The Olympic Challenge for Mentoring Olympic Athletes

Virtually all athletes who participate at the Olympic level have mentors or will become mentors. The most difficult task for the mentoring relationship is helping the athlete deal with the feelings and thoughts associated with outcomes from the Olympic games. Whether the athlete was a medalist or did not medal doesn’t matter when it comes to learning how to gain spiritual and psychological benefits from the experience. Dealing with success and adulation can be just as difficult as dealing with failure, disappointment, and obscurity.

Sometimes the challenge to the mentoring relationship comes from the fact that the mentor is also an Olympic-level athlete. This can aid in understanding, knowledge and sharing wisdom, but it can also interfere with the athlete being mentored being able to find his or her own path through adversity or the vestiges of success. Recovering from feelings of humiliation, letting down parents, friends, and country in front of millions of people, or not living up to expectations cannot be successfully managed with a “cheer-up, it happens to us all; we can learn from failure” advice from a mentor. Instead, the crucial skill for the mentor is being able to dwell in authenticity, stillness, acceptance and a mindfulness that enables the mentored athlete to fully explore his or her own range of feelings and reactions. Uncovering the story the athlete has been telling him or herself about his/her Olympic performance is an essential element of mentoring that is meant to be transformational and spiritually relevant to the developing athlete.

Byron Katie put it this way: “I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that. I found that suffering is optional. I found a joy within me that has never disappeared, not for a single moment. That joy is in everyone, always.”The mentor can help the mentored athlete turn around his or her story of limiting beliefs by integrating Byron Katies’ four questions into the mentoring conversation:  “Is it true?” “Can you absolutely know that it’s true?” “How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?” and “Who would you be without the thought?”

The mentor can help the mentored athlete turn around his or her story of limiting beliefs by integrating Byron Katie’s four questions into the mentoring conversation:  “Is it true?” “Can you absolutely know that it’s true?” “How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?” and “Who would you be without the thought?”

Here are some examples of Olympic athletes and their mentors taken from the Mentor Hall of Fame at





Dr. John Seward (1905-1985): A Mentor Transforms Adversity into Achievement


When I was growing up I dreamed of a career with a professional baseball team. I attended university on a baseball scholarship and thought I was on my way. But two short conversations changed all of that and changed my life. And I’m glad they did.

It was near the end of a grueling season. My university team was on its way to setting a record for the most losses in its history. We had travelled back and forth across the country playing teams whose star players went on to play in the major leagues. I was playing with and against some of the best talent in the game. Several seniors on my team were already reviewing contracts with professional clubs. But I was, to paraphrase a famous former ball player and sports announcer, “one of the best of the mediocre players.”

That afternoon we were playing our traditional cross-town rivals, a university that consistently fielded one of the best baseball teams in the country. Their power hitters were easily knocking balls onto the steps of the fraternities on the other side of the center field fence. Even the players at the end of their lineup were turning singles into doubles.

I had been getting more playing time as the 60+ game season wound down, and today I was in the starting lineup replacing our injured first baseman. I struck out three times, got hit by a pitch, made three fielding errors, bruised my hip chasing a foul tip into the stands, and sprained my ankle while sliding into second base.

At the end of the game, the coach gathered the team together and proceeded to single out individual players for feedback. When it was my turn, he asked me: “What are you doing on this team? How do you expect to go further playing the way you did today? What were you thinking when you did X?” He wasn’t interested in answers even if I did have any. I was disappointed with my play and now I felt humiliated, dejected, and ridiculed.

As I was leaving the field a professor, Dr. John Seward, who taught introductory psychology, which I was taking along with 350 other undergraduates, came up by my side. He said he had come out to watch the game and was delighted to learn that one of his students was playing on the team. At first, I didn’t even realize he was referring to me. The only personal recognition I had experienced at this large university was when my coach would single me out and say, “What’s your name again?”

Dr. Seward said, “Looked like you were having a really tough day out there.” I grunted some reply. But then he asked, “How are you feeling about the way you played?” I stopped walking, turned towards him with unexpected tears in my eyes, and a torrent of feelings, worries, and concerns came forth, most of which I didn’t really know were inside me. He listened to me patiently and when my outburst slowed to a trickle, he asked me, “What do you want to do about all of this?”

I didn’t have any answers to his last question then. But the next day I went to his office and thanked him for listening to me. I told him I was embarrassed about my reaction to his previous questions, but I had been thinking about what he had asked me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the two simple questions he asked me happened during a period of life transition. Those questions changed my perspective, opened me to a new way of being with people, and helped me find a way to turn adversity into achievement. His reaching out to help a young ballplayer in distress turned into one of the most influential moments of my life.

As a consequence of our interaction, I gave up my sports scholarship, quit the team, changed my major to psychology, and took what turned out to be a three-year job as one of Dr. Seward’s research assistants.

Over time we had many learning discussions that went beyond the behavioural research focus of our work. In another article (The Four Pillars: What Life Lessons I Learned from My Mentors) I summarized what I learned from Dr. Seward as learn from your fears; let adversity be a teacher; learn from mistakes; open your mind, particularly when you think you know it all; and your purpose in life is to strive to bring out the best in yourself by bringing out the best in others.

When I learned that my mentor died in 1985, I sent a letter to his wife, Georgene, expressing my belated condolences and telling her how he had influenced my life. She wrote back thanking me for my letter and telling me that she had received dozens of letters like mine from his former students.

Dr. John Seward, who obtained his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1931 along with fellow student, Carl Rogers, was a great teacher, employer and mentor, and a leading authority on behavioural psychology. His compassion, authenticity, and mentoring will live forever in my heart. The two questions he asked me, and his genuine curiosity about my answers have become a foundation for helping myself through difficult times as well as assisting others to deal with adversity.

