A Lesson from the Olympics

A Lesson from the Olympics

by Greg Hire

With the Olympics concluded and the Paralympics just around the corner I thought it was appropriate to discuss the lack of attention these phenomenal athletes have received regarding their mental toughness- in retrospect to the focus that has been on how ‘incredible’ they looked or that they appeared to be in peak ‘physical’ condition.

At times, these Olympic athletes seem invincible- appearing calm and focused in the face of the most challenging and difficult competition in their lives in a sporting aspect. While these elite athletes are admired for their physical and emotional strength, what often goes unnoticed are their challenges with stress and anxiety, and having the ability to perform on the grandest stage.

When Cathy Freeman won gold at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 she did much more than run 400 metres faster than any other woman at a track meet. Freeman overcame the expectations of 20 million sports-mad Australians and become an icon of reconciliation.

While there’s no doubt talent and physical strength played a significant role in her success, it was her mental aptitude in dealing with such pressure that separated her from her fiercest competitors. Her mental toughness and resilience were clearly evident, and what became a defining moment in Olympic history clearly shows the importance of mental health and the application of it.

So what’s the difference between these Olympians, and other athletes competing at a state or a national level? The level of commitment. There are a few distinct common characteristics Olympians share- they are extremely driven, disciplined and focused. They are focused on their ultimate goal of reaching the pinnacle of their careers (usually the Olympics) and by doing so they are highly motivated in being goal oriented. They are prepared to make sacrifices, move states (or even countries!), change jobs or even have multiple jobs just to reach their goal.

Another thing which separates these Olympian athletes from the general population (and more so- determines the gold medalists and the podium position winners) is the application of not only being the most physically talented, but also the most mentally. Talent is only the beginning. In sports like swimming where the results are ultimately decided by a hundredth of a second or millimeters, training now encompasses a wide array of areas- not only physical attributes, but how well an individual handles pressure.

From a perspective of a professional athlete I can easily recognise the times I have struggled to perform in front of the bright lights or on the big stage early on in my career. Reflecting back on those times I remember thoughts of self-doubt- worrying about what could go wrong, what might happen if I performed poorly or if we lost, and at times, what may happen if we win. I could define my mind as one full of distractions and in the end,the result most of the time was that of a negative nature. In contrast, the times where I’ve achieved success is when my focus has been single-minded- and in return, I’ve performed my best. We must have the ability to switch off our minds and only focus on what is present, and allow our bodies to do the job we have trained extremely hard in preparation for. And it is through practicing in pretend ‘high pressure’ situations that we prepare ourselves mentally for the real life scenarios.

In terms of preparation for a moment in which could ‘define’ an athlete’s career, an approximate relevant number would be 4,900. That’s roughly how many hours an Olympian spends training (swimming laps, shooting hoops, vaulting, hurdling etc) in training preparing to reach their goal. This figure is taken on the average athletes completing 2x 2hr training sessions 6 days a week for 4 years. This figure doesn’t include time commuting to and from practice, meal preparation, recovery time and everything else these athletes do in order to maintain impeccable physical health, and more importantly, perfecting their mental toughness. This is what makes these athletes special. The amount of time, effort and energy an Olympian athlete puts into their sport exceeds almost anything else they’ve ever done in their life, and this is what makes them successful in reaching their goals.

One of my favourite aspects of the Olympics is hearing stories which demonstrate mental toughness- hearing about an underdog that exhibits resiliency, or about the team that banded together and dealt with adversity. Many of these athletes have already dealt with adversity at some point in their life, and because of this mental toughness exists in their DNA. Without adversity in your life growing up and learning how to deal & overcome these challenges, how does one develop the self-disciplines and know-how to overcome future adversities?

So as we reflect on the Olympics and begin to support our Paralympian's, I think we can all learn a thing or two from these incredible beings. Representing their country on the grandest stage is a special feat (geez- just going to the Olympics as a spectator is on my bucket list!) but as we admire the Usain Bolt’s, Michael Phelps’ & Mo Farah’s and marvel at their accomplishment, we should also appreciate the mental ability these athletes have showed in one of the most high pressure environments imaginable- and recognise the amount of mental preparation undergone, alongside with the physical.

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.