This blog is part of the series “The power of the female athlete.” View the complete series at the links at the end of this article.
As the Olympic Games continue in Tokyo, Japan, female athletes are holding the spotlight, and not just from a competitive standpoint. When it comes to political and social demonstrations during the Games, 2021 is the year of women. Female athletes are championing racial equality and taking ownership of what they wear during competitions.
The challenges that Olympians face help them develop qualities that enable them to compete against the best. You’ll usually find these are the same traits of successful female employees. Women from various sectors outside of athletics, including the tech industry, can learn valuable lessons from these talented athletes. Lessons they can incorporate into their own lives and work.
Naomi Folkard: Motherhood makes you stronger
Team GB’s Naomi Folkard had plenty of preparation to do before she flew to Japan to take part in Tokyo 2020 earlier this month. But perhaps her most crucial task was pumping and freezing 80 bottles of breastmilk for her five-month-old baby Emily, who had to stay behind in the UK.
Babies were part of a ban on relatives travelling with athletes until organisers ruled at the beginning of this month that “nursing children” could accompany their mothers “when necessary”. For Folkard, though, it was too late to change her plans.
Folkard, a champion archer, is one of a record number of six mothers on this year’s Team GB. To some extent, this should not be news, because mothers have competed in the Olympics since the 1900s, when women were first allowed to take part. Yet it is significant because there has long persisted a stigma that motherhood and elite sports are incompatible, that an athlete’s career will be derailed by having a baby.
The lesson: Women can pursue ambitions while pregnant or as a new mother
Dr Claire-Marie Roberts is a chartered performance psychologist who works with Olympic and Paralympic athletes. She began extensive research after working with three Olympians who wanted to have a baby between two Olympics.
“The stress involved, some of the sort of structural inequalities in their sports, and just the sheer lack of concern was stark and shocking,” she says. Then there’s the societal judgement of athletes such as the British former long-distance runner Paula Radcliffe who received abuse from the public and press for spending extended periods away from her children to train and compete, even though they were with their father. “There’s that increased pressure,” says Roberts, “because mothers are perceived to be the only possible caregivers.”
Recently, more female athletes have been speaking out about how children and top-tier sports can co-exist with the right support. At this year’s Tokyo Games, the double Olympic champion Helen Glover already set a record by becoming the first mother to be selected for the Team GB Olympic rowing team.
Sky Brown: Age doesn’t have to hold you back
Skateboarding is included in the Olympics for the first time in history at this year’s event in Tokyo, and Team GB’s hope for the competition is just 13 years old but is ready to turn a few heads in Japan with her flicks and tricks.
Sky Brown was born in Japan to an English father and Japanese mother. By the time she was eight in 2016, Brown was already involved in competitive skateboarding, taking part in the Vans US Open.
Brown doesn’t have professional coaching and learns new tricks from YouTube clips, which she then practises to perfect them. She made waves in the skateboarding world thanks to her skills on the board, even working with Tony Hawk.
While Brown has accolades under her belt already, including a bronze medal from last year’s skateboarding world championships, she’s an inspiration for other reasons. The teenager suffered severe injuries after an accident when she was 11, so much so that she was in intensive care. But, when Brown recovered, she went straight back to training. While talking about her accident during an interview, she explained that:
“Even if you’re just walking, you can fall. So I thought it was good to show that sometimes you fall. But I also wanted to show me getting up.”
The lesson: Age shouldn’t never dictate success
Regardless of whether you are the youngest or the oldest person in the room or meeting, your age doesn’t have any relevance to your performance or your work. If you trust in yourself, your skills, and your experience, you can perform at top levels while learning and growing.
RingCentral’s Hill is used to being one of the youngest women in a leadership role, and she has had to demonstrate unwavering belief in herself to be taken seriously.
“I’m a female, I’m a minority, and I’m typically younger for my roles. And in addition to being younger, I tend to look younger,” she explains. “Being in tech, an industry run by white males, I started to do this thing that helped me. I put a post-it note on my mirror that I look at every morning to remind me that I’m worth it.”
