The Three Olympics That Matter

“What’s your favorite day of the week? Your favorite season of the year? Buffett—Jimmy or Warren?”

It was sometime in 2001, and I was cornered. 

In between each question, he smiled and listened attentively, with a twinkle of curiosity and amusement in his blue eyes. He was clearly enjoying himself. 

His energy and wit far exceeded that of most 83-year-olds. And, as someone dating one of his granddaughters, I was fresh meat. 

This was one of my first memories of Walter Nosal, Ph.D., an educational psychologist and the maternal grandfather of my now wife. And my ability to continue dating his granddaughter may have been influenced in a small way by answering his questions to his liking. Or at least he didn’t tell me that I failed. (My answers were “Monday,” “autumn,” and “Warren”—which, I suppose, indicated that I wasn’t a screw-up, or that I at least had enough intelligence to know the right answers given the context.)

Somehow, I escaped one of his favorite tests, an assessment of concentration, which was to count backwards from 100, by sevens. I do, however, remember some sort of exercise related to my breathing. 

Walter S. Nosal, Ph.D.

Walter S. Nosal, Ph.D.

During the years that followed, I had the pleasure of interacting with this remarkable man many times. There are far too many interesting details about him to even summarize here. He was, for instance, a professor at John Carroll University for 66 years. (Click here for a piece published upon his retirement or here for a detailed written interview.)

But of his many bits of wisdom—which he offered freely to anyone who would listen, often in the form of a witty aphorism of some sort—one of my favorites is his idea of “The Three Olympics.” It’s compelling and thought-provoking. 

As he put it, “First there are Olympics of the body, then the mind, then the heart.” 

The general meaning of this idea is that you must engage and develop yourself in all dimensions. It also implies that ignoring any of them might lessen your overall well-being. 

It turns out, he was right. After all, he was a professor, in a field not far removed from my own. And my interest in “The Three Olympics” has to do with its relationship with our performance at work and as leaders. 

First, regarding the “Olympics of the body,” good reasons exist to think that one’s physical well-being matters at work. For example, as discussed by researchers Kathi Lovelace, Charles Manz and José Alves in a 2007 article in Human Resource Management Review, being physically fit is particularly important for leaders who operate in stressful situations. Reducing the negative outcomes of stress might be one reason, furthermore, for findings of a study published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology by Sharon McDowell-Larsen, Leigh Kearney and David Campbell that found a positive relationship between regular exercise and leadership ratings of senior-level executives. 

Second, regarding the “Olympics of the mind,” having knowledge is a powerful source of personal power. Namely, being an expert in something means that people will often look to you for advice, and it’s one of the more convincing sources of power in getting other people to do what you ask them to do. It simply works better to persuade people because you know what you’re talking about rather than because you can reward or punish them for compliance. Even if you’re not trying to lead others, pursuing knowledge and mastery is an important component of your overall psychological well-being. In short, never stop learning. 

Third, regarding the “Olympics of the heart,” there’s a component of our overall well-being and performance that has to do with what researchers call “psychological capital,” which includes aspects of hope, optimism and resilience. Researchers Maree Roche, Jarrod Haar and Fred Luthans studied these and related components as they pertain to the psychological well-being of leaders (see their 2014 article in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology). They found evidence for relationships among one’s mindfulness and psychological capital, both of which correlated with lower levels of negative outcomes including anxiety and depression. Related positive benefits tend to exist for spirituality, self-compassion and both forgiveness and gratitude

I understand that there are times in life when it’s particularly difficult to find balance across these domains, but that doesn’t negate the value in paying attention to all three areas. And for me at least, it comes down to a question of priorities and spending my time wisely. 

It forces me to ask myself questions like: 

  • Am I getting enough sleep?
  • Do I spend enough time helping people around me?
  • Will binge-watching that latest show really help me become a better human in the long run? 
  • Am I being productive or deluding myself while clicking around the Internet?
  • Am I effectively shielding myself from distractions on a regular basis?

And thinking about Walter Nosal, or “Pop pop” as many of us called him, reminds me specifically to pay attention to the balance across my “Three Olympics.” 

I don’t need to win a gold medal in any of them. Or even the bronze. But the important lesson is that I need to keep competing in all three.   

At the age of 97, Walter Nosal died on July 12, 2015, but his wisdom and influence live on in myriad ways. He was certainly an Olympian in his own right. 

And you can be sure that I plan to inflict his tests, regardless of their psychometric validity or reliability, upon the romantic interests of my children and grandchildren.  

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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. Visit: