leadership, Mental health & wellbeing

What Olympic champion Lydia Lassila knows about resilience and mental toughness — and how she’s applying it to her thriving small business

Eloise Keating /

Lydia Lassila

Lydia Lassila celebrates her gold medal at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games. Source: EPA/Friso Gentsch

Olympic champion Lydia Lassila describes her small business as one that was forged from adversity. 

Many Australians would know the 35-year-old Melbourne-born athlete from her triumphs representing Australia in aerial skiing in four Winter Olympics. But over the past 10 years, Lassila has also been steadily building her own business, wholesaling and retailing remedial heat and ice packs.

That business, BodyICE, is what brought Lassila to be part of the Victorian Small Business Festival in August and September, where she travelled to regional cities across the state to talk about how she is taking what she learned from sport and translating it to the world of business.

At one of the those events in Geelong, she told a room of small business owners how it was a devastating knee injury in 2006 that gave birth to her business.

Lassila had ruptured her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and undergone knee reconstruction surgery in June 2005, only to have her knee collapse again during the qualifying round for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy.

The injury took her out of the Olympics and put her on the sidelines of her sport for 16 months. It was, she admits, a low point. But while sitting in the Olympic village in Torino, nursing an injured knee, she recognised the seeds of her business.

“I was pretty down in the dumps, pretty shattered and miserable at that point in time and … my knee ballooned up and it was swollen, it was quite alien like,” she said.

“I was balancing this bag of ice, a shopping bag of ice on my knee between two chairs, and it was leaking and slipping all over the place. I was pretty frustrated anyway so I picked up this shopping bag of ice and I’ve thrown it on the floor and said, ‘someone should make a decent bloody ice pack that doesn’t leak and slip all over the place’.

“And pretty much at the same time I spat the words out, ‘bing’, light bulb goes off — idea!”.

Unable to sleep on the plane flight back to Australian from Torino — “every time I closed my eyes, the nightmare of what had happened … just kept replaying over and over again” — Lassila got out a journal and started sketching what would become her first range of BodyICE products: ice and heat packs that could fit on any joint or area, and stay there.

Finding a way through

Torino would have been Lassila’s second Olympics, and going into the event, she was ranked number two in the world. But in her words, “my Olympics were over, just like that, for another four years” after the blow to her knee.

Recovery would mean a lot of surgery, and at least at year out of competition. Lassila said her family pleaded with her to stop competing and “a lot of people wrote me off as well”.

“But I decided I owed it to myself that I wasn’t going to let that injury end my career,” she said.

“I wanted to achieve my potential, I wanted to reach all those goals and knew that perhaps I needed to change something. So I went to work in that year off. Not just on being an athlete, but on developing my mental skills as well.”

This work involved working closely with a mental trainer, Jeffrey Hodges, who Lassila credits with helping her define, and see, the vision she needed to make a come back.

Holding on to the vision you have for yourself, whether it is in sport or business, was one of the key lessons Lassila shared at the event in Geelong.

“For me, the vision is key,” she told the room.

“Hold that vision that you’ve got for yourself, create the plan, [and] trust the process that you’ve put in place.”

As Lassila worked through her recovery and began to set her sights on competing again in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, she worked with Hodges on using the concept of ‘future self’, which she described as “a really powerful mental skill and training tool”.

“In a relaxation state … with no distractions around …  you imagine your future self, your future business, your future life, whatever you are focusing on,” she explained.

“And you imagine them over there in the distance and you see them, and you see how they are carrying themselves.

“That person for me was the Lydia that had won the Olympic gold medal; the Lydia that was jumping to the same quality and standard as the men; the Lydia that broke those world records.”

The next step was for Lassila to ‘connect’ with that future version of her self and “open up a dialogue”.

“It is amazing what you can achieve by opening up that dialogue and asking the right questions, [such as],’ how did you do it?’ ‘I’m having this issue at the moment, what would you do in this situation?’” she said.

“And all of a sudden, you start answering and figuring out your own problems and solving your own issues.”

Lassila’s vision as an athlete was clear: she wanted to be the best female aerial skier that ever lived. And while she admits she probably takes her business vision a little less seriously than her sporting ambitions, she thinks this will change in the future.

“In business … I basically wanted to replace the option of frozen peas when someone gets injured and help them recover from their injuries,” she said.

 

Achieving that vision

Having a vision for success is one thing. Knowing how to achieve it is another, says Lassila.

That’s where a strong team comes into play — another lesson Lassila is taking from her career as a professional athlete and applying to business.

Lassila has always run BodyICE remotely, largely from a single laptop, as her training schedule means spending large amounts of time overseas. Even when she is not across the other side of the world, she still conducts most of her business meetings over Skype.

“There is no way I could run a business remotely without my solid team and it’s my job as a leader of that team to empower my team members, inspire them so that they give me their very best effort as I give them my very best effort,” she said.

Likewise, Lassila says her sporting achievements would not have been possible without a solid team backing her up.

Surrounding herself with an “A Team” was not only necessary to get through not only the trauma of her injury in Torino, but also to develop the right plan for her to become the future person she could see in her vision.

It was also a change from how she operated in the past.

“I had no patience as a younger athlete, I flew by the seat of my pants. I wanted success so badly but didn’t understand the concept of delayed gratification, of about waiting and trusting the process, and setting a really clear plan in place to achieving these goals,” she said.

“I just wanted things instantly, so I often derailed myself; I often jumped through injuries … I over-trained. I did probably all the wrong things and I was constantly injured.”

“And Torino 2006 was really the tipping point for me where I’d had success, I was ranked number two in the world, I had won a bunch of world cup podiums … and I knew I could be the best in the world, I just didn’t have the ‘how’.”

With her “A Team”, Lassila “got really detailed with this plan” for achieving her dream of representing Australia again. 

