What the Olympics Can Teach Us about Going for Gold

The 2014 Winter Olympics, which conclude this week, have been a source of warmth during an otherwise unrelenting winter.  As I watch athletes compete and absorb the media coverage, I find myself getting a refresher on childhood fundamentals. These lessons are worth remembering; they are just as important (and arguably more so) for adults as children.

1. If you fall down, get up, dust yourself off, and try again. The Olympics teach us that performing at the highest level is not all about flawlessness. Many of the events are organized with multiple runs (e.g., slopestyle) to allow athletes to learn from their mistakes and course-correct. Losing your balance is expected, just like when you were a kid.

Even in a sport without do-overs, like ice skating, Olympians take pride in reaching the finish. When U.S. ice skater Jeremy Abbot fell attempting a quadruple toe loop during the men’s short program, he struggled to his feet and resumed skating to the crowd’s ovation, nailing the remainder of his routine.  In an interview after the performance, Abbot stated, “I’m not in the least bit ashamed. I stood up and I finished that program and I’m proud of my effort and…what I did under the circumstance.” During his subsequent free skate program, he continued to rebound with elegance and achieved his season’s best score.

2. Sharing is caring. The 2014 Winter Games mark the introduction of two team events, the figure skating team event and luge team relay. Team performance requires a psychological shift from self-reliance towards tolerance of and trust in others. Across national lines, Olympians also consider themselves part of a larger team. This was evident when Canadian ski coach Justin Wadsworth jumped onto the race course to provide Russian cross-country skier Anton Gafarov with a replacement for his broken ski. The team events and overarching Olympic spirit underscore that our fates as individuals are tied to one another and remind us that thinking of ourselves as part of “Team Human Being” can foster an attitude of caring, support, and acceptance.

3. Food does a body good. While children are encouraged to try new foods and focus on how big, strong, and able their bodies become with age, adults are often preoccupied with restricting foods (or food groups) and focusing on how they wished their bodies looked. The language around body image shifts such that “big and strong” sounds awful, while “skinny” or “muscular” sounds ideal for women and men, respectively. Watching an Olympian is a lesson in returning the emphasis to the body’s strengths and its capacities. It’s also a showcase of body diversity; the athletes featured throughout the games epitomize the notion that healthy comes in all shapes and sizes.

And a healthy Olympic body is a well-nourished one. Food is neither a reward nor a tool for coping with feeling badly; it is fuel. A testament to this mindset, the American women’s hockey team brought an expert with them to Sochi to help them put adequate “gas in their tanks” throughout the competition.

4. It’s OK to be scared. Snowboarders Sage Kotsenburg and Devin Logan have both spoken publicly about their fear of heights, yet they are each going home with a medal in a sport defined by high jumps and aerial acrobatics. This shows us that it is not inherently bad to be scared. If you face your fears repeatedly, that which is scary might become tolerable…and possibly exciting.

Similarly, it’s OK to let yourself think about the worst-case scenario, like losing. In fact, telling yourself not to think about defeat might be the bigger problem. Per NBC’s report, the sports psychologists working with U.S. Olympians are advising athletes to practice mindfulness – notice the thought, acknowledge the fear, let it go and return to the present moment. They are also encouraging the athletes to mentally play out their darkest “what-ifs” to logical conclusions, namely that a disappointing showing need not eliminate their own sense of accomplishment or loved ones’ pride in their achievement.

5. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Despite appearing crushed with his fourth-place finish in the Snowboard Halfpipe final event, American Shaun White immediately hugged the Swiss gold medalist, Iouri Podladtchikov. When asked to comment on the course conditions, he acknowledged that whatever his opinion on its state, “it was the same for everyone and I’m happy for the guys that did well.” His words modeled graciousness in the face of defeat and acknowledged the incredible efforts of his peers.

As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in The Little Prince, “All grown-ups were once children…but only few of them remember it.” I find that when the rhythm of grown-up life drowns out lessons of childhood, it’s important to tune back in with intention. To the 2014 Olympians: Thank you for reminding me of those lessons and for showing us all, by example, how to live by them.

Written by Deborah R. Glasofer, Ph.D.

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