Yusra Mardini: We can live through so much and still succeed through it all
Yusra Mardini escaped from a civil war in Syria in August of 2015 with her sister by her side. A plane from Syria to Lebanon, from there to Turkey. In Turkey, they boarded a boat to Greece.
That boat ride was supposed to last 45 minutes. It was just a 10-kilometre ride. The boat, meant for six to seven people, was already broken when 20 people boarded. Twenty minutes in, Mardini found herself in the water pushing the broken boat ashore after more than three hours.
“The whole way, you can just hear all of our prayers in one voice,” Mardini told Olympic Channel in an interview.
Her final trek (to Germany) continued on foot and buses. Less than a year later, Mardini competed as part of the first IOC Refugee Olympic Team at Rio 2016.
The lesson: Determination will pay off
Mardini’s experiences have been so tragic, but she pulled herself through it all. While many will never face struggles like this, there’s a strong lesson here about perseverance. Putting in the hard work and setting goals for yourself is what will set you apart.
Capri Wells, a customer success manager at RingCentral, says she has found success by focusing on gratitude and dedication to the job. Wells’ sentiment of being thankful for every opportunity was instilled in her by her father, who competed in the 1981 Olympic Games as a weightlifter.
“My dad always encouraged me to be the first one to show up and the last to leave,” Wells says. “It’s about showing respect for the work and appreciation for the opportunity at hand.”
As an Olympian, Wells’ father showed her that you must put in a lot of effort to get a lot out of life. That’s a lesson she’s applied throughout her life and that she continues to bring to her job on a daily basis.
Like an Olympic athlete, Wells holds herself to a high personal standard. Of course, athletes have coaches and support staff who help them meet their goals and do what others had not thought possible, but in the end, they are the ones who first believed in themselves and strive every day to reach their personal best.
“Thanks to my dad, I’m a confident woman who welcomes a challenge and refuses to give up until I see things through to success,” Wells says.
Simone Biles: Always put your wellbeing first
Team USA gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from one of the events of the final of the Tokyo Olympics, saying, “I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardise my health and wellbeing.” Biles stumbled during her initial move on the floor and left the mat before returning to announce she was pulling out. “Physically, I feel good. I’m in shape,” she said after her exit. “Emotionally, it varies on the time and moment. Coming to the Olympics and being a head star isn’t an easy feat.”
Sports fans don't criticise athletes for pulling out of a competition because of a physical injury. Why should mental health be treated any differently if it means they get to preserve their careers? Click To Tweet
Lesson: Vulnerability doesn’t have to hold you back
Mental health should be a top priority for us as individuals and for organisations. While teammates have been supportive of Biles, social media is full of criticism.
The normalisation of speaking openly about mental health, taking time off and stepping back from situations that cause excessive anxiety is important. If the pandemic teaches us anything, it should be to choose our wellbeing first. Doing so should not be controversial, whether you work in an office or on stage for your country.
Everyone should raise Biles up for her decision. Her actions show that embracing vulnerability and asking for support is crucial.
RingCentral’s Hill recommends that people reach out to their colleagues and friends if they are struggling or overwhelmed by life.
“You can reach out to someone,” Hill says. “Here at RingCentral, we have various support networks for working women, but you can turn to people in your community or your neighbourhood and talk to them. They could be a support network that you never knew was right there. Don’t be afraid to ask.”
Pushing beyond comfort
Despite the challenges and adversity they often face, including sexism, misogyny and gender discrimination, women continue to persevere as athletes and at work.
Olympic athletes have trained for the majority of their lives for their moment. Women in the workforce can lean into ‘training’ and learn from female Olympic athletes’ skills to push forward. This could be in our roles, leading teams or landing ourselves at top organisations across the globe. It’s all about moving beyond our comfort zones and understanding that we should be open about mental health and realising that self-belief plays a big part in achieving.
Read more from The power of the female athlete:
Originally published Jul 30, 2021