Lessons from the Olympics

Beijing Olympics: Usain Bolt Breaks The World ...Image by rich115 via Flickr So thats it for another four years. Boris has got the flag, the flame is out in Beijing and television schedules will return to normality. The 204 competing nations will go home – 81 with at least one medal.

Was it all worth it? Fortunes have been spent getting athletes into finals and for some a gold medal. National pride, the “feel good” factor is said to permeate through those watching. Its interesting that China, the worlds most populated country with 1.3 billion people, topped the medals table. But India, second most populated with 1.1 billion, celebrated their first ever gold medal at the games and finished with a total of three medals.

“You are role models for the youth of the world”

So said IOC president Jacques Rogge at the Opening Ceremony. Many are inspired to take up sport by watching the success of others. Much has been made that for young women in particular its great to have role models that are not drug taking or near anorexic.

What I find fascinating is how the the various competitors and teams have prepared for the Games and how the Olympics brings out the best in some, the worst in others. And how much self confidence plays a part. The classic example was the mens 100 meter final. The winner, Usain Bolt, strode out to the start as if he was going to the beach. The other competitors looked as if they were off to the gallows! Bolt’s compatriot, and on paper main rival, Asafah Powell finished 5th – complaining his legs felt heavy.

One British competitor – our favorite for a boxing gold – left Beijing almost as soon as he arrived. Frankie Gavin couldn’t make required weight for his division, probably a result of training like a professional in the months leading up to the games. The affect on the rest of the boxing team was said to be devastating, as Gavin had been a leading personality within it. Confidence was “rock bottom” and they were going to have to “pick themselves up”. As it happened they did, getting a gold and two bronze medals.

By comparison, the British Cycling Federation were totally prepared. And for me the star of the Olympics is someone who wasn’t competing, although this 56 year old has held world veteran titles at 100m & 200m running. Dr Steve Peters is a forensic psychiatrist who spent most of his career working in secure hospitals.

At cycling Britain won seven of the ten track events, plus one of the road races. Led by Steve Peters and manager Dave Brailsford the cyclists applied the principle of ‘Aggregation of Marginal Gains’ (AMG).

The idea of AMG is that in most situations there are a million tiny things that you can do to improve. Most people concentrate only on the most obvious ones, the biggest. The cyclists focused on as many of the tiny things as they could. They know that each one individually may have only a negligible effect, but taken as a whole the impact can be huge.

As well as being undermined by your own negative thoughts, the positive expectations of others can undermine an athletes confidence. Especially when considerable money has been invested in “your” success.
British cyclist Victoria Pendleton comes 1st i...Image via Wikipedia
In Athens 2004, cyclist Victoria Pendleton (left) was overcome by anxiety and effectively froze when competing. She underperformed and left Athens with her confidence crushed. In Beijing, she had to wait until the last day for her event – the sprint. She won the gold medal comfortably.

With “compassionate ruthlessness” – mentoring and supporting with total honesty – Peters and Brailsford build a team around the athlete to work on all the steps or “foundation stones” identified that might contribute to gold medal success. The team help the cyclists to achieve the agreed benchmarks they are aiming for.

In the case of Pendleton, and others, Peters worked hard to remove the fear that can undermine confidence and lead to impulsive decisions. As he says:-

“They learn what part of their brain is giving them completely negative thoughts and they switch over, and thats a skill.”

It took Victoria Pendleton a year to master the skill, to be able to “switch over” her focus and be able to shut out the negative distractions. Another key phrase that illustrates this is “logic not emotion”.

The importance of mental attitude in all sports, and so many other aspects of life, has been known for years. Whilst scientific developments enable athletes to go faster and perform physically better, the use of social sciences such as psychology and psychiatry seem hit and miss. It seems crazy to work hard for several years to master the physical aspects of a sport, but then allow doubt and fears to make you under perform.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]
Henry Tan August 25, 2008 at 12:19 am

Hi David,
I agree with you on the mental attitude required for sports. The British Cycling team were fantastic and they deserved their gold medals.

Great Site!

Fellow STC

Henry Tan’s last blog post..Argentina vs Nigeria รขโ‚ฌโ€œ Beijing Olympics Football Finals (2nd Half)

Lynn Shepherd August 25, 2008 at 3:30 pm

It is indeed a master skill to switch mindset and shut out negative distractions, a skill not only held by athletes but a fundamental quality of leadership.

Dara Torres proved that it’s not just the Olympic Gold medal that’s important. Having lost the Gold by one one-hundredths of a second, the 41 year old swimmer said “There was nothing I would change. I did my best. I set a new record for myself.” She also credited her coaches with helping her regain her focus for the next event, the team relay.

The participants of the Olympics and their stories were all compelling. Such dedication.

Thanks for a great post.

Lynn Shepherd’s last blog post..Do You Have an IRA at Vanguard? Beware!

Miss Gisele B. August 26, 2008 at 5:10 am

This is such a way to sum up the Olympics!

It’s about determination, dedication and strong mental attitude.

These competitors have gone beyond what most people will ever achieve in their lifetime.

I do believe that a lot of people get incredibly motivated by the Olympics, but few take that feeling any further.

Thanks for this post!

Miss Gisele B.

Miss Gisele B.’s last blog post..Women in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s are big consumers of tanning salons

Maria | Never the Same River Twice August 26, 2008 at 6:57 pm

Like so much in life, excelling in sports is often much more about mental game than physical game. If brains didn’t matter, John Daly would be one of the most legendary golfers in the world!

Maria | Never the Same River Twice’s last blog post..Weekend SmallChange: I Read a Book

Phyllis V August 26, 2008 at 11:08 pm

Just goes to show that the right attitude goes a very long way.

Jeff August 27, 2008 at 10:34 pm

I still feel that Olympic games are more and more about business and politics and less and less about sport ๐Ÿ™

Watzzupsport August 27, 2008 at 11:29 pm

The following words you wrote…..

“The importance of mental attitude in all sports, and so many other aspects of life, has been known for years.”

are such a truth, to be able to understand and be aware in our own lives what thought processes dictate our actions is a secret to peaceful successful living.

You also make comment

” Whilst scientific developments enable athletes to go faster and perform physically better, the use of social sciences such as psychology and psychiatry seem hit and miss”

This is where the mindset of our culture which is set on, be good and you will get, or measurement of success through achievement , sets up the most prominent cause of pain ie guilt.

Whereas in sport there is a competition winner when we try to put life and outcomes we experience into a.. win, loose… achieve, fail… context, we miss the opportunity to understand the concept, that life unfolds as it is meant to and all events are part of the fabric of existence that we share with every other person on this planet.

If we manage to change the… what we can get… to …what we can give…. and gain the understanding that all events in our lives are a learning both to our selves and others we might make some progress

David August 28, 2008 at 7:13 am

Thanks all for comments – there is a consensus that mental attitude is important in sport. My point is why do so many, like John Daly or Asafah Powell, get this bit wrong. So much time, and money, is spent on getting the physical and skill side right yet some miss the mental side.

David’s last blog post..Randy Pausch – stories on how to live

dave August 28, 2008 at 7:03 pm

I agree, the olympics are very inspiring – Its hard not to want to go out and run 10 miles after watching someone breaking the world record. Even though I kmow I’ll never reach that level of intensity (who has time to train 8 hours a day with school and work?) but its nice to see that its possible.

dave’s last blog post..Blog Post: Blog Entry: “Pulse Check…”

TigerTom August 29, 2008 at 6:51 pm

Curious that India hasn’t done well. I read that they get into the team, then don’t bother any more.

You need to race against the best, or the clock, to win.

Previous post:

Next post: