olympics because everyday people push themselves to the limits of their minds, bodies, and spirits into this realm of excellence. The Olympic games have a long history that connects two core ideas of leadership development – self-knowledge and self-mastery.

The ancient games played in Greece took place near the temple of Apollo, where the saying “know thyself” was inscribed as you entered the temple. As Drew Hyland, professor of philosophy at Trinity College, points out in this excellent article about the connection between philosophy and sports, “If you’re an athlete and you’re thoughtful at all about what you’re doing, you’re constantly learning about yourself in exactly the sense Socrates was talking about, namely coming up against your limits’ of what you do not know.” Fast-forward to today’s games in Rio and we have a perfect example of a coach and player who have spent decades pushing these limits of self-mastery and self-knowledge.

Geno Auriemma, head coach of the USA women’s basketball team, arguably one of the best coaches in the world today, has been praised by his star athletes for helping his players achieve self-mastery by setting small, individualized performance goals. This type of coaching is backed up by neuroscience. When we set and achieve smaller goals, our brains release dopamine, which is connected to feelings of pleasure, learning, and motivation. Given these effects, our minds and bodies are motivated to push through the inherent pain and difficulties of long-term transformations. Using this approach for over 16 years, he has developed his star player Diana Taurasi, at the University of Connecticut and then on team USA through various Olympic performances. They have played over 187 games together as coach and player, winning 178 against their opponents. Coach Auriemma describes his player Taurasi with deep pride, “There have been great players who, mentally, are at a level above everyone else, and there have been great players who, physically, were at a level above everyone else. And there have been (players) who have had a bigger heart and had a greater will. How many do you know who have all three?”

All Olympians have incredible athletic ability, so what is unique to Diana and Geno’s success? Sixteen years of learning and growing together. To be successful, we need coaches and mentors that stick with us over long periods of time, push us beyond our own capacities, and help us understand ourselves with greater depth. Self-knowledge requires a courageous step into the unknown. Sometimes we need an encouraging push to face the unknown in ourselves. Do I have what it takes? Can I make it? Is it worth it? This type of leap of faith is embodied in the leadership framework, or PRIME, we at The Clearing call, Trust the Universe. Leaders typically create visions based on what they already know. This type of leadership works fine when the external environment is stable and the future is predictable. However, it is insufficient when the environment or marketplace is forcing a full transformation of the organization. With the right type of coaching and mentoring, transformational leaders step out into unknown futures. These visionaries:

  • Understand that most of what is needed is available in the universe; they do not know what they do not know
  • Believe that whatever they need to realize—whatever vision they declare—is out in the future somewhere
  • Trust that the universe will make available whatever the visionary needs

As leaders, we are constantly pushing the boundaries of what we know when we pursue new ideas and visions for our organizations. Sometimes this is dangerous. We can fail. We do fail. And sometimes it has a huge impact on our life. In the thousands of stories of Olympic victory, there are stories of those that risked it all, but did not make it. The best have coaches that push through the failures and the barriers. As we persist, we learn more about our capacities and we see the universe provide in ways we could not have imagined. We are both humbled and awed by the experience. This is the joy of effort inherent in all sports and why we love what we do as leaders.

What risks are you taking? Are you pushing yourself into unknown territory? Are you trusting the universe? Do you have a coach or mentor to stick with you through the difficulty?

If you are interested in improving your existing leadership training or coaching, The Clearing has applied the principles outlined above in our Leading with The PRIMES leadership development program.