Life lessons learned by watching the Olympics.
Clicker box in one hand, snack bowl in the other, I lurch stiffly to my feet. This hands-free, grunt-free levitation earns me personal-best marks for both technical and artistic components. Before setting out to navigate the course to the prize—heart-healthy almonds across the room—I pause to stretch. Arching my lower back, I partially counteract the debilitating effects of hours sitting on a decidedly unergonomic futon.
The beneficial role that stretching plays in anyone’s regimen is just one lesson from time well wasted watching Olympic coverage through the years. Ill-suited and little-inclined to learn the athletic habit of obsessive or even steady physical activity, I nevertheless find Olympic-quality lessons to apply to more everyday endeavours.
In these days of legitimate privacy concerns about almost every aspect of our lives, we might appreciate a little more the privacy most of us have while we do our jobs. Even without fame and its resulting media attention, professional athletes routinely perform under audience scrutiny. Imagine facilitating that meeting last week in front of a grandstand full of flag wavers, or struggling to meet that report deadline with over-the-shoulder-lookers second-guessing every decision, criticizing every turn of phrase. The next time I miss an obvious edit in a document or take a fraction of a second longer than I should to craft a PowerPoint™ presentation, I’ll pause to give thanks that my job isn’t a spectator sport. If few cheer my occasional exceptional performance, fewer still notice when I under-perform.
No one performs their best every time out of the gate, so it’s good to celebrate our A-game when it does appear. The human body, mind and spirit can do great things, just not always on demand. When the amazing out-of-nowhere performance comes late to need, we can lament that we didn’t do this well ‘when it really mattered’, or we can be delighted that lightning strikes even sometimes, lifting us out of the ordinary.
When we do get to the mountaintop, we should have the grace to remember that the extraordinary doesn’t happen in isolation. That’s obvious in team activities, but even frontline athletes in individual sports are supported by hordes of backroom technicians: coaches, choreographers, physiotherapists, psychologists. Family and friends provide moral and practical support, corporate sponsors and government agencies provide funding. In life as in sports, no one gets to the start line, much less the finish line, all by their lonesome.
Some things, however, just aren’t group activities. What can, indeed must, be an activity driven from within is the choice of race. We all have to play our own game. Whether we’re pursuing a medal, top-ten finish or personal best, or are just getting the equivalent of our first international experience, it’s up to us to define success, to set our own targets.
But we must never take the achievement of our targets for granted, as a birthright. A sense of entitlement is unattractive, whether it manifests itself in countries, teams or individuals. Worse, it doesn’t help us cope with failure any more than it enhances our experience of success. Discounting the efforts of others makes failure, when it comes, both inexcusable and intolerable; assuming the inevitability of victory makes success, when it comes, as flat as day-old champagne.
Even when we follow our own vision of success, the joy of victory is only possible when the agony of defeat is also an option. If we cannot always reach our goals, we can still choose how we respond when staring disappointment in the face. Wanting to explain to ourselves and others why we fell short, too often we end up sounding as if we’re making excuses: The pressure got to me, I lost focus, I tried too hard, I peaked too early. If we are secure in the knowledge that our performance doesn’t define us, we can relax and accept responsibility, gracefully stating the obvious: I didn’t do well enough today.
Whether pressure affects our performance depends primarily on our perspective. While we may not ever be called upon to formally represent our country, or even our city or company, we should realize that we do so informally all the time. We can feel this as an added burden or as another opportunity to show that how well we behave matters more than how well we compete.
For all that winning isn’t everything—nor the only thing—we shouldn’t be afraid to win either. Success needn’t always be something we’re building towards, it can be something we achieve right now. As Chandra Crawford mused to herself just before her fabulously unexpected sprint to grab gold in 2006, Why not today?
Do many remember Chandra’s name? Maybe not. Fame can be here today, gone tomorrow, and we have our own lives to live, our own concerns to think about. It’s like the old joke: at 20, we worry what ‘they’ think about us; at 40, we decide we don’t care what they think about us; at 60, we discover they haven’t been thinking about us at all.
Maybe we don’t think about these athletes except once every four years. That’s OK. They’re chasing their dreams, after all, and we should be chasing ours. Why not, indeed? Now that I’ve mastered the hands-full levitation-from-futon, anything seems possible.