It's the Olympics, and the US athletes are expected to shine. A whole nation expects them to return next week laden with gold. But so far, expectations have been met with disappointment and questions. "What is going on?" we ask. Surely there is some conspiracy, right? Oh yes, the speedskaters' suits were to blame for Shani Davis and company's disappointing finishes. Or the Cold War is back and it's all on the Russian judges. What about the invisible tripwires on the skating rink? Even Mother Nature is in on it, laughing deviously as she brings summer to the Black Sea resort, turning the ski and sliding courses to slush. Ah, wait, maybe it's all in their heads. Our team, collectively, is losing confidence and mental toughness all at the same time.
Or maybe...maybe it just is what it is. Anyone can win any race or competition on any given day, even at the Olympics. ("Do you believe in miracles?!!!!") These athletes are the best of the best from all over the world. Even with the best physical training and mindset, does any one athlete have complete control over every aspect of competition? Certainly greater conditioning, better strategy, more confidence, an ability to focus, relax and do what they do best can give athletes an edge. An edge. Not a guarantee. With every athlete facing the same external conditions, it comes down to individual performance on that day, at that time.
Julia Mancuso, a favorite in the women's downhill, finished eighth. She said of the combined less-than-stellar showing of her team, "...There's really only three spots where you can get a medal, and there's tons of skiers out here who can really step it up and have their best races." Anyone, any day.
Not to say that all of Team USA's performances have been epic failures. In many sports where the difference between medal and empty hands can be hundredths of a second or point, these athletes are faring quite well.
I would be remiss if I did not emphasize, though, that the mental game is a huge component, particularly in situations where external forces beyond individual's control are in play (i.e., weather, course conditions, media intrusion, subjective scoring). All of the athletes need to put everything in perspective. Favorites should try to manage others' expectations in their minds, and not get caught up in the media spectacle. Up-and-comers should remind themselves that every Olympics brings stories of great surprise medal-winning performances. When it comes to the actual performance, though, the focus needs to be solely on the race or the short-program or the game, relying on the comfort that training has provided. The knowledge that they have prepared physically as well as they possibly could, and hopefully have prepared for all of the "what if" scenarios they can't control, so they know how to handle anything that is thrown in their path, should give the athletes peace of mind.
No matter the external conditions, the athlete's ultimate performance in those conditions is completely within their control at this point. They can be assured of performing at their personal best if they can keep the right mindset. Will their best be enough to medal? Again, nothing is for certain. Success is doing what you know how to do, the best way you know how.
When it's their turn to perform, all that is left is to quiet the mind, take a deep breath and just do it. On any given Olympic day, anyone can win.
From Olympic speed skater Apolo Ohno's book, Zero Regrets: Be Greater Than Yesterday:
I love this saying: Reach for the unreachable. When you reach for that branch in the tree and you can touch it - great. That's your goal.
More: that's your destination.
When it's your destination, that changes everything about how you approach the way. An Olympics, for instance--that might be four years away. There are innumerable ways to get there. But those four years are going to speed by amazingly fast. An Olympics lasts seventeen days. The cauldron goes out and it's over. I've arrived--or have I?
Afterward, while I surely remember the Games themselves, I mostly recall the moments on the way. The strength you gain from that is remarkable. You've lived the experience--really lived it, fully.
The process, not the outcome. That has to be what sustains us as athletes, elite or weekend warrior. Every time the Olympic Games come around, we hear announcers say things like, "This is it." "This is what it's all about." "This is the moment." "This is what they've trained for." But really what "This" is cannot just be the Olympic performance. "This" wouldn't be enough to sustain these athletes over four years or more of highs, lows, good training days, bad training days, missteps or injuries, honing skills, practice, practice, practice.
What else besides the thought of "This" do I believe has to be there?
Number One: Passion. Passion for the sport. Passion for the feelings sport participation brings.
Number Two: Desire. Desire to be better than you ever thought you could be. Desire to see what your body and mind are capable of.
Number Three: Enjoyment. There has to be a feeling of joy and fun, or why do it?
Number Four: Reward. Rewards all along the way. One long-term goal of "This" and the thought of a possible reward of a medal of gold is not sustaining. There must be short-term goals and rewards to maintain motivation. Each and every small success should be celebrated.
Number Five: Positive Attitude. See success, feel it, live it before it's even there. Feel like a winner every day.
Number Six: Perspective. Realize when considering international competition, the odds are not exactly in any one person's favor. Pinning one's hopes and the idea of success or failure on one competition (considering there are always some variables outside of your control) is not just foolhardy, it is detrimental. Yes, it is an honor to represent one's country. Yes, the build-up to the Olympic Games is out-of-this-world, over-the-top phenomenal. But maintain perspective. Understand that if you are skilled and fortunate enough to get to that level, you cannot let the results define you as an athlete or as a person. See the bigger picture. Your Olympic experience began the first day of training. Every bit of blood, sweat and tears has been your Olympics all along. Know that, appreciate it, enjoy the whole experience of it.
How does this relate to the weekend warrior? Every time you step onto the field, the rink, the court, the treadmill, the aerobics studio floor, you are training for your personal Olympics. Push yourself, enjoy yourself. Live the experience fully. That is what "This" is. Go for gold, whatever that may be for you.
Here's to enjoying and living "This."
Excerpt from: Ohno, A. (2010) Zero Regrets: Be Greater Than Yesterday. Atria Books.
"Even if you are on the right track, you will get run over if you just sit there."
Personal Best Sports
The sports world is filled with stories of perseverance, failure and success, personal struggles and public triumph. Each story provides insight into the mental side of sport and activity.