Q1 · 2022Setting the Gold Standard – like Michelle Gisin

I would like to dedicate this edition of Spotlight on Performance to an amazing athlete, Michelle Gisin, who recently accomplished the incredible feat of winning a gold medal at her second successive Winter Olympic Games.

As if this wasn’t a big enough achievement, Michelle’s journey to her second Olympic Gold this year came despite having to overcome the huge setback of suffering from mononucleosis in 2021. More on this in a moment.

A True Athlete

I have been working with Michelle as her performance psychologist since 2015, so let me provide a little more background about her. Michelle is one of the most complete Alpine skiers in the world. She has appeared on the World Cup’s podium in every discipline – Slalom, Giant Slalom, Super G, Downhill, and Combined – a remarkable feat in modern Alpine skiing today, which has seen competitors increasingly specialize in one or two of these disciplines.

Most impressively, in 2018, at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, she became the first Swiss woman to win Gold in Alpine Combined. To mark this achievement, we wrote a book, A True Athlete, together with her sister and coach Dominique, who is also an Olympic ski champion. The book charts Michelle’s journey to what we all imagined would be the pinnacle of her success.

Yet now, four years later, Michelle has surpassed even 2018, by becoming Olympic Champion again at the recent Games in Beijing. After having won the bronze medal in Super-G, she won the Alpine Combined event by more than one second – a significant margin in ski racing – and a fantastic achievement that catapults her into the highly exclusive circle of world-class athletes who have won Gold at back-to-back Olympics.

This alone is magnificent. But when you discover the tortuous path that she had to follow to reach it, it is truly awesome.

Adapting in Adversity

Michelle ended the last skiing season third in the world rankings. She achieved this strong standing by competing in almost every race in each discipline, building up a huge number of great results and ranking points. Because Michelle was one of the athletes who competed in the most races, the burden she performed under was almost uniquely intense compared with most of her competitors who specialized in one or two disciplines. A key focus of my work, therefore, was to help her manage her energy as effectively as possible.

In July 2021, Michelle suffered a major setback that had an almost catastrophic impact on her energy levels. She was struck down by Pfeiffer’s glandular fever, also known as mononucleosis, a disease that results in fever, sore throat, enlarged lymph nodes in the neck, and severe tiredness that can last for months. As Michelle commented in the media at the time, “If I practise my usual program, I notice more and more that I have no energy and that I’m extremely tired. There are days when I lie flat in bed and don’t take a step.”

Michelle’s fatigue continued for months, making normal training impossible. As the illness lingered, she had to go through a highly stressful period when she suffered serious doubts about whether or when she would fully recover.

Eventually, her health improved, but even so, she had to conserve her strength by significantly reducing her training workload. Overall, we calculated that she could only complete approximately 25-30% of the training she had originally planned. There was no way she could take on the sort of tough daily routines that her rivals were able to maintain.

For Michelle to compete, we knew we had to do something radical. We definitely had to think ‘out of the box’ to find a solution. I said to her: “If the conventional way is not going be possible, you will have to do things differently.” We decided the only way we could make up for her reduced energy level was through a highly specialized physical training and by working even more with her mindset.

We substituted much of Michelle’s initial training plan with daily mental exercises and meditation. I worked with her on issues such as letting go of her original plans, setting new mini-goals, mental rehearsal of the ski runs, creating positive emotions, and visualizing success. The Olympics was our ultimate focus and, despite all the disadvantages that her illness had brought, we connected all these beliefs so that Michelle was in the right place to defend her Olympic title in Beijing on February 17, 2022.

She did it! Imagine the joy we all felt when Michelle crossed the finish line as the defending Olympic Champion.

After the Olympics, Michelle didn’t stop. She continued to perform like a true athlete in the following world-cup races. As a result, almost too good to be true, Michelle finished the season 2021/22 as world’s number five in the overall rankings.

What can leaders learn?

Here are some lessons we can all take from Michelle’s story:

  • Rigorously manage your energy to build up a strong foundation for sustained high performance
  • Think through a robust strategy that will lead to success
  • Work on creating a winning mindset
  • Create positive emotions on an ongoing basis
  • Be ready to adapt to changes and setbacks
  • Let go of plans that won’t work anymore
  • Stay confident that there is still a route to success
  • Visualize success

Be a Champion

In today’s ever-changing business environment, it is more important than ever for leaders to learn the skills of a healthy, winning mindset. It is the foundation for overcoming all the obstacles thrown in your path.

Do it like Michelle Gisin: prepare like a champion, adapt like a champion, perform like a champion.

Wishing you all the best,