I am not afraid to admit that I had to choke back the tears several times (at least 50 if I’m honest) during these Olympic games. Either it was the BBC’s uncanny ability to tug at those heart-strings with their spectacularly effective video montages, or more likely it was the fact that the London Olympics provided so many moments of sporting brilliance and excitement. I know the Brits received the most medals for 104 years which no doubt provided many of us with rose-tinted glasses through a cacophony of special moments (realistically it was in fact the Brits’ most successful Games ever, as in 1908 when we won more medals, over one third of the competitors were British which improved the odds somewhat). However I know my non-British friends will agree that the ‘friendly games’ more than succeeded in delivering enough of these special moments to inspire this generation and the generation after that, which is what I believe the Games are all about.
Children, or adults, now throwing their hand to these perhaps once-foreign sports as a result of this wave of sporting euphoria is essential. Financial support, talent nurturing and talent identification, previously a trademark of Australian sport, is something that other countries – the UK being a perfect example – are now matching, and obviously they play their part. These are obviously all very important aspects for getting young sportspeople (not just children I stress here, medallists in these Games came from people who got in to their sports in their twenties) in to sport and in some cases, on the road to success. However, the psychological side of all this is something that is often overlooked. Too often I think we assume an “Oh, they’re Olympians, I could never do that” attitude. Us and them, “it’s good to watch but what can I take from that”. I’ll tell you what. What struck me as most inspiring from these Games is the lessons that can be drawn from the achievements of these superstars. Lessons that may be passed on to our young sportspeople of the future and moreover, lessons that we can take in to our very own training and everyday lives.
ORDINARY OLYMPIAN LESSON 1: Wherever you come from, whoever you are, you can achieve big things.
On the first Saturday night of athletics Greg Rutherford, Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah all achieved stunning wins in their events and you only have to look at their very different backgrounds and genealogy to be inspired that anyone can do it. There were so many displays of the differences in athletes socio-cultural differences and upbringings. David Rudisha of the Masai and Kenya in the 800m, Laura Trott of Essex (who was born one month prematurely with a collapsed lung) who took up cycling on the doctor’s recommendation to regulate her breathing (thanks Doc), Wiggo who was once quite partial to a heavy party of three, several of the Ethiopian running squad, who I heard had only ever owned one pair of running shoes at that was the pair they were wearing in the Olympics. The list goes on. I have no doubt that any upbringing, any social class, any story of trial over adversity, you will find at the Olympics. There is no one-size-fits-all that says if you are a wealthy, well motivated child with perfect genes, you and you only can win that gold medal one day. It’s important not to be scared-off if you don’t fit the stereotype. Wherever you come from, whoever you are, you can achieve big things.
ORDINARY OLYMPIAN LESSON 2: Find something that works for YOU.
Before an athletic event, particularly a sprint, the holding area can often be a hostile area, with intimidation tricks being employed, superstitions being followed and prayers being offered. I have seen it myself, when I used to run (no way near Olympic standard I’d like to add). There would be 3 or 4 outwardly nervous athletes sitting down not doing much to disguise their nervousness and then the rest; menacing, strutting, jumping, stretching, staring. My most vivid memory of this situation is of a Usain Bolt-esque Greater London athlete walking around with his shades on (when there was absolutely no sun of course), with one trouser leg rolled up (deliberately, because it was cool), strutting in the most menacing way possible whilst hip-hop blared from his huge headphones. I try to pretend that didn’t bother me but he certainly had an effect, if I am recounting the story now. This wasn’t at the Olympics of course, yet at the highest level I’m sure it is even more of a sight to behold.
The point here is that every athlete has their own way of doing things. Before a race, some pray, some stomp, some slap heads. Olympic Triple-jump Champion and World Record Holder Jonathan Edwards pointed out that rather than picking up the sports psychology manual, or reading a biography and saying Michael Johnson did it like this, Steven Redgrave did it like that, find the thing that works for you. Taking this in to everyday training, you should consider what works for you. Is it training to a rigid schedule, training when you can, training everyday, running because you enjoy it, lifting weights because it works for you. The most important thing is that you are doing it. There is no point in sitting down and sketching out the best eating plan or an awesome training programme, if you are not going to do it. So find what works for YOU and employ that strategy.
ORDINARY OLYMPIAN LESSON 3: No pain, no gain.
Probably one of the most overused but undervalued phrases in sport and exercise (thank you Mr. Schwarzenegger). However, it is evidently true that you don’t achieve what you want by sitting there wishing it to happen. You go out there and you get it. You work, you work hard and then you work even harder. You may suffer set-backs, but those that rise after they fall are the ones that ultimately come back stronger. Michael Johnson, Double Olympic champion and World Record holder in the 400m – in my eyes one of the wisest, articulate and talented sportsmen I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading and watching; the BBC struck gold there, excuse the pun – once told of a story where he was at the track performing a speed endurance session in a torrential rainstorm. His coach came out and told him he was crazy and to get off the track and go home. Training was off for the day. Michael responded that if he were to beat his opposition, he would have to train when they weren’t training. He never missed a scheduled day of training, not once.
You just had to see the faces on the Brownlee brothers (and the younger being carted off as he collapsed) as they finished the Olympic Triathlon, to see how hard they worked to get their Gold and Bronze medals. They gave everything to the cause. Incidentally, Alistair (the winner, the elder) ran his 10km time in a staggering 29 minutes and 7 seconds. That’s only a minute and a half slower than Mo Farah ran to get his 10,000m gold medal. Brownlee, did if after a huge 1500m swim in wetsuit and a very fast 40km bike ride. He pushed as hard as I’ve ever seen a triathlete go and he didn’t get to that point without being confident in his own ability. The confidence in his own ability came from one thing (genetics aside here) and that was hard work. A training partner of the Brownlee brothers said that they train like they race. They train all out and they leave nothing behind, “sick buckets at the ready”. As my old friend (I wish) Michael Johnson said in his book ‘Slaying the Dragon’, you only get to be that confident on the start line by knowing that you’ve worked harder than the rest.
This is the case in training. I was training someone this morning and being very close to sickness, she kept pushing to the end. At the start of the session, we established it would hurt, it would be tough but it would get her where she wanted to be. We don’t often like to hear it, as we hope that we can find a quick fix. However, in training as in life, you have to put in the hard yards. As a famous Olympian put it very well:
“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights” (Muhammad Ali, ‘The Greatest”).
Although these above lessons are very different, they are really one and the same thing. By following the example of role models and seeing that anyone, from anywhere can achieve the unthinkable when you work hard enough and then tailoring it to what works for you – the unthinkable can be achieved. As Jonathan Edwards put it, “Any belief can have very powerful effects when held with enough conviction”.
Now let’s keep this post-Olympic wave rolling 🙂
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