As sporting events go, the Sochi Winter Olympics could rival anything else on television for sheer entertainment value. The pomp, the ceremony, the costumes, the drama, the tears – it’s Downton Abbey in Lycra. And I admit, I was glued to it. But look a little deeper, behind all the glitz and glamour, and what you will see are ordinary men and women making very conscious decisions in pursuit of their Olympic dreams. Olympians inspire us because of their talent, discipline and commitment. But more than that, I think what they offer is a reminder of the possibility that we all have for greatness. Whether your goal is to start a new business, increase your physical fitness, or write the great American novel, there are some good lessons to be learned from these (or any other) Olympic Games. Here are my takeaways:
1. Set the goal and break it down
Most Olympic-level athletes begin training years in advance of the actual games. What you are witnessing on TV is usually the end result of a 4 or 8 year training cycle. After setting the goal, athletes and their coaches will break down the allotted timeframe into a series of well-defined mini-goals, with quantifiable markers set along the way. If your goal was to run a 10K in 2 months say, you might aim to walk 10 consecutive kilometers the first month. The second month, you might try to run 5K the first week, then up it to 8K, and gradually increase it up to 10K before race day. By breaking any goal down into its individual components, you eliminate resistance and greatly increase the odds of your achieving it.
2. Find a team
If you want to do well, you have to find like-minded people who understand your goal and can support you in its pursuit. We generally only see one person on the podium at medal time, basking in individual glory. But you can be sure there is a whole army of people behind the scenes propping that person up: other athletes, coaches, mentors, spouses, doctors and so on. Same goes for writers, entrepreneurs or anyone engaged in creative work. You want to surround yourself with people who offer a blend of empathy, feedback and motivation. Think about people who can help you achieve your mission, and try to connect with them. They’re out there – in support groups, meetup clubs, chat rooms – you just have to look.
3. Commit to the process
Choosing a lofty goal (like winning an Olympic gold medal) places a huge burden on your shoulders. In choosing a coach, one of the things that athletes are doing is committing to a system of training that they believe will increase their odds of success. They trust that once they follow this system, the results will somehow follow. Regardless of their mood or motivation on any given day, they simply show up and follow the system that’s been put in place. It is this commitment to the process of training that brings results over the long term. If your goal was to write a novel, say, then your system might be to commit to writing 500 words a day. Regardless of your mood or inspiration, you simply sit down and write until you have 500 words. If you did that only 5 days a week, which does not seem unreasonable, then you would have a completed novel in 32 weeks.
4. Laser-like focus
I think one of the things that separates Olympians from ordinary mortals is their extraordinary focus. Watch any downhill skier before a race, mentally mapping the course in exact detail, visualizing the lines they want to ski. They are completely and utterly present to the moment. Nothing can distract them from what they want to achieve. For most of us, our jobs, families and personal commitments make this level of concentration difficult. We are pulled in so many directions. But imagine if you could bring this kind of focus to the task on hand – whatever the task – how different your results would be. You may not have five hours a day to train like a professional athlete, but you can still bring an Olympian focus to the time you do have.
Olympic athletes place a huge emphasis on getting proper rest and nutrition. For them, it’s all about recovery and not overly taxing the body. Many Olympians cross-train, meaning they do something other than their chosen sport. It reduces the risk of overtraining and helps avoid injury and burnout. We could take a page from their playbook, and find ways to “cross-train” by doing something entirely different. Then when we’re ready, we come back to the task on hand with renewed energy and vigor. Being properly rested also helps us to handle setbacks, when they inevitably occur.
With four years between games, there must be days for Olympians when it feels like it’s never going to happen, and motivation is slow to materialize. Days and weeks when it feels like it’s “just not worth it.” But Olympians know that it is the conscious commitment to process that yields results. Ultimately, it’s no great mystery how people end up on the podium. They simply calculated the cost, and decided to pay it. You can too.