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Post Leadership
Posted at 01:25 PM ET, 08/02/2012

The psychology of how Olympic gold, silver and bronze can go to your head

Michael Phelps, who has said this will be his last Olympics, may have a long career ahead of him touting healthy cereals or promoting energy drinks.

But for many athletes in London, this may be their only shot at Olympic gold before they’re forced to move on to other jobs and careers far outside the world of swimming pools, gymnasiums and running tracks. When they do, one might expect their many skills and qualities—their determination, their persistence, their extraordinary work ethics, their competitive drive—to make them uniquely successful in less Olympian pursuits.

A new study from the University of Queensland in Australia, however, says that’s not always the case. The research team, which was selected by the International Olympics Council’s (IOC’s) Olympic Studies Centre Research Grant Program, interviewed former Olympic athletes and found that many reported experiencing disorientation, depression and self-doubt as they transitioned into their next careers.

While qualities like organization and persistence proved to be useful in the interviewees’ post-Olympic careers, other common attributes of high-level athletes, such as submissiveness, perfectionism and competitiveness were actually seen as problematic, the researchers found. The study’s sample was extremely small—just eight athletes were interviewed—but serves as a reminder of how difficult the transition can be for seemingly invincible athletes once the Games are over.

Still, one skill the Olympics does teach athletes that might stick with them is how to live with coming in second. Or better yet, third. Stanford management professor Bob Sutton wrote earlier this week on his excellent Work Matters blog about a phenomenon we’ve all probably witnessed in watching the Olympics over the past few days. The gold medal winners obviously appear elated. But while silver medalists can appear dejected, bronze medalists often look almost as happy as if they won the gold.

US gymnast Danell Leyva performs on the rings during the London Olympic Games on August 1, 2012. (BEN STANSALL - AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Just look at Danell Leyva, who took the bronze Wednesday in the men’s all-around gymnastics competition. Or swimmer Brendan Hansen, who inspired Sutton’s post. He writes about how 31-year-old Hansen’s win in the 100-meter breaststroke reminded him of a 1995 study (written about a few years ago in the Washington Post) which found that Olympic athletes who win the bronze medal are actually happier than those who come in second. The study’s authors attributed the reactions to a phenomenon called “counterfactual thinking,” or thoughts about what might have been. While silver medalists compared themselves to the gold medalists, bronze-medal winners compared themselves to all those who didn’t get onto the medal stand at all.

Leaders in competitive fields are always comparing themselves to those who came in first, when they might enjoy their success a little more if they learned to compare themselves to those who didn’t come close to winning at all. “To put perhaps too fine a point on it,” Sutton writes, “silver medalists see themselves as the first loser, while bronze medalists see themselves as the last winner.”

More from On Leadership:

How they pull off the Olympics

Lessons from a Twitter #fail

How to completely destroy an employee’s work life

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By  |  01:25 PM ET, 08/02/2012

Tags:  leadership, olympics, sports

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