Frank Stäbler: “I embrace challenges like a good friend.”

Project managers meet professional athletes. But why? Because there is a lot to learn from Olympians. In this case, Frank Stäbler. Wrestler. Three-times World Champion. Bronze medallist in Tokyo. The 32-year-old talked to our Bechtle project management team about his five-year plan to win an Olympic medal, dealing with setbacks, embracing challenges, leading a team and IT in competitive sports.

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Hi, Frank. First of all, our congratulations for winning a bronze medal at the Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Frank Stäbler: Thank you. This bronze medal was the highlight of my sporting career. In terms of drama, this year’s Olympics really mirrored the last two years, starting out with a controversial defeat which was followed by the ultimate battle of my international career—bronze or nothing. Things got intense. I gave all I had. I felt almost crushed by the pressure.

But it didn’t stop you.

Stäbler: From the beginning of my career, I knew that my mental strength would make or break me. After becoming the World Champion for the first time, the pressure went up, as well as the expectations that others had towards me. It took a lot of work to distance myself from that so I wouldn’t lose the joy in my sport and my focus. The list of people I was trying to please was reduced to important people that believed in me such as my family and young athletes whom I hope I was able to inspire along the way. This was what drove me. For many athletes that are more present in the media than myself, this can be a real balancing act. I could really sympathise with Simone Biles, for example. The whole country has such high expectations for her—high performance, records, gold. Nothing less will do. That can break a person.

In preparation for the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Frank Stäbler had to deal with some challenges. A shoulder joint dislocation hampered him, an infection with the coronavirus in autumn 2020 set him back and the world federation removed his weight class from the Olympic programme. He had to lose eight kilograms without losing performance — a Herculean task.

Physically too, competitive sports is extremely straining. Like many other wrestlers, you had to lose a lot of weight before the fights. Our colleague Marie Pietruschka who was swimming for a medal in Tokyo said she even saw some wrestlers wrapped up in cling film…

Stäbler (laughs): …she might have seen me too. Running around the Olympic village on a hot day wearing a heavy jacket and beanie to lose a few kilos doesn’t go unnoticed. Some may find it incomprehensible, even I do sometimes, but it’s all a part of the game.

These were the last steps of a plan that had a lifespan of four, later five years. How did you manage your Olympic medal project and when did you start?

Stäbler: That was in Rio. At the 2016 Olympics. I had just lost and was sitting in the catacombs of the hall, knowing I was going home without a medal. That’s when I started making plans for Tokyo 2020. I fell into a hole after Brazil, but three weeks later me and my team began painting the big picture with short, mid-term and long-term goals.

Did you stick to that plan you made in 2016 until the very end?

Stäbler: Well. We changed it a lot and updated it along the way. Then the games were postponed due to the pandemic, I contracted the disease myself, broke my shoulder and my weight class was cancelled—of course you have to make some adjustments. But my goal remained the same and I never lost sight of it.

How much creativity and improvisational talent do you need to find the right solutions?

Stäbler: Both are important. I’d say flexibility is very important too. We’re constantly faced with new challenges and having to accept circumstances that we can’t change. And I think that’s one of my strengths: I don’t lament, I don’t whinge and I don’t complain. In fact, I look forward to the challenge and embrace it like a good friend, try to master it with all I have inside of me. Challenges always pose opportunities. I’m certain that many successful people share this mindset, whether it’s in sports, the working world or anywhere in life.

The right team having your back must surely be important when you are going through rough patches…

Stäbler: Of course, that’s elementary. People tend to think wrestlers are very solitary. This may be true on the mat, but at the highest level we are all team players. I have a network of about thirty people around me who I trust, who know me, who are close to me. Each of these contributes to my success. And on that note it’s essential to me to stay open and learn from my own and other people’s mistakes, let my ego take the back seat and let others shine when they deserve it.

You have succeeded with that. For many years, you were one of the best wrestlers in the world. Does it become difficult to still listen to hints from others?

Stäbler: Not at all. I approach the sport with a great deal of humility and never put myself on a pedestal. I treat everyone with the same degree of respect and I’m certain that everything I give comes back to me in the end. Arrogance doesn’t get you anywhere in life. And I have the ambition to continually develop and never stand still. To achieve that, I need the right people around me.

And yet: you’re at the centre of this team, you’re in charge. How do you approach this task?

Stäbler: It’s a bit like running your own little company. I always had big goals and wanted to have an impact on the sporting world. This means that everyone involved has to play along. And this is why there are some clearly defined rules—for all of us. Punctuality is one of those. And I take this very seriously.

What role do digitalisation and IT play in your life?

Stäbler: A huge one when it comes to performance diagnostics. In the last five, six, seven years, sports science has become indispensable for me personally, but not without some limits. At one point I was the reigning world champion and the diagnostics showed that my strength and endurance levels were not good. I didn’t understand. But still, it’s a part of my performance. But there are also non-measurable factors such as passion and motivation.

IT can also help with long-term planning. Did you make use of this?

Stäbler: I’m more of a pen and paper kind of guy. I carry a little book around with me that I write everything in to. But of course I have a trainer who digitalises my training plans. That way I know, we know, what’s on the agenda and which goals we are working towards and where to place our focus.

We’re glad that worked out so well.

Stäbler (laughs): Definitely. Winning that Olympic medal was a lifelong dream of mine. Achieving it feels incredible. Many may not comprehend it, but it gave me something like inner peace. And that’s what I went to find in Tokyo. To make peace with myself, my sport and the end of my career. That was my vision and it became a reality. I just felt total bliss, put my shoes on to the mat and cried. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life, besides the birth of my children. I felt completely free.

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Published on Sep 15, 2021.