Don’t Quote Me: Insights From Elite Athletics

We watched a lot of Olympics in the last two weeks. It’s entertaining and inspiring; a source of national pride and global camaraderie. After so many frustrating and sad stories hitting our newsfeed the last few years – pandemics, political upheaval, catastrophic fires, floods, and other disasters – it feels like a breath of fresh air to see countries coming together in a celebration of tenacity, hope, and endurance.

I realized this year, like never before, that there is a lot to be learned from Olympic athletes. Admittedly, their career path is not one most of us can fully emulate – a singular focus to reach the pinnacle of a specific sporting event is a niche lifestyle. But over and over I was struck by the relatability of these public figures. Their struggles and triumphs could be our own if we squint hard enough.

Most of us won’t trip over a hurdle and fall to the track in the middle of our race, but we might just get stage fright and blank when delivering that elevator pitch we’ve been perfecting