What can we learn from the winners (and losers) of the Olympics?
What a spectacular, beautiful, awe inspiring, uplifting, moving, truly momentous games it has been! We have lived in this fantastic bubble of passion, courage and tears for the past two week’s (willingly blocking out the harsh reality of the current economic environment we live in) – let’s hope some of the ‘legacy’ that remains is the positive spirit engendered by these games.
Due to an operation I have had more time than most to completely engross myself in the Olympics and its been fascinating looking for some of the tell tale signs of success.
Purpose – Everyone had a very clear, focused goal that has given them a driving purpose to deal with the inevitable trials and tribulations over their journey of the past four years.
Driving Belief – In the Tennis final between Federer and Murray, Federer never played at his best. He did not seem as hungry for this as Murray did. Murray on the other hand had a steely resolution about him. Colin Jackson, the silver hurdles winner from Seoul commented that he knew quite a few athletes who did not have a strong enough belief that they could win Gold (even though they had the talent to do so) – i.e. their belief about what was possible was more limited than others. Muhammad Ali used to say he visualized his future history –I e he would hear the sounds, feel the feelings and smell the smells immediately after victory. When he lost to Joe Frazier in March 1971 (in Madison Square Gardens), he admitted later that Frazer has a ‘better personal history’ than himself.
And it’s that belief that allows them to find more. I have noticed that quite a few athletes are very superstitious and you can see their mindset being ‘this is not to be my day’ (as stated by the GB Hockey team in their 9-2 semi final loss to Argentina). I think they then hand over control to outside forces and personally cannot think that is a good idea. Matthew Syed commented (based on his book ‘bounce’) that it did not matter where your belief came from (be it your god, past practice or a superstitious ritual, as long as you had unswerving belief) that that was what mattered.
Focused awareness – Many athletes have talked about ‘being in the zone’ and having a laser like focus. However just to operate in a bubble in some sports does not work as one needs to be able to adapt to the changing environment. In the pool, Rebecca Adlington had her plan – all she had to do was pace her key competitor Lotte Friss from Denmark in the 800m freestyle and she would be in one of the top spots. But two things happened: a 15 year old rookie Katie Ledecky tore up the rule book and went out hard and Lotte was not on form herself and trailed in fifth. Adlington’s strategy backfired but she managed to salvage a creditable Bronze position. Mo Farah on the other hand run a brilliantly tactical race in both the 10,000 and 5,000 meters, not getting boxed in, being right at the front so he could leap at the moment that suited him. He had a strategy but critically was awake to the changing environment around him.
Handling the pressure – So many people have had so much pressure of expectation upon them, from Ben Ainsley, Jessica Ennis, Chris Hoy, Tom Daley, Katherine Grainger, Beth Twiddle – even the newcomer to pole vaulting, Holly Bleasdale. We saw how all the experienced athletes just soaked it up and came through – yet newcomers like Holly just buckled under the pressure. Conversely the women’s lightweight double sculls, Katherine Copeland and Sophie Hosking had no expectation upon them so could row with the fluidity one needs to win at this level. It’s that ability to lock all other thoughts out and just concentrate on the goal seems to the real skill these great athletes spend hours preparing for. And people seem to deal with it in different ways. Usain Bolt deals with the stress by larking about – as if it does not matter, whilst other completely zone everything out and stay locked in their bubble.
Digging deep – Ben Ainsley was so close to not winning his fourth gold – he had lost the first six of the 11-race Finn regatta to the Dane Jonas Hogh-Christensen and it was all down to the last race. But he had steely determination and dug deep. He had not given up and found the extra inches to beat the Dane. When Jessica Ennis in the 800m kicked back past the others, she stormed away from them, carried on a cloud of emotion and crowd interaction.
Practice Practice Practice – Usain Bolt admitted he did not train as hard as Blake does (indeed he was out partying with the Swedish handball team until 3am the night of his 100m victory). His natural talent lets him get away with it – but very few others can do that. No amount of faith and belief and emotional conviction will overcome lack of sheer ability, strength and endurance. Take Purchase and Hunter for example: – Zac Purchase and Mark Hunter lost gold in the men’s lightweight double sculls by 0.6 of a second (over a 7 ½ minute race). The reality is they rowed brilliantly to get a silver – in their past season they have not performed well (at their last international regatta they trailed in 6th. The reality is the Danes are rowing better than them at the moment.
When surrounded with the best it lifts your game – Many of the wiining people seem to have trained with a person of the same level of competitiveness as them, thus constantly spurring them on cf Blake & Bolt; the Brownlea brothers, Mo Farah and Galen Rupp and the whole cycling and rowing camps.
You are your own biggest critic – These athletes seem to have a very good awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses, allowing for constant micro changes to reach their potential cf Allyson Felix 3x Gold medal winner is her own toughest judge.
Single mindedness – It sound obvious but very very few athletes take part in multiple events. Often when they do, they are not able to deliver the same excellence at all levels – cf Victoria Pendleton – even Michael Phelps did not win every one of his Olympic races!
Aware and respect of the competition – Mo Farah was seen to be intently studying the form of the other 5,000m runners after his heat. Veronica Campbell-Brown, the previous three times Gold Olympic sprinter when interviewed was not complacent at all, and in total respect of her competition.
Ability to get back up – Chris Hoy was in tears when receiving his sixth Gold medal. He said it was the release of all the stress over the past four years – the times when it wasn’t going well, when he doubted his abilities. The road to glory never runs smooth – and there will always be upsets and disappointments along the way. But it’s their ability to still remain focused on their end goal, brush it off, and not let it consume them that marks them out as true champions.
The Gold is in the Detail – The GB cycling team dominated the track, winning nine medals (the same as in Beijing) – no other team came close. The French complained of ‘magic wheels’, but as someone from the GB team said is “Our wheels are round – really round – oh and they are made in France!” Very few other riders wore full aerodynamic kit. The GB team is renowned for being obsessed over every minutest detail that could impact the result, from equipment to diet, to rest, to tactics – no wonder they won.
Have the courage to change – Aires Merritt, the winner of the 110m hurdles was hugely successful. But he felt he could go further. He took the bold step to walk away from some of his techniques that had got him his then current success, step into the unknown and develop some new ones.
Bravery – Jade Jones, the Taekwondo Gold medalist & Nicola Adams, the first ever Olympic female boxer fought against many opponents with much higher pedigrees than themselves – but neither were fazed by their rivals.
Take risks – Tom Daley, the bronze diver said on his last dive when everything was at stake that it was a ‘do or die’ dive – he had to just ‘go for it’. Likewise, the GB rowing VIII said afterwards that they ‘went for Gold’ which eventually cost them the silver medal – but that was a risk they were prepared to take.
I am sure there are other points as well and maybe not all of these are applicable to business or our personal development – but it makes a pretty good start.
I guess my final question for us all is ‘What is the metaphorical Gold you are focusing on in your life’? What one thing are you trying to become the best at?’