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What can we learn from the way elite athletes recover from defeat?

Athletes competing in the Super Bowl and Winter Olympics must prepare for the trauma of defeat.

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Defeat is a fact of life. We all lose at some point, no matter what we’ve chosen to do, or where circumstances have led us.

Elite athletes competing at the Super Bowl and Winter Olympics will lose in public, often under intense pressure. After a lifetime of training, and the extraction of every ounce of talent, they must also learn to deal with the trauma of defeat.

But there is much to learn from the victories that sometimes follow. The comeback is the grandest of all sporting narratives, after all, and the idea of redemption is built into the foundations of humanity. How do we redeem ourselves? Do we even try?

Soccer star Mohamed Salah, devastated by defeat on Sunday in the final of Africa’s biggest competition, the Cup of Nations, came close to a kind of immediate redemption just days later. Emerging off the bench for Liverpool to a standing ovation, the “Egyptian king” dropped a shoulder, shimmied past a defender, and smashed the ball against the crossbar. So close.

US athletes Lindsey Jacobellis and Nathan Chen won gold this week after past Winter Olympic disappointments. But they themselves don’t necessarily think in terms of redemption. Doing so, Jacobellis told the New York Times, would have distracted her from the “task at hand.”

Chen shared a piece of advice from fellow Olympian Evan Lysacek, who encouraged him to think about life after the Games: “Win or lose, you’re going to go home, and you’re going to continue the life that you had.”

There’s no one rule or formula for dealing with setbacks when you’re competing among the best of the best, says Mark Ayogi, a sports psychology professor at the University of Denver. “There’s only what people have found works for them.”

But it can be useful to put things in perspective, Ayagi adds. When an athlete—and anyone else—thinks of their profession as what they do, rather than who they are, they may have an easier time “returning to a functional state quicker.” Whatever you do, and whether or not you seek redemption, keep trying.

The backstory

  • It’s nearly impossible to achieve and maintain a truly elite level. Jamaican athlete Usain Bolt, an eight-time Olympic gold medalist over a decade of utter dominance, demonstrated two things: the physical advantages of a natural-born sprinter, but also the work ethic to minimize any marginal disadvantages. The former is a given, the latter much less so, and teaches us that becoming the best is extraordinarily hard work.
  • But there are rewards in trying, even in the most challenging circumstances. Hardly anyone knew Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman was undergoing lengthy treatment for the cancer that ultimately claimed his life at the age of just 43 in 2020, but he didn’t stop working and trying to build a legacy. The movie became a cultural touchstone, and its star a legend.
  • Failure is not always a rung on the ladder to success, but that’s also OK. Writer Bene Cipolla received 24 rejections for a book she pitched, and pushes back on “American culture’s refusal to stare rejection in the face—its propensity to believe that failure always means that our next big break is just around the bend.” For Cipolla, sometimes it’s better to give up and start a different journey.
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Mental health takes center stage at the Winter Olympics

“And what I know from that kind of pressure is: It is not easy to win. Ever.” —Mikaela Shiffrin to the Associated Press, regarding Simone Biles’s exit at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics

When skier Mikaela Shiffrin exited her second race of the week, and was clearly devastated afterwards, gymnast Simone Biles tweeted a message of support.

Biles herself was heavily criticized by some for dropping out of the Tokyo Olympics last summer for mental health reasons. She and tennis star Naomi Osaka, who pulled out of both the French Open and Wimbledon for similar reasons, helped kickstart a conversation about the mental toll elite sports takes on athletes.

What to watch for

  • Two unsuccessful teams will contest Super Bowl LVI. The Cincinnati Bengals have never won the title in nearly 60 years of competition, while the Los Angeles Rams are more than two decades out from their last title. Ad sales are going well, at least
  • The soccer World Cup will be a huge test. Not just for all-time greats like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, for whom the tournament will be a swansong, but also for Qatar, which is hosting it against a backdrop of human rights abuses and corruption, and is spending an estimated $300 billion on infrastructure projects. It’s in winter, too.
  • How does a 15-year-old get involved with, and come back from, a serious doping violation? Russian skater Kamila Valieva tested positive for heart drug trimetazidine, which can boost athletes’ endurance and blood efficiency, in December 2021, with the results only coming to light after she’d helped her team to gold. She’ll still be a teenager at the next Winter Olympics.
  • Is Novak Djokovic’s legacy wrecked? The unvaccinated tennis star plans to compete in Dubai on Feb. 21 after missing out on the Australian Open last month, but he’s likely to be barred from other international competitions, potentially jeopardizing any chance of overhauling Rafael Nadal’s titles record.
  • The 2022 Oscars could help some actors cement their legacy. This year’s nominations overlooked blockbuster films, but there are still opportunities for actors to make their mark. After decades in the business, Kirsten Dunst was nominated for her first-ever Oscar for her performance in The Power of the Dog. Jane Campion, director of the same film, is the first woman to be nominated twice for best director.

One 🏟 thing

Olympians haven’t just had to deal with the everyday stress that comes with being an elite athlete over the past year—they’ve also been forced to perform in empty arenas because of covid restrictions. The usual roaring crowds have been absent in both Tokyo and Beijing, and many athletes are competing without close friends and family in the stands.

Sports psychologists are divided on whether a lack of an audience helps or hurts athletes, but the concept of social facilitation suggests they tend to perform better in front of fans.

According to psychology professor Daniel Wann, “If there’s a lack of an audience, theoretically, you should see across-the-board maybe not quite as high a level of performance as you would have before.”

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Sponsor content by Deloitte
Sponsor content by  Deloitte
Innovation has an image problem. The 'i-word' is invoked so often, and by so many, that it has come to mean at once everything, and as a result, nothing at all. Yet, with Deloitte’s inaugural Innovation Study, we hope to clarify what this business-critical concept means to business and technology leaders working in the trenches today. To this end, Deloitte surveyed and interviewed more than 400 business, technology, and innovation leaders across six industries in the United States on the topic of innovation, and how they are moving beyond the buzzword toward a new and improved understanding of the state of corporate innovation programs.
Propel your innovation

Thanks for reading! And don’t hesitate to reach out with comments, questions, or topics you want to know more about.

Best wishes for a successfully redemptive weekend,

—Courtney Vinopal and Hasit Shah

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