With a little British pomp and a lot of British pop, London recently brought the curtain down on a glorious Olympic Games. Most of us will never compete in a spectacular pageant such as the Olympics, but we can learn valuable lessons from Olympic athletes that can help us achieve success with our own goals and aspirations as a workplace learning and evaluation professional.
So what do successful Olympic athletes have in common? Sports experts, Olympic coaches, and sports psychologists have described characteristics and behaviors of Olympic athletes that may be worth emulating in our role as a learning advocate, change agent, or measurement expert.
Olympians have a “whatever-it-takes” attitude. Winning isn’t everything, but wanting to be the best is. Olympic athletes made the decision to pay any price and bear any burden in their pursuit of excellence. Consider the story of platform diver David Boudia, who upset the reigning world champion to win Olympic gold in London. As an 11-year-old, a dive from the great height of an Olympic 10-meter platform once “petrified” him. Boudia still says, “You have to be crazy to jump from a three-story building and hit the water at 35 miles an hour.” But a gymnastics coach told him to practice drawing dives and tumbling maneuvers from pinnacles. So every day he took the thing that scared him most and drew it over and over. “I came to the point where I had to decide what I wanted to be, and I wanted to be an Olympian,” he said. Olympians may experience stress, fear, fatigue, or negativity, but they work on pushing through mental or physical blocks with consistent discipline and tenacity.
Olympians persevere in the face of adversity. They know facing conflict is part of the journey, and they push forward when challenges or conflicts happen. Consider the case of Oscar Pistorius, who won a battle for Paralympians in 2008 when his appeal for the right to compete in the Olympics was upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Four years later Pistorius walked into the Olympic Stadium as a member of the South African team, and on August 4 he ran his first race, the 400m, finishing second to qualify for the semis. He didn’t make the finals, but that wasn’t his goal: “The whole experience is mind-blowing,” Pistorius said after his race. “It’s a dream come true.”
Olympians know there is always more to learn. Steve Siebold, a former professional athlete and mental toughness coach, describes successful Olympians as “learning machines.” They spend hours practicing, studying their competitors, watching videos of their performances and session after session with their coaches and mentors. Sprinter Carmelita Jeter, Team USA’s fastest woman, described her struggle in learning to use state-of-the-art technology to refine her technique and improve her performance on the track. Jeter’s coach, John Smith, and a virtual assistant—a digital model of Jeter who could simulate world-record speeds—forced her, in essence, to relearn how to run at age 29. “Sometimes you’re stubborn,” she said. “Sometimes you don’t want to learn new things. But he would say, you’re either going to learn what I teach or you’re going to leave… ‘Lift your chin, drop your chin, pick up in your hand, tuck in your elbow, lift your knee, arch your back, turn your head,’” Jeter said. “I was getting all these commands. I was like, ‘Oh! Okay! All right! All right!’” She labored for hours over small details and other times, she says she got tired of trying. Yet one year after following her coach’s video technology approach to improve performance, Carmelita Jeter ran her way to a bronze medal in the 200-meter dash at the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Olympians know the true value of competition. Olympic athletes recognize that their opponents are there to push them past their current limitations—to fire them up, to make them better. There is a conscious reverence, respect, and compassion for fellow competitors that is actually far more conducive to individual achievement. Consider the case of Usain Bolt, whose competitor and young countryman, Yohan Blake, beat him twice at the Jamaican Trials, thus reigniting Bolt’s competitive drive. Many then questioned whether Bolt had enough to repeat as champion at the Olympic Games. He proved us wrong, becoming the first man to win the 100m and 200m double, then running a record-shattering anchor leg in the 4x100m final as the Jamaicans became the first team in history to dip below the 37-second mark. In the process, Bolt cemented himself as one of the greatest runners in history.
Olympians savor the ride. Obviously, Olympic athletes strive to win, and their competitive spirit doesn’t take losing lightly. However, top Olympic performers understand that simply chasing a medal thwarts their own clarity, freedom, and creativity. Contrary to what many of us have been taught, the goal of top athletes is almost always to relish the journey, relationships, and experiences. They know that narrow-mindedly setting their sights on a title restricts awareness and reduces possibilities. Gold medal winner Missy Franklin said, “I just wanted to go out and do my best and get a best time. It just so happened to be a world record, so I couldn’t be happier.”
Olympians are fully present. Winning athletes know that they cannot consistently reach a state of high performance by simply using their brawn, brains, or sheer willpower. Instead, they use the ability to intensely focus and quiet the mind as a way to block out distractions. Olympic champions know that effort is only as productive as the state of mind from which it comes and that their state of mind, in the moment, will determine their ultimate experience. Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic champion ever, attributes his dominance in the pool to more than physical attributes. Phelps says his mental preparation for both good and bad outcomes (such as “if my goggles slipped, if my suit slipped”) have enabled him to be “ready for anything and everything.” His coach describes Phelps’s exacting standards for dialing-in mentally and visualizing a race as the best he’s ever seen.
Olympians are positive and optimistic. A striking characteristic of Olympic champions is their optimistic and positive nature. This allows them to remain even-keeled when faced with difficulties and to rebound more quickly when failures are experienced. They set high standards and are organized, but are not overly concerned with routine mistakes, criticisms, or their own ability to achieve their goals. They may fall, but they always get back up again and try to reach new levels of perfection. They focus on what they can control, looking at the solution not the problem.
Olympians think big. Olympic athletes are fearless and focused on manifesting their ultimate dreams. Consider Jordan Burroughs, an Olympic gold medal winner in men’s wrestling. His Twitter name is “All I see is gold.” Or the case of Gabby Douglas, Team USA’s individual all-around gold medal champion in women’s gymnastics. It took tremendous courage for Douglas to move away from home at age 14, leaving her mother and siblings behind in Virginia Beach, to train with a world-class coach who would push her to excel. And it took untold practice, sacrifice, and pain for Douglas and coach Liang Chow to transform this better-than-average gymnast with bigger-than-average dreams into a bona-fide Olympian in less than two years’ time. “You just have to not be afraid and go out there and just dominate,” Douglas said. “You have to go out there and be a beast, because if you don’t, you’re not going to be on the top.”
Olympians start out as ordinary people who, with conscious intent, perseverance, and hard work, take on traits that make them extraordinary. These characteristics are the key to their power and ability to conquer fears, insecurities, physical barriers, and more. Take a look at the characteristics above and ask yourself how you can learn or apply these traits to your own quest for personal or professional excellence.
© 2012 ASTD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.