Recent Entries to Peer Resources’ Mentor Hall of Fame Database

I continuously update the Mentor Hall of Fame database. Many of the new entries come from books I read, or, more sadly, from obituaries of a mentor or a person who had a mentor.

As I may have noted in a previous post, one of the characteristics of mentoring is that when a mentor dies (or died some time ago), the mentoring doesn’t actually stop. That is, a mentor has left a legacy inside the person they have mentored that continues on for a lifetime. So I do not characterize a mentoring relationship as Person X “was a mentor” to Person Y, if person X has died. Instead, I will use the phrase “Person X is a mentor to Person Y to indicate that mentoring continues even after the mentor has passed on.

Canadian activist/author Mel Hurtig (1932-2016) is a mentor to Canadian author,  activist, and leader of the Council of Canadians Maude Barlow.








Access the entire Mentor Hall of Fame database.

A True Mentor is Always Considered in the Present Tense

For the last 15 years, I have been curating a list of mentor pairs from a variety of sources including autobiographies, biographies, newspaper articles, personal interviews, and diligent historical research.

The pairings are divided into ten categories. (1) Actors, Comedians, Producers and Directors (Stage, Screen and TV); (2) Mentoring relationships depicted in motion pictures and television; (3) Musicians, Songwriters, and Singers; (4) Classical and Broadway Musicians, Composers, Conductors, Ballet, and Modern Dancers; (5) Fashion, Media and Celebrities; (6) Artists, Writers, Photographers, Publishers, Novelists, Poets; (7) Mentoring relationships depicted in print (novels stories, fiction); (8) Sports Figures, Athletes, and Coaches; (9) Historical, Political, Spiritual and Civic Leaders; and (10) Business, Industry, Education, Science, and Medical Leaders.

In many cases, the mentoring relationship is one between a mentor who has died and a person who they mentored who is still living. When I first started detailing this type of relationship, I referred to the relationship in the past tense: ‘the person who died was a mentor to the person who is still living.’ For example, when referring to the mentoring relationship between the award-winning actress Patty Duke, who died in March of 2016, and the person she mentored, Melissa Gilbert, another great actress, writer, and producer, one could say that Patty Duke was a mentor to Melissa Gilbert.

But that description using the past tense would be totally wrong with regards to mentoring. That is one of the aspects of mentoring that makes it different from virtually all other types of relationships. A true mentor helps you learn something better or faster, and that learning lasts your entire life. In other words, what you learn from a mentor does not disappear, fade, or stop when the mentor perishes. What you learn from a true mentor stays with you all your life; it’s not temporary, it’s a permanent part of you as a person.

Therefore, when a mentor dies, we don’t say he or she “was” a mentor to so and so. Instead, we say, the person who died “is” a mentor to so and so. And if the mentor is a true mentor, the mentoring influence remains regardless of what has happened to the mentor. In some cases, for example, people might refer to someone as a “former” mentor or a person is “no longer a mentor.” A true mentor is a mentor for life even when there is no longer an active relationship. This is one of the outstanding qualities of mentoring; one that distinguishes mentoring from coaching, training, and supervision.

Mentors in Memorium: Jacob Goldman (1921-2011)

Jacob_GoldmanMr. Goldman, a physicist, was the chief scientist at Xerox in the 1960’s. While there he founded the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), which invented the modern personal computer. At the time computers were typically not available in offices, and little was known about what shape the invention of the personal computer would take for the office of the future. Mr. Goldman’s vision convinced Xerox to invest in the future, even if it didn’t know what to do with the returns. PARC researchers designed a number of innovations including the Alto personal computer, the Ethernet office network, laser printing, and the graphical user interface.

The technologies he spearheaded eventually were commercialized by Apple and Microsoft, prompting Mr. Goldman to lament in a 1988 interview: “Xerox’s failure was part of a large corporation’s unwillingness to take risks. Look at the personal computer industry today. It’s a multibillion-dollar industry. And we at Xerox could have had that industry to ourselves.”

He acted as a mentor to many scientists and helped them to create a larger vision for whatever projects they created. He brought the idea to management that they may have to wait some time to gain practical value from scientific work.


More details about Mr. Goldman are available in the obituary in the NY Times (here).

Mentors in Memorium: Jay Cross (1944-2015)

Jay_CrossJay Cross was the author of the book Informal Learning: Rediscovering the Natural Pathways that Inspire Innovation and Performance (Amazon), described as the turning point for the learning industry. He was often referred to as the Johnny Appleseed of informal learning, and he is credited with creating the term “e-learning.” He challenged the conventional wisdom about how adults learn, and he inspired and had a lasting impact on many learning practitioners.

One of those he influenced said, “I remember being struck by his interest in what I was doing. He had a natural curiosity and wanted to explore why I was doing what I was doing, and the learning value that came out of it for me.”

Another said, “Jay’s contribution to the field of organisational learning was huge. He made us think hard about the edges of our profession. When many were fretting about perfecting the irrelevant with better classroom courses, Jay was pulling us into the emerging world of eLearning. When most were still focused on integrating eLearning into courses and curricula, Jay was shouting that the real power wasn’t in structured learning at all but in workplace and in informal and social learning approaches.”

“He was a mentor and colleague. Whenever I was struggling with an idea or needed some creative diversion, Jay was the person I called.”

Ravi Pratap Singh, the Co-Founder of Learnnovators has compiled a list of Jay Cross quotes that he extracted from an interview with Jay a couple of month’s before his death in November 2015. The quotes are available here.

Much of Jay’s work is still available on the Internet, including his great blog, Working Smarter Daily.

“Bringing people together face-to-face is a catalyst for innovation, collegiality, and rewarding conversations. Collaboration has its intrinsic rewards. It is sinful to waste this time together aimlessly or passively listening to presentations.”