Learning from Olympians

As the nation watches from its sofas the extraordinary achievements of Olympic competitors, the question many of us ask is “Could I have done that?”  If I hadn’t spent my teenage years avoiding PE, and my subsequent years adhering to the late John Mortimer’s advice “Exercise if you’re fit you don’t need it, if you are unfit it’s dangerous”, could I have been a contendor.

When Heather Stanning and Heather Glove won Team GB’s first gold medal, they generously claimed that anyone could do what they did, if they committed to the task.  But is that true?  When at Gordonstoun, Heather Stanning’s school mates voted her the girl most likely to be an Olympian, suggesting that they saw something special in her.

The evidence is that their perception was correct there is something different about Olympic champion, as according to research undertaken at Loughborough University.  They studied 12 Olympian champions (8 men and 4 women) and concluded that they shared a combination of 5 personality attributes: a positive personality, confidence, motivation, focus and perceived social support.  Together they helped them deal with the demands of becoming a world class competitor

“Olympic athletes experience considerable adversities during their preparation, training and competition, often over long periods of time,” said Mustafa Sarkar, a PhD student in sport and performance psychology at Loughborough University, and co-author of the report.While these challenges have potential negative effects on athletes’ mental health, “the world’s best athletes develop and maintain a specific combination of psychological attributes that enable them to thrive on such pressure and perform at their best in Olympic competition

While, it may be an armchair fantasy that we too could have rowed, run, cycled or swam for our country, there is still something we can learn from those who do, that we can use in whatever field we want to achieve in. Having a positive personality may come with our DNA, but those other traits can be developed:

  • Confidence comes from being able to trust in our actions.  That trust comes from application and hard work.
  • Motivation comes from knowing what is important to you, why you want to achieve a goal, rather than just having a goal.
  • Focus means denying yourself distractions. As 15 year old gold medal swimmer Ruta Meilutyte said in her post win interview, ” I can do other  things for the rest of my life, but I can only swim for a few years”.
  • Social support means ensuring you are staying connected to others, and giving support as well as asking for it when you need it.

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