Olympic athletes are in peril. Let me explain.
My childhood best friend, Alex, competed in the ‘98 Nagano Olympics as part of the U.S. Ski Team. Then, she tore her ACL, at which point, the U.S. Ski Team dropped her. If she wanted to keep competing, she’d have to fund herself. But groveling for money from friends, family and sponsors was demoralizing, exhausting and constant. Also, it forced her to start asking herself things like, Why am I doing this? Who am I doing this for? I know and care about nothing else, so what happens if I retire? She was scared, alone and nobody came to help. So, she left the sport.
Like Alex, most Olympians face a similar pivotal crisis — both of identity and also financial. One study concluded that “merely 0.5% of [International Olympic Committee] funds were directed towards the athletes directly.” That’s in contrast to the world’s largest sports leagues that pay their athletes between 40-60% of their revenues, thus creating what research found to be half of Olympians considering themselves financially insolvent.
Here’s why: As Olympians start their athletic career, the only way to be successful on a global scale is to have tunnel vision — relationships, friendships and hobbies are all sacrificial lambs in a bullheaded pursuit of the end goal: winning.
Then, there comes an inevitable day when the armor of the illustrious athlete starts to crumble. And the question comes: What’s next? And how do I get out of the financial and emotional prison I’ve created for myself? The scales tip, and the waterfall of depression ensues (befalling over 70% of elite athletes, a study by the IOC reveals).
Therein lies the ultimate paradox of the world’s most prolific and successful athletes. Their singular focus is both what propels them with unequal speed towards a lifelong dream and pursuit of their sport and becomes the acid that erodes the very foundation they have so wholeheartedly built.
Part of it is our fault as the audience. Since 1896, minus a few pauses for economic, war or pandemic crisis, the Olympics has enthroned, revered and catapulted thousands of athletes to international fame, whether they were prepared or not. And the expectation that these athletes meet the rigorous physical, emotional and intellectual standards and stereotypes followed, regardless of the tools they had to accomplish that.
These questions remain: How can we stop this ongoing and pervasive demolition of Olympic athletes? How can these athletes leverage that globally recognized badge of honor and gracefully transition it into something that has meaning, purpose and financial security? In working with dozens of Olympic and action sport athletes, here are six lessons that help athletes avoid post-Olympic depression, increase revenue opportunities,and build a lucrative, meaningful future.
1. Create now-versus-then personal identities
Identities consist of the various characteristics you use to categorize and define yourself, and the characteristics that are constructed by those around you. By crafting a cohesive set of identities, it allows you to build confidence in yourself and gives people a reason to connect with you, who you are (versus who they want you to be), what you believe and why. It also lets you control the perception of yourself out in the world.
Your identities might be brother, runner, LGBTQ advocate, coffee drinker, yogi, vegan, etc. The key is that you have to get clear on what these are now versus what they were until now. If you don’t, you risk letting the whim of the world, the media, friends and family shape your identity, which leads to you feeling a loss of control.
2. Nail your origin story; make it personal
Crafting a powerful origin story is the key to building trust, rapport and credibility in who you are and what you stand for. Having a powerful origin story also allows you to remain consistent across social media, in interviews, for developing a keynote or in sponsor discussions. To create a personal brand story, here are the questions to consider:
- Backstory: How did you become interested in your sport? Were you born with a natural talent, or did you learn skills along the way? Did something happen to you that forced a change and opened a door? Did you fail at anything?
- Challenge: What have your biggest roadblocks been along your path to success? Injuries, competitors that kept beating you, weather that kept you from summiting, bad luck on a course?
- Key turning points: What allowed you to surpass your challenge? How did it change your life, your sport, your happiness or your ability to achieve something?
- Triumph: What did you achieve or create after that moment? How did it feel? Did it change anyone else’s life?
- Transformation: How did you change emotionally, physically, intellectually or spiritually? What results did you achieve?
3. Know whose hero you want to be
The most common mistake athletes make is that they jump to what they want their audience to think, feel, do without understanding what they are excited to do, willing to feel or motivated to act on. Knowing this will allow you to deliver words, stories and truths that will make your audience’s lives better, more meaningful, happier and richer. And that builds community.
