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“Olympic Gold" Tips for Investors

Written by Mary Levitski | Published on February 22, 2021

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What do investors have in common with top athletes? More than you might have thought. We spoke to Olympic hockey player Brianne Jenner, Olympic sprinter Gavin Smellie and former Para alpine skier Erin Latimer about setting and tracking goals – as well as managing them through uncertainty – and discovered their approaches translate quite well to investment portfolios.

Here's what we learned.

Purpose Is Power

Goals can give you a sense of purpose, ownership and structure, whether you're after Olympic gold or market returns. While Smellie, 34, admits to never having been the studious type, when he put his mind to pursuing track and field professionally, he buckled down and brought his grades up to qualify for the scholarship he needed. “I zoned in," he recalls. "I jotted down what I needed to do and I just did it."

“I zoned in. I jotted down what I needed to do and I just did it." - Gavin Smellie, sprinter
Photograph of Gavin Smellie sprinting

Another key factor for success, says 24-year-old Latimer, is to feel like the goals are your own. When Latimer started in the Canadian Para-Alpine Ski Team program, there were so many structures in place and professionals working to set her up for success that she says she just went with the flow. Often, she felt like things were “have-tos" rather than “want-tos." When Latimer started to own her goals and become more accountable, her perspective shifted.

“If you want someone to meet their goal the key is for them to come up with it, because then there's buy-in, an understanding of everything behind that goal," she says. Latimer adds that she feels she has more energy and interest in engaging with goals she helped author, “even the stuff that's kind of monotonous, because I can tie it into that greater purpose."

Self-directed investors definitely know a thing or two about setting their own goals and forging their own path. Learn more in Know Yourself: 5 Qualities Direct Investors Share.

Image of an arrow in the centre of a gold bullseyeSet Sub-Goals

Jenner was six or seven when Team Canada won its first women's hockey gold at the 2002 Winter Olympics. “I remember being inches from the television screen, in awe, and thinking, 'oh my gosh, wouldn't that be the coolest thing in the world to be one of those women someday,'" she recalls. From that point, says Jenner, making it to the Olympics became her dream.

Jenner's big idea slowly crept toward reality as she progressed from local to provincial and then national hockey. “The Olympics is such a big goal that you have to break it down into the steps that it takes to get there," she says. “So the next big training camp was always what my focus was on."

In other words, as Jenner (who is now 29 and has her own Olympic gold medal to be proud of) navigated toward her big-picture goal, she set sub-goals – like motivational pit stops – along the way. It's a roadmap investors may learn and possibly benefit from. As former competitive skier Latimer says, “Setting micro-goals allows me to make them more flexible and also makes the bigger goals less daunting."

Image of a gold magnifying glassFocus on What You Can Control

One point that all three athletes agreed on: There are many things you can't control. Every ski run is different from the last, even on the same hill, even on the same day, says Latimer. “The snow conditions are going to be different, the wind, the visibility," she explains.

The list of things out of your control extends far beyond the sport itself, say the athletes. At a competition, aspects like sleeping arrangements, available foods, the media and the fans can all impact performance.

“There's stuff that's outside your control that's going to throw a curveball at you," says Jenner. Her approach? “You have to tune out those things and just focus on what's 100 per cent within your control. And most of the time, a lot of that is your mindset."

In investing, what happens in the markets is outside of your control, but having a plan, doing your research and knowing what type of investor you are could be the best ways to handle a curveball.

Knowing Yourself Is Key

The difference between making it to the podium and not is miniscule, says Jenner. “Everyone at the Olympics is prepared, is in the best shape, is extremely talented," says the hockey player. “It's the tiniest of things that can move the needle for you." For her, understanding herself is the difference-maker, which is why she keeps a detailed training journal. “I'm always keeping an eye on what worked in the past and what could help me in similar situations in the future," she explains.

“I think it's very easy for us to get caught up in what's working for other people. But there is no universal answer." - Erin Latimer, former para alpine skier
Photograph of Erin Latimer skiing

For sprinter Smellie, too, what makes all the difference is knowing what does and does not work for him. That's what compelled him to move from Toronto (“a very distracting city," he says) to Ottawa, where he was could better focus on training for the 2012 Summer Olympics. His approach to diet is another example of how he forges his own path: Even though carbs are touted by many for helping an athlete recover, he knows eating protein and “just straight veggies" is what gets him into top-notch shape.

At the end of the day, “everybody is the expert in themselves," says former competitive skier Latimer. “I think it's very easy for us to get caught up in what's working for other people or what successful people do. But you have to remember that you're an individual and you have to really adapt these things to work for you. There is no universal answer."

Image of a gold starThere's Always More to Learn

Jenner has been on the national women's hockey team for nearly a decade, but she's still learning about her potential, how hard she can push her body and what she's capable of. “As you become an older athlete, you really search and turn over every rock to figure out how you can continue to develop."

As in investing, no matter how experienced you are, there is always something new to learn, from strategies and tactics to controlling emotions.

Image of a gold stopwatchEmotions Can Get in the Way

Tracking progress toward your goals is critical, say the athletes. Think: everything from your heart rate after a drill to your daily nutrition, sleep and mood. But over-tracking can trigger an emotional response, which in turn can impact your mental state and sway your decisions.

For example, Smellie has identified his ideal running weight as 175 pounds, “so if I go on the scale and I'm at 185," he says, “mentally I'm like, 'oh, my God, I'm so heavy. How can I perform as well as I want to?'" Instead of carrying the weight of self-doubt onto the track, Smellie saves his weigh-in until after a race.

Jenner shares similar sentiments from the ice: “I can learn from tracking numbers, but if I let those numbers affect my confidence, then I can actually take away from what I'm able to accomplish that day."

This is not unique to athletes. Investors, too, can be affected by negative emotions or circumstances when making decisions. Find tactics to combat emotional decision-making in Can You Trick Yourself Into Better Investing Decisions?

Image of a gold map pin symbolProgress Is Not Always Linear

As an athlete, says Jenner, you should always keep the end goal in mind, but you have to understand the process. She offers the pre-Olympic training of the national women's hockey team as an example. It happens in phases, she says, so ups and downs are to be expected. “There are weeks and months at a time in an Olympic year when you're playing games fatigued, you're not feeling all that energized and it's a bit of a grind," she says. “But you have to keep that perspective that this is part of the process."

Jenner, who is also a self-directed investor, sees a parallel to investing here, especially in terms of long-term investments: “It's easy to be thrown off track when you see a bad day in the market or if you have a really bad day in the gym," she says.

Stay Motivated Through Uncertainty

What to do when your goals get derailed? Like many other things right now, the next Olympics hang in the balance. “We don't know if this is going to happen, but you want to be physically prepared, mentally prepared that it's going to happen," says sprinter Smellie.

“What am I capable of doing today? How can I maximize that?"- Brianne Jenner, hockey player
Photograph of Brianne Jenner playing ice hockey

Hockey player Jenner, too, is putting the uncertain out of her mind. “If I worry about the future, that's an enormous waste of time, because I don't know what the future looks like – none of us do," she says. Instead of thinking about, say, what an ice hockey training session would have looked like were it not for the current disruption, she reframes her approach to: “What am I capable of doing today? How can I maximize that?"

Latimer, who has retired from competitive sports, has seen other areas of her life change dramatically. In response, while her big-picture goals remain the same, she's building flexibility into her micro-goals. As she strives to continue achieving, she also remembers to practice self-compassion. Says Latimer, “I'm doing my situational best, every day."

Special thanks to the RBC Olympians program, which offers financial support and career resources to athletes like Jenner, Latimer and Smellie.

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