“I wouldn’t say anything is impossible. I think that everything is possible as long as you put your mind to it and put the work and time into it.”
Michael Phelps, winner of a total of 23 Olympic gold medals in swimming in 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016
Having spoken in person with two Cypriot Olympians (Pavlos Kontides and Karolina Pelendritou) and watched interviews with many others (including Greece’s Eleftherios Petrounias, who won the gold medal in the men’s Rings in Rio), I have come to realise that the dedication required to become an Olympic champion is all-consuming and, in some instances, it totally dominates what many of us would describe as “the best years of our lives”. However, while only very few of us will ever devote ourselves so fully to perfecting something to the extent that we are better than anyone else on the planet (Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, etc.), we can learn a lot from the depth of the sacrifice and the determination to succeed of those who do and we can adapt this to our own professional and even personal lives.
Dr Steve Peters, who has provided mind training to many British Olympians, including cyclists Chris Froome, Sir Chris Hoy and Sir Bradley Wiggins, tells riders: “You cannot say, ‘I want to be the best cyclist in the world’, because you have no influence over your opponents. You can say, ‘I want to be the best I can possibly be and devise a plan to achieve that aim’.”
This advice applies to anyone wishing to succeed in any field. Writing in Success magazine recently, Jim Rohn says that the secret to how athletes become world-class and win Olympic medals lies in the combination of two fundamental ideas: desire (‘I want to be…fill in the blanks…..’) and dedication (‘Devise a plan to achieve that aim’). He notes that, while we all have to want something and to have a dream, “The engine that drives the dream is dedication. Desire tells you what you want while dedication gets it for you.”
Over the past two weeks, I have admired many of the athletes in Rio as they have shown what they are capable of but only they know how much dedication they have put into their sport to run one hundredth of a second faster or jump one centimetre further than their nearest rivals. How many years of practice, how much pain and exhaustion, how many failures have they been through? It takes more than desire or a dream to be the best. It also takes hard work! They all have faced difficulties and failure but, in the end, they have persevered in order to achieve their dream.
It is worth looking more closely at what we mean by dedication because its component parts can be applied to any area of life to make you more productive, more competitive and, overall, the best you can be.
When Usain Bolt is on the starting blocks, what is he thinking about? The cheering crowds? Another medal? He has joked that he is thinking about which pizza to order after the race but we would be foolish to take this seriously. It is clear that he is totally focused on what he is about to do at that moment. This ability to concentrate on the task at hand and completely shut out everything else that is not necessary to it is one of the things that makes Olympic athletes so extraordinary. The same tactic can be used in your daily routine to improve your ability to get things done fast and efficiently. Choose a single task to work on and try to focus on getting the best possible job done as fast as possible within a set time.
Keep things simple
Have you seen what swimmers wear at the Olympics? An aerodynamic, water-repellent suit, a specially-shaped cap and hydrodynamic goggles that give 180-degree vision. What few people know is that it can take up to 45 minutes to put the swimsuit on! But when the difference between getting a medal and going home empty handed can be 100th of a second, you cannot allow unnecessary clothing and accessories slow you down. This is why we have seen so many more records being broken in the pool than on the track – it’s all about technology. Luckily, you don’t have to wear a special uniform in order to prioritize your tasks and eliminate the ones that slow you down. If you want to reach your professional and personal goals, you need to focus on the things that matter most. This may be something as simple as becoming more technology savvy or investing time in planning to make you world class!
Recover from setbacks
One of the most remarkable and moving sights of the past two weeks was the way Ethiopia’s Etenesh Diro reacted to falling and being unable to put her shoe back on during the 3,000 metre steeplechase heats: she gave up trying to fix the problem and ran the second half of the race wearing just one shoe! Needless to say, every person in the stadium rose to applaud her courage. And what about Mo Farah, who fell during the 10,000 metres? He not only got back up but went on to win the race. Champions know how to recover fast from failure. Similarly, even when you have a careful, detailed plan about how you want your day to go, something unexpected can throw your entire schedule off track. Do you let it ruin your day and your progress or do you deal with it quickly and recover? You know the right answer to this question! Take a deep breath and a minute to relax and then rearrange your plans to fit the situation. You are in charge.
Practice, practice, practice
The Olympic Games are held every four years but all the people we have been watching on TV have probably spent every waking moment since 2012 on training and preparing for Rio 2016. I have written before about Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, in which he says that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a particular field. If you divide eight years (i.e. the time spanning three Olympic Games) by 10,000 hours, you will see that it means around five hours a day. Excellent productivity, efficiency and time management skills can all be acquired through consistent practice over many hours.
Being an Olympic Champion is probably not one of our goals but there is a lot we can learn from those who strive to win a gold medal – by concentrating as if we are about to run the 100 metres, becoming more aerodynamic as we move through our day, like a swimmer through water, recovering quickly like a fallen runner or gymnast and trying to be the best at what we do every day, just like a real Olympian!