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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

4 Career Lessons I Learned from Gymnastics

Every time the summer Olympics roll around, I look forward to watching one event in particular: women’s gymnastics. When I was young I dreamed of becoming an Olympic gymnast, and I participated in competitive gymnastics for five years. When I quit at 12 years old, it was one of the hardest decisions of my life at the time.

And even though I never earned an Olympic gold, thanks to my gymnastics training, I gained plenty of important lessons that I’ve carried with me throughout my not-so-athletic career. Check out the valuable lessons you can learn from this well-loved Olympic sport.

You Always Need to Warm Up

Gymnasts know that they must warm up before a workout to make sure they don’t injure themselves, and they need to stretch to gain the necessary flexibility to perform their tricks. And while we don’t have to do 20 jumping jacks or hold the splits for 30 seconds before showing up at the office, we do have to mentally warm up and stretch to keep ourselves sharp.

What sort of things are warm ups for work? Think about how you jumpstart your brain in the morning, what inspires you to pursue new projects, or what tricks you use to get yourself out of a rut. Sometimes, I’ll stare at a blank computer screen all day, trying to come up with an ad design—and I’ve come to realize that usually means I haven’t warmed up properly. I’ve found that checking out some design blogs or doing some scrapbooking over the weekend are good and effective ways to prepare me for design tasks in the office.

You Can’t Stick Every Landing

Sometimes, gymnasts wobble on the balance beam, face-plant off the bars, and misplace their feet during a tumbling pass on the floor. But gymnasts know that you can’t stick every landing—and that it’s what you do after you fall that’s important. Instead of dwelling on the misstep, gymnasts work even harder to finish off the routine perfectly, and then spend hours in the gym after the competition figuring out how to not make the mistake again.

The same is true in your career. You will mess up sometimes—it’s a fact of life! Accepting that you will make mistakes—and focusing on learning from them when you do—will change your own missteps from negative experiences to positive ways to improve your skills.

Even if You're Talented, You Still Need to Practice

Some people are just naturally gifted, and others get where they are through sheer determination. To be an Olympic gymnast or achieve success in your career, you must have both. Even the most talented gymnasts spend the majority of their time in the gym working to get better. When I was competing in gymnastics, I was in the gym 5 days a week for 4-hour practices. That’s right, they gave us 10-year-olds the “light” schedule of 20 hours per week! For competitive-level gymnasts, practicing is more than a full-time job.

So, even if you’re a naturally gifted—say, at public speaking—you still have to put in the time to polish your skills. That means practicing in front of the mirror, asking for constructive criticism, and attending seminars to learn from other experts. Raw talent doesn’t mean you can rest on your laurels—it means that you’ve got a competitive edge when you decide to work hard.

Success Takes Time


Parents of Olympians recall their 5-year-olds spending hours at the gym, and gymnasts themselves detail practices before and after school that mean 40+ hour weeks. They work for ten years climbing the ladder from district champion, to national champion, and ultimately, to Olympic athlete.

And just as gymnasts don’t jump into the sport earning medals (or even competing for them), you won’t be at the top of your field until you’ve put in the time and work. You’ll work your way up from an entry-level employee doing grunt work to being a division manager with a team of your own—but like gymnasts, you’ll need 10 years of experience in your field to achieve that fancy title. Particularly when you’re early in your career, it can be easy to feel like you’re not going anywhere. But by keeping your eye on the prize and continuing to put in time and practice, you will earn your shot at the gold.

Gymnastics was a great experience for me when I was young, and I continue to see the sport’s influence my life. From good posture during presentations to my core strength while lugging a backpack across my MBA campus to these career lessons, I’ve carried the things I’ve learned from gymnastics with me throughout my life.

Photo courtesy of Raphael Goetter.