How a Famous Olympian Can Help You Grow Leaders

‘Tis the season again! The opening ceremonies for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi are upon us. If you’re like me, you’re always impressed by a story or two that surface during the games. Usually it’s about a young person who worked to qualify and then astounded the multitudes with her or his abilities.  It’s a battle of minds, bodies, wills, emotions, and even of the soul.

The Discipline Bridge

One of the images we include in Habitudes—Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes (Book One) is called “The Discipline Bridge.” It was inspired by a scene I witnessed as a kid, when workers created bridges to carry them to places that needed to be rebuilt after a tornado. They needed the bridge to carry them across water and rubble in order to restore what was broken.

Discipline Bridge

In the same way, discipline works like a bridge. It carries us from where we are to where we need to go, often restoring what’s broken. In fact, I believe no matter where we want to go in life, we’ll probably have to cross a bridge called Discipline.

I’d like to share the incredible story of speed skater Apolo Ohno as an example and give you some questions and exercises you can use with students. We have an opportunity this month to use Olympian stories to instill leadership skills in them, so let’s not waste it!

Apolo Ohno

Back in 1997, Apolo Ohno was beginning to make a name for himself. At the tender age of 14, Ohno had already won gold at the 1997 U.S. Senior Championships, the youngest person to ever do so. Being a young teen and living away from his parents, however, he decided not to listen to his trainer in the year that followed, choosing “to eat pizza instead of complete required runs.” His habits caught up with him, and in 1998, he failed to qualify for the Olympic team. It was a crippling defeat that led him to isolate himself in a cabin in Washington to contemplate his future.

During this week of solitude, Ohno concluded that his failures stemmed from a lack of proper focus and dedication. Moving forward, he recognized that he needed to become more self-disciplined and attentive to his trainers’ instruction if he was going to succeed in his sport.

The rest of his story is amazing. Ohno committed to an incredibly difficult training routine the next year, which led to wins in the 1999 Junior World Championship and the 2000-2001 World Cup. He then qualified for the 2002 Winter Olympics and won gold and silver in two events. Then, at the 2006 Winter Olympics, he won a gold medal in the 500-meter event and two bronze medals in other events.

None of Ohno’s success would have happened if he hadn’t made the difficult decision to commit to crossing The Discipline Bridge. The same is true for any Olympic athlete. Check out the common rigors they experience:

  • Train for 8 years before making an Olympic team
  • Train three times a day or more, six days a week or more. When they’re not training, they’re often resting and eating in preparation for the next session.
  • Set annual goals and may develop a schedule for the entire four years leading up to the Games.
  • Need up to 10 hours of sleep each night, as well as a half-hour to 90-minute nap in the afternoon.

Throughout life, I’ve found that disciplining yourself in only a few areas won’t help you in the end. Discipline needs to be a lifestyle, like an Olympian. They don’t just train physically for the Olympic games—they need to have the discipline to eat well, sleep well, and prepare mentally for the long haul. Hardest of all, this means foregoing activities or kicking habits that don’t contribute to the dream.

Whatever your dream may be—whether it’s to be a graduate, business person, parent, Olympian, you name it—you must build your own Discipline Bridge that will get you from desire to reality. It is a long bridge and won’t get you there overnight, but if you stay on it, you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve.

Reflect and Respond:

We used to use the word “virtue.” My parents challenged me to be a man of virtue. The word means excellence, something that functions well. It is implementing a decision to live better than you once did. It is developing from the inside out.

Here are some questions you can discuss with students:

  1. Why do you think virtue and discipline are rare today?
  2. An old proverb says, “He who hates discipline, despises himself.” In other words, an undisciplined person eventually has no self-respect and stops liking who he or she is. Have you ever felt this way?
  3. In which areas of your life do you lack discipline?

Self Assessment:

As you consider your life today, you probably see some areas that are disciplined and some that are not. We usually find it easier to be disciplined in the areas of our passion or interest. However, true discipline becomes a lifestyle that helps you in every area: what you eat, how you connect with people, your exercise and health, your thought patterns, and more. Choose two or three important areas of your life and evaluate your level of discipline based on key areas:

1. Delayed gratification

I can delay pleasures I want; I experience self-control; I can wait for rewards until the timing is right.

1      2      3      4      5      6      7      8      9      10

<immediate gratification                 delayed gratification>

2. Holistic approach

I’m not just disciplined in one area of my life, discipline is my lifestyle; it’s a rule, not an exception.

1      2      3      4      5      6      7      8      9      10

<compartmentalized                                         holistic>

3. Functional training

I experience discipline for a legitimate function; it’s about integrity, not image or appearance.

1      2      3      4      5      6      7      8      9      10

<I’m motivated by image               i’m motivated by integrity>


Think about an area of your life that you consider undisciplined. Write it down. Next, write down one tangible step you could take to build discipline in that area. Next, find someone to hold you accountable to do that one step for fourteen days. Invite them to ask you about it daily. Finally, evaluate if this step helps you to discipline other areas of your life as well. Think of other areas you could build discipline. Begin a habit of discipline—you can usually create new habits in two weeks time. Discipline will be the bridge to get you where you want to go.



How a Famous Olympian Can Help You Grow Leaders