6 freelance lessons learned from Olympic athletes

What are the characteristics that prepare Olympic athletes to perform at the highest level? I scoured studies and scrutinized world-leading research to find out.
6 freelance lessons learned from Olympic athletes

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Could you complete a decathlon? How about saddle up and jump fences on a horse weighing 1,000 pounds? Or nail your routine on a four inch-wide balance beam that sits four feet off the floor? What about doing all three, with the whole world watching?

Now, if you can imagine doing this after years of trading blood, sweat and tears for the chance to win an Olympic medal, you’ll understand what truly makes an Olympic athlete, as well as what defines the spirit of the Olympics.

Every four years thousands of athletes compete in an international event commonly considered the world's foremost sports competition with more than 200 nations participating. The Olympic Games -- which this year will be held in Tokyo, Japan -- are taking place despite adjustments made for safety in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

I’m always inspired by athletes. These men and women have ferociously dedicated their lives to mastering a rare talent that only a small percentage of people in the world possess. They’re intelligent, strategic, and physically insane. But that’s what makes them so much fun to watch and — to put it simply — awesome.

You may be wondering what the Olympics has to do with marketing your freelance graphic design, photography, transcription, or whatever-it-is-you-do business. The short answer: These competitors embody an array of highly desirable qualities that freelancers can use to improve their odds of success in their own industries.

The 2020 Summer Olympics begin July 23, but when you're watching from your couch take some cues from the best Olympic athletes and apply the lessons you learn to your own situation. Keep reading for six lessons from Olympic athletes that can help you become more successful in your freelancing career and life. 

Let’s kick things off with what it takes to make it to the Olympics...

What qualities does an Olympic athlete need to be successful?

Olympic athletes are people just like us. They have faults, they have failures and they can be down on their luck at times.

Each Olympic athlete endured their own challenges, including self-doubt, from the time they were kids until they reached the Olympics. 

Yet, they prevailed and succeeded in sport at an elite level.

Dr. Richard Bruce, Program Lead for the BSc in Sport & Exercise Medical Science at King’s College London, and researcher in the Centre for Human & Applied Physiological Sciences, works to explore the link between genetics and physical training. According to Bruce, 

“By its very definition, not everyone can become an elite athlete. However, there are certain genetic, physical and psychological characteristics that many top performers seem to have in common.”

The challenges that Olympic athletes face help them to develop the qualities that enable them to compete against the best in their respective fields. And these are the same qualities you’ll find in successful freelancers.

What are the characteristics that prepare Olympic athletes to perform at the highest level? I scoured studies, scanned science articles, and scrutinized world-leading research to find out. Here are 20:

