As I currently watch events from the 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi being broadcasted on TV, I can’t help but be in awe of the skills and sheer athleticism that these Olympians display. Not only are they talented in their respective sport, but you can see their passion and strong desire to win. I myself had harbored fantasies of being an athlete (and Olympian!) when I was younger; I was fairly sporty and was even asked by P.E teachers to represent the school in a number of sports. I remember always having the talent for almost all sports, but lacking the mental strength — the ability to work through the grind and push myself to work harder in the face of challenges, to consistently attend practice and to stay focused.
We all recognize that practice is key to success when it comes to playing sports, but also in many other areas such as music, arts, even test-taking. A popular myth, “the 10,000 hour rule,” claims this is the amount of time one needs to spend on practice in order to reach meaningful success in any field. Renowned author on Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Coleman has debunked this myth, indicating it is not simply the number of hours spent, but practicing with more deliberation, i.e., with more focused attention. Another well-regarded psychologist, Angela Duckworth has shown that grit is more important than IQ for success. She defines grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”
In this recent article from The Atlantic, the author shares an anecdote from a former figure skater, Dorothy Hamill, who would spend at least six hours daily going through the same practice day-in-day out. Many other athletes go through such a similar schedule. In Li Na’s autobiography she describes her experience as an eight year old at tennis boarding school: having to wake up at 6am daily to exercise before going to class and continuing training after class, only having evenings for free time and homework before going to sleep at 10pm and even training over holidays. It’s not surprising to say that the most successful athletes are not necessarily the most talented in their field, but simply the ones who can stay the most motivated — i.e., to stay interested, to work through the daily tedium of going through the same routine and to persevere even in the toughest times.
So how do Olympians stay motivated? Drawing on interviews with top athletes and their coaches, here are some lessons learnt and shared in The Atlantic article:
They are able to cope with stress. There are a multitude of stress-related coping strategies, but in a study of 17 national champion figure skaters, the most common was “rational thinking and self-talk,” which the study authors describe “as logically examining all of the potential stressors, determining what could be controlled, and talking oneself through the problem rationally.”
They love the practice. Studies of college-age swimmers and professional rugby players show they love the practice as much as the competition. A coach has described her swimmers as enjoying “the working out as much as they enjoy the competition. They love that idea of pushing the limits and learning and being challenged emotionally and physically.”
They are optimistic. Some studies have shown a positive outlook can help athletes bounce back from setbacks while negative moods can hurt performance. The swim coach also says, “Everyone’s gonna fail or get beat or get injured or whatever, but [successful athletes]figure out how to reframe it so that it can be a positive thing instead of a negative thing.”
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This post first appeared on Prep Beijing on February 10, 2014 and was written by Alicia Lui.
Alicia Lui is a co-founder at Prep Beijing!, a coaching company focusing on core soft skills such as effective communication, social and emotional skills, etiquette, critical thinking and leadership skills. Prior to founding Prep Beijing! She has worked in management consulting and in banking. She holds and MBA from INSEAD and Bachelor’s from University of Chicago
Photo courtesy of Kris Krug (Flickr)