“We set the goal: win the Olympics. Okay, what are some of the challenges I’m going to face in order to do that?” she said. 

“Well, one of them was how am I going to stay healthy and injury-free, something that plagued me my whole career? How do stay healthy and injure-free, let’s break that one down. What do we need to focus on? Well, we need to make sure you’re getting the right recovery, you’re doing the right rehab exercises, you’re not over-training, you’re sticking to the plan.”

“I had to remind myself to be smart and to not take any unnecessary risks on a daily basis and that was really different to the approach I had before, which was … hope for the best.”

As she stuck to this very detailed plan, Lassila said something funny happened: everything seemed to work.

“And it happened exactly how I planned it to,” she said.

“If there was a minor hiccup, you could easily adjust.

“It’s proven for me, so I would want to apply the same kind of system to my business.”

“Life, it’s not one-dimensional”

Lassila went on to compete at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, winning gold, and again at the Sochi games in 2014. She’s now preparing for the 2018 Winter Olympics is South Korea, which will be her last.

At the same time, BodyICE continues to grow from a predominantly wholesale business for hospitals and surgeons (Lassila’s first customer was her own surgeon who was impressed by the BodyICE pack she wore into one of her appointments), to one that is now finding a new audience online and in retail stores. While wholesale accounts still make up 70% of the business’ orders, Lassila says online sales are being boosted by social media influencers who are particularly keen on the brand’s range of products for women who’ve had children.

There’s also now a BodyICE children’s line of products, with Lassila again drawing inspiration from her own experience as a mother to create the women’s and children’s ranges.

With two young children, Olympic training and a growing business, Lassila is well aware of what’s involved in juggling equally important, yet competing, interests.

“Life, it’s not one-dimensional,” she said.

“We all know that. We’ve all got families, we run businesses. I compete for Australia from time to time and I’ve just finished project managing a house build.

“They’re all important things – it’s not fair to say they’re not all important.”

For Lassila, managing all these things involves drawing on another skill she’s perfected throughout her sport career: compartmentalising.

“This is, as an athlete, a really important skill, to be able to focus mentally and emotionally on the things that are going to help you succeed and shoving everything else aside and saying, ‘no’,” she said.

“A really good example of that was leading into the 2010 Olympics. Four years earlier I blew my knee,[so]  was I afraid that the same thing would happen again, especially when the media are bringing it up every five minutes? Sure, you know, I was. I was afraid. But the skills that I learnt, to compartmentalise, were to say, ‘no, I’m going to deal with you later. Right now, I’m going to go back to future Lydia, the Lydia that I want to be, the one that’s going to nail these next two jumps and come home with Olympic gold’.

“[It was] having the discipline to say, ‘no way, not today, I’m just going to focus on this’.”

“It’s also important when you are juggling a few hats. So for me to be able to run a business, be a good mum, be a great athlete, I find it really hard to blend all these roles,” she said.

“So I need to make sure I’ve got a good team in place so that when I’m out for training, I know my kids are well looked after, I can go out there and focus 100% on the job. Then I get back home and I make sure I spend good quality time with my kids and I’m not checking my phone or my emails at the same time, or trying to teach them how to read while cooking dinner.  

“It’s so important to just be able to focus on one thing and do it well.”

Lydia Lassila on:

Finding balance:

“I often say blowing my knee out twice in six months was the best thing that could have happened to me and I wouldn’t really change a thing. It forced me to stop and think outside the world of being an athlete. I found balance, I found challenge in starting up my own business and operating it from my laptop remotely, and I’m 100% sure that’s made me one, a much better athlete, a much more balanced athlete, and a more wholesome person.”

The risk of starting a business:

I never saw starting a business as a risk because up until that point, I never had a job before, other than being an athlete. And in my line of work, I wasn’t exactly risk-averse. My dad always ran his own construction company, he always had his own business, so for me it was never ever a big deal at all.

“What I did see was the opportunity to make something that people needed, including myself.”

When things don’t go to plan

When Lassila was first starting BodyICE, her first order of products weren’t quite what she expected:

I got my first order in and it clinched the importance of communicating the finer details to manufacturers. The product was fantastic — I just hadn’t got the finished product with my logo on it, which is a pretty important part, I suppose. So I was expecting this nicely sewn on label to come back on the neo-prene straps. And I got rubber, but it was screen printed  … and so every time you stretched the neo-prene fabric, my logo would crack into pieces.

“So I was pretty determined to get rid of that first line of stock, so I could be proud of the next one with a nice, new logo.”

The importance of learning

In the early days of BodyICE:

I was figuring everything out as I went along, I certainly had no business plan. From design, to getting samples in, to shipping inventory, to warehouse management, then to sales and marketing, I didn’t really know anything about that kind of stuff. I graduated from university with a Bachelor of Applied Science, which was not going to help me with anything running my business.

“So what I did was I started … or I didn’t intend to finish a business degree, I just started picking off subjects I was really deficient in and just started learning about all the things I needed to learn about to make the business work, to help me get it up and running.”

Beating the competition

“Never be over-awed by your competitors. Especially us small businesses, sometimes we’re operating among larger businesses with more resources, more cash. I’ve always found it is really important to study what your competitors are doing, even in sport, and steal some of their strategies.

“So in sport, if there was a component that an athlete, a technical skill they were doing better than me, if I felt comfortable enough, I’d go and ask them, ‘hey, what do you feel when you are doing this certain skill?’ Or if I wasn’t comfortable, I would get the video of them and I would slo-mo it and break their technique down, take what I liked out of it and make it my own.”

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Eloise Keating

Eloise Keating is the editor of SmartCompany. Previously, Eloise was news editor at Books+Publishing, the trade press for the Australian book industry.

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