  • Talent -- Being an Olympic athlete requires a tremendous amount of skill. You have to be talented in one or more areas that are the foundation of the sport that you’re competing in. Practice is important in the development of expertise but it will only take you so far. To make it to an elite level, you need talent. Or as Dick Swaab, Professor of neurobiology, University of Amsterdam, says, "It's nonsense to think that everybody who trains can become an Olympic champion." Skeptical? A study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science found the success of elite athletes can’t be predicted based on the number of hours they spend training.
  • Consistency -- When you think about the traits that prepare Olympics athletes to perform at the highest level, you may think of speed, stamina, strength and talent. They’re all important but consistency is one of the most important characteristics. By consistency, I’m not just talking about the steady improvement in skill and practice, I mean focusing on just a few things day-in and day-out, mindset, nutrition, sleep habits etc. Consistency is the single most important characteristic possessed by those who reach their maximum potential because it allows you to become more efficient through continuous improvement over time.
  • Sacrifice -- To succeed you’ll often have to give up something valuable for the sake of something more important. Olympic athletes are in a field where they have to sacrifice many things like family, friends, time, and relationships for their sports. There will always be a certain point where some athlete must make an enormous choice–give up something, or never achieve his or her goals. 
  • The ability to focus -- Can you imagine the chaos that surrounds and engulfs an Olympic athlete during peak training? There are coaches screaming at them from every angle, fans are hounding them, the media is trying to get that “perfect shot” (for the 50 millionth time), other athletes are pushing and shoving their way onto the same field as you; but all you need for a split second is pure focus. “Your sport—your art—should be your tunnel vision." Success requires the ability to block out distractions in pursuit of your long-term goal.
  • Work-ethic -- To be an Olympic athlete, you need to work harder than everyone else. Every day. For years. You need to have an intense work ethic in order to be great at anything. If you want to succeed, you have to go above and beyond what others are doing. You must work when others aren’t working. <tweet-link>If you want a high level of success, you must realize that the greatest doers in the world didn’t just get lucky and stumble across their success – they worked really hard to get there.<tweet-link>
  • Internal motivation -- It’s no secret that relying on external motivations can lead to burnout and procrastination. The first thing you’ll want to recognize about highly successful Olympic performers is that they all possess a high degree of intrinsic motivation. The athletes who succeed are those who are naturally driven to accomplish things by a passion that they themselves cannot always totally explain.
  • The ability to cope with and control anxiety & stress -- I think we can all agree triumph, failure and adversity are part of life. That’s why dealing with anxiety, fear, and stress have to be a huge part of any athlete’s training. As former gymnast, Nadia Comaneci said, “I am not afraid of attacks, whether physical or emotional . . . I feel free from them, not exposed to them. And so my mind is free from anxiety even when my body may be under attack.” 
  • Confidence -- If you don't believe in yourself, nobody is going to believe in you. If you don’t have confidence, you’ll always find a way not to win,” said Carl Lewis. These words of wisdom are not only good advice for competing and winning medals at the Olympics but also for succeeding as a freelancer." 
  • Mental toughness -- You need to be mentally tough enough to bounce back from setbacks. There will always be situations in which you want to give up and just quit. It’s your mental toughness that will give you the strength to push through the hard times and stick with it.
  • Competitiveness -- Competitiveness is probably one of the most important traits an Olympic athlete can have. As a freelancer not only will you compete for projects, but you will also be competing against your previous self. You must learn to like competing or you will find yourself stuck in a rut and moving nowhere fast. Competitive freelancers are the ones that make it because they aren’t afraid to take risks or approach large companies and clients. 
  • Coachability -- Coaching is fundamental to becoming an elite athlete. In the beginning, professional coaches are almost like drill sergeants. They break down your weaknesses and show you how to improve. Over the span of your career, coaches may be more like psychologists. They work with you to understand what's holding you back and challenge you to overcome it to become a better athlete. When an athlete works with a coach, they can get much farther than if they were training on their own. Similarly, when you work with a mentor or a coach, you’ll learn faster, get more done, overcome obstacles more quickly, and achieve your goals much faster than if you tried to do everything on your own.
  • Optimism -- One thing you’ll learn from watching athlete interviews is that you need to be optimistic. It sounds so simple and cliche, but it’s true. It was interesting to see some athletes talk about how they would try to stay away from news or social media because it brought them down and made them pessimistic. Others said they tried not to get too wrapped up in anything negative because it can affect your play if you let it. 
  • High personal standards -- Gold medal-winning athletes set very high goals and work very hard to achieve them. Olympic and professional athletes have very high standards for themselves and this makes them strive to meet or exceed what others believe is possible. Of course they have coaches, trainers and support staff who help them to get there, but in the end they are the one who strives every day to reach their personal best.In a similar vein, whatever you do in life, always hold yourself to high standards. That doesn’t mean being overly harsh on yourself; it simply means the bar you set for quality and accomplishment should be as high as possible (that’s different from settling for mediocrity). When you hold yourself to high standards, you have no choice but to constantly strive for improvement. 
  • Passion/enjoyment -- You have to really love what you do. You have to be willing to endure pain, sweat, struggle and hard work. When you are faced with challenges, obstacles, and uphill battles that test your abilities and will power; you simply need to be in the mood to pay the price. Elite athletes are passionate about what they do and that gives them purpose.
  • Ability to learn from criticism -- Nobody likes being criticized or pointed at for their mistakes. However, criticism can be a positive motivator for people to learn and improve their performance. Criticism is not something that should be avoided but embraced. Learn to take criticism, use it, adjust your style and move on. As Winston Churchill said, “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” 
  • Being a team player -- In the Olympics, even when athletes compete as individuals, their goal is to represent their country and bring back a medal for their countrymen. If you are looking to be successful in life, it is important that you learn how to work well with others. No one can do everything by themselves and even the best person needs backup from time to time.
  • Setting effective goals -- Olympic athletes know they are going to be competing in the Olympics every four years and train accordingly. They create clear, long-term goals and figure out how to work towards them. When you have a clear picture of what you want to achieve, you can plan your actions and ensure they create tangible results. Athlete365 says to “Learn how to set goals that help you achieve success, whatever that may be.” 
  • Humility -- Elite athletes all exhibit humility. They’re always focusing on the improvement of their skills instead of congratulating themselves for how good they are already. 
  • Resiliency and the ability to learn from setbacks -- One of the things I admire most about elite athletes is their resiliency, or their ability to bounce back from something. Everyone experiences obstacles in their life. Resiliency enables you to deal with these challenges and overcome them.
  • Commitment & dedication -- Success does not happen overnight. It can take months or years of maintaining daily discipline to stay on course towards your goal. As Jim Rohn said, “Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.”

Hear me out: What successful freelancers and elite athletes all have in common

Freelancing is hard. Olympic sports are even harder.

Being an Olympic athlete is probably one of the hardest professions in the world. You have to train for years, push your body to the limit and make sacrifices that many of us are unable to comprehend.

So, what do freelancers and Olympic athletes have in common?

Elite athletes constantly have to confront the demons of anxiety, fear of failure, and pressure from every angle. Freelancers face self-doubt, criticism, and long hours.

What else do the two have in common? More than you might expect.

  • Both compete for fame, glory, and cash -- The word 'athlete' comes from the Greek for 'contest' and originally referred to professional competitors in the original Olympics in ancient Greece. Athletes compete for fame and glory, or simply to prove themselves against the best of the best, but they also compete for cash. Freelancers are hardworking individuals who know how to hustle when they have to. Just like Olympic athletes, the determined ones reach unimaginable heights of success.
  • Both practice relentlessly --  They both invest time on a daily basis to make themselves better at what they do. This makes them successful in their field. Practice makes you into a better version of yourself. 
  • Both are always on the lookout for better routines -- Both  look to organize their time and resources properly in their quest for better performance. Their goal is to make their processes as efficient as possible.
  • Both are self-aware and prioritize personal development -- You need to know your weaknesses, and develop a routine of personal growth and learning. Both of these elements are necessary in order to reach the level of performance that’s required to be the best in your field. 
  • Both compete internationally -- A survey from financial services company Payoneer found that although the majority of freelance clients are located in North America and Europe -- 36% and 27% respectively -- remote working has eliminated geography as a barrier to work. Freelancers and Olympic athletes are part of a global community that trains and competes under high competitive standards.

The common thread between successful freelancers and Olympians is the commitment, dedication, and perseverance they exercise to reach their goals.

Being an Olympic athlete requires a lot of strength and hard work. But there are other qualities that go into achieving these elite goals. Many of them translate to the world of freelancing and can help anyone succeed in building a freelance career.

Lessons on business and life from 6 of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics’ “athletes to watch”

We’ve rounded up six individuals who have shown us what it means to be an Olympic athlete. 

Whether they’re competing against world-class athletes or the weight of public expectation and their reputation, these competitors are serious about what they do. They embody an array of highly desirable qualities that freelancers can use to improve their odds of success in their own industries and I’d like to think we can learn a thing or two from them — about their preparation, attitude and how they deal with the ups-and-downs of a career that is anything but ordinary.

Below are six lessons that you can learn from Olympic athletes that will help you reach your goals.

Lesson #1: Block out distractions & focus on your goal 

Olympian: Laurel Hubbard -- Hubbard is a 43-year-old weightlifter from Auckland, New Zealand who came back from rupturing an elbow ligament at the Commonwealth Games in April 2018 -- an injury she believed would be career-ending -- to qualify to represent New Zealand at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. Hubbard is set to be the first openly transgender athlete to compete at an Olympics. When asked during an interview with Radio New Zealand about conversations surrounding her Olympic Games inclusion, Hubbard said, 

“As an athlete, all I can really do is to block that out because if I try and take that weight on board it just makes the lifts harder and so all I can really do is just focus and lift.”

Apply it to your freelance business: Freelancers often struggle with staying focused on what matters most to them and their business. We get all kinds of great ideas about what we can be doing to bring in more business, but sometimes, amidst those all the ideas and distractions, it's hard to know where to start. It helps to write down your long-term goals. Of course, you should also keep tabs on your upcoming schedule, tasks to be accomplished, billable hours, etc. but being crystal clear on what you want to accomplish helps you filter out distractions and make strides towards achieving your goals.

Lesson #2: Embrace training & practice

Olympian: Katie Ledecky -- Ledecky has won five Olympic gold medals and 15 world championship gold medals, the most in history for a female swimmer. She’s the world record holder in the women's 400-, 800-, and 1500-meter freestyle as well as holding the fastest-ever times in the women's 500-, 1000-, and 1650-yard freestyle events. In total, she has won 34 medals (28 golds, 5 silvers, and 1 bronze) in major international competitions and has broken fourteen world records. When asked about her preparation for competition Ledecky said, 

“Each day I work on getting better, and even the bad days have something good that comes out of them,” Ledecky said. “One thing my coaches say is that I fail spectacularly in practice —and that’s something that I actually work toward.”

Apply it to your freelance business: We all have the opportunity to improve daily. Whether it’s taking a class to learn a new skill, listening to podcasts to stay on top of trends, or bouncing ideas off other freelancers, it’s important to stay sharp and keep up-to-date with changes in your industry. Look for areas where you have room for improvement and actively work to get better.  

Lesson #3: Master the mental game

Olympian: Noah Lyles -- Noah Lyles is one of the fastest people in the world. Not only did he win the 200-meters at the U.S. Track & Field trials in June with a time of 19.7, the best time in the world this season, but he holds the 300-meters indoor world best with a time of 31.87 seconds and has earned 9 gold medals and 2 silver medals in various competitions.

Since early 2019, Lyles has been on a mission to win three gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics. When asked how he deals with the pressures of competition Lyles said, 

"A lot of people think it’s the hard training [that makes you a better athlete], but it’s not just hard training. It’s also being smart with the training, and that all comes from your mind. My mom has always said this sport is 90% mental, 10% physical.”

Apply it to your freelance business: Sometimes your biggest competition isn’t always another freelancer. Sometimes, it’s the voice in your head questioning your ability to get the job done. Sometimes, it’s the crippling fear that you’re not as good as you think. But through training you can learn to silence that voice as you push yourself to become the best you can be. 

Lesson #4: It takes perseverance to handle the ups-and-downs you’ll face during your career.

Olympian: Simone Biles -- Biles is the first American female gymnast to win a World medal in every event. She’s als the most decorated gymnast in World Championship history with a combined total of 30 Olympic and World Championship medals. 

Every career has its ups and downs. It’s easy to look at the success Simone Biles has had and think, “Wow, what a golden life.” But it can be easier to forget about all the hardships and struggles she’s gone through along her way — and there have been many. When asked how she manages the enormous pressure and expectations at this level Biles said, 

I feel like most of the expectations that are on me are from myself. I've tried not to let anybody else's expectations impact how I go into a meet or my mindset. I still do the sport because I find joy and it's what I love. I love to entertain, I love to compete, and I love to train. Although some days are harder than others, I've been doing it for so long, so I know exactly how I'm going to be going into the gym each and every day and all of that stuff. But I think what brings me joy is having such a great team that I've been surrounded with and they keep motivating me and pushing me to be a better gymnast.”

Apply it to your freelance business: You will always meet challenges. Perseverance is a personal characteristic that influences one's ability to achieve long-term goals. It involves carrying out activities consistently over a long period of time, even when there are obstacles or distractions. Commit to your goal and realize you’ll face struggles along the way. If you haven’t already, read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield; it’s a great book that explains the resistance you’ll face and how to deal with it.

Lesson #5: Believe in yourself & bet on yourself

Olympian: Allyson Felix
-- The sprinter from the USA will be entering her sixth Olympics this season, and she is as fast as ever and raring to go. She has nine Olympic medals to her name and is one of the most decorated women in the field and track event record. And as much of a force as Felix is on the track, she’s also making an impact on social issues and taking control over her career—and legacy.

Felix gained media attention when she left Nike to go to Athleta and now she’s her own footwear sponsor. That’s right, she’ll compete in a Saysh (her own brand) track spike in Tokyo. In a Time magazine interview Felix said, 

“I sat back for too long. I almost started to believe that maybe I don’t have anything else to offer. I never really showed too much of who I am because people could dissect you, and then they might find this out or that out and not like you. But when you speak your truth, on the other side of that fear is freedom.”

Apply it to your freelance business: It takes a lot of guts to be a freelancer but it also requires believing in yourself and on your abilities. Freelancing is already enough of a challenge because you're constantly dealing with clients' demands, deadlines, and other stressful factors -- the last thing you need is more negativity from yourself. Invest in your career, and never forget freelancing offers you the opportunity to create jobs, make businesses, and build empires.

Lesson #6: Take responsibility 

Olympian: Sha’Carri Richardson
-- Known as the fastest woman in America, the spectacular athlete was favored in the 100-meter dash at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. However, after a failed drug test, Richardson was slapped with a 30-day suspension and ultimately banned from the year’s Olympics. Richardson owned her mistake and handled her setback with grace. 

In a  ‘Today’ show interview Richardson said, 

“I just want to take responsibility for my actions. I know what I did, I know what I’m supposed to do, (what) I’m allowed not to do, and I still made that decision. I’m not making an excuse or looking for any empathy in my case.”

Apply it to your freelance business: One day you’re on top of the world running your freelance business, the next, you’re on the receiving end of an angry phone call or irate email from a client for a missed deadline or major mishap. The truth is mistakes happen and how you handle them is the difference between keeping a client and losing one forever. Own your mistakes and save face with a sincere, yet professional apology. Instead of making excuses for your actions, offer fixes. Be realistic about what you can and can’t deliver and consider offering a discount for the work you originally failed to deliver. 

And, speaking of delivering work... 

Moxie will make it easier for freelancers to keep up with projects on-the-go

Moxie has introduced the Moxie app, which allows freelancers to handle all of their business needs from a mobile phone, enjoying the freedom to freelance anytime and anywhere.

Your freelance business isn’t tied to a desk and the Moxie app makes sure you aren’t either. Whether you want to send an invoice on location or create a proposal at the bank, Moxie helps you turn seconds into cash, anytime and anywhere.

How it works: Moxie has developed a mobile app that streamlines the process of running a freelance business. Now, you can keep all of your deadlines, contracts, invoices, and more all in one place.

An example: Let’s say you’re a freelancer that owns a mobile automotive detailing business. Your presence is digital and you don’t have a brick-and-mortar location. You want to service your clients without draining yourself with logistics and administrative tasks.

Using the Moxie mobile app, you can manage clients and keep track of your schedule right on your phone. Moxie will allow you to invoice directly from the app, which helps you get paid faster. 

You can send proposals on the go, track time, and even record your expenses. It’s like having your entire freelance business in your pocket.

Are you next? (Not for the Olympics, for amazing career wins)

Olympic athletes are the world's best at what they do. 

They’ve been training their entire lives for one moment that often lasts only a few minutes. That moment when they stand on the podium while the national anthem is played. The rest of their effort has just been setting themselves up for that one moment in time. 

Well, this is your life and the pursuit of freelancing as a lifestyle is also setting you up for your one moment in time when opportunity knocks and you say to yourself, "Yes!”

Olympic athletes are 100% committed to winning. And they work very hard for it. Freelancers want to win too. Follow the lead of these Olympic athletes and apply some of their ‘winning’ qualities to your work.

Learn more about the Moxie mobile app, a single digital workspace with all the tools needed to start, manage and grow a freelancing business...anytime and anywhere or view the guide “Freedom to freelance” here to learn how to run your freelance business from your phone.

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Anthony Sills
Anthony Sills
Anthony Sills is the Founder & Content Strategist at Professional Pen. He helps SasS and tech companies create marketing content that measurably attracts more customers using proven strategies, tactics, and frameworks.
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