You need to undersand what your audience is enthusiastic about and what drives their motivations, needs, behaviors, challenges, pain points, goals, aspirations and fears. Questions to ask: What do you want to avoid, or what are you afraid of happening in your life? Where do you feel stuck, what feels hard and what frustrates you? What do you want to feel, what do you dream about and what do you need and desire most? Is there anything standing in your way of getting these things?
Write down the words, phrases or sentences they use to describe their challenges or their desires (either internally or to others), then use that to help you offer something that will help them either survive or thrive.
4. Create core messages anywhere north of neutral
You have to give people, brands and partners a reason to be attracted to you. To do that, you have to understand that neutrality doesn’t get noticed, and ambiguity is always perceived negatively. In other words, being bland, banal and milk toast gets forgotten and certainly doesn’t get picked up by sponsors.
So, to be remembered, build a loyal following and to encourage brands to look in your direction, it’s important to figure out what you care enough about that you’re willing to take a stand for. To find what those things are, ask yourself three questions:
- Do you have a different take on a common belief in your sport, in your industry, in your circle of friends and athletes?
- What happens in your sport, because it’s been done that way forever but might be outdated now?
- What left you “bruised but not destroyed” (term credit: Brene Brown)? Think of what you’ve been through that has left a mark. Maybe you weren’t treated well, because you were gay, had an eating disorder or were criticized for the style in which you raced. But, you survived, right? What lesson did you learn from it?
Then, take these insights and share them consistently.
5. Make the invisible visible
There is a voyeurism aspect to athletes’ lives that is endlessly fascinating, entertaining and inspiring. Sharing your formula, the “how” behind what you do, helps people feel like they know you, but also like they have a tiny chance of being like you. It also creates a boomerang effect where the audience keeps coming back for more, and that means community — the ultimate gold rush for brands.
To do this, follow these THREE rules:
- Be specific and concrete. That deep connection with your audience, and your relatability, happens when you get into the nitty gritty and surface the exact thoughts, feelings, mistakes, pain, wins and losses you’ve experienced. The more descriptive and specific you can get, the more universal the feelings become.
- Start with the bleeding. Declutter your content and your stories so we are gripped from the start. Sure, your story needs a point, but don’t overdo the lead up, because you’ll start to lose people with an overabundance of context.
- Be consistent. People need to hear a message seven times for it to sink in. Also, an average 0.83-10% of your followers see your posts, so reiterate your core messages frequently and consistently so they’re heard.
6. Plan and target revenue opportunities
With a newly minted brand story and messaging strategy, it’s time to transition that into creating specific revenue opportunities. Here are five steps to generate revenue:
- Build an email list. Unlike social media, you own your email list, and it does not fall prey to algorithm changes. So, create a way for fans, followers and sponsors to get on your email list, and email them updates on events, expeditions, nutrition, training, things you love, learned or hope for on a regular basis (weekly is ideal).
- Create a sticky content calendar. Consider your social media presence your resume. So, creating a consistent content creation schedule you can stick to is vital.
- Build a keynote presentation. Using your origin story or a clear message, create a keynote presentation that you can shop around to brands. Paralympian Aimee Mullens reportedly brings in $30-$50k per talk, and brands the world over hire athletes to speak at conferences, events and company meetings.
- Reach out to non-endemic brands. Take your identities from above, and write down 10 brands that align with those parts of you. Ask what they need, then offer to support them with social media, video and blog content in return for their financial support.
- Hire a sports agent. If you’re looking to leverage your momentum and be exposed to more opportunities, hire a sports agent. You can expect to pay them upwards of 15% of your earnings, but 15% of $100k is more than 0% of $0.
As an Olympian, you’ve earned a universally recognized badge of honor that carries weight, prestige and status in the eyes of an international audience. It is time to leverage that so you can be sure that your triumphs, sacrifices, wins, losses and efforts matter and can help you build a lucrative and meaningful post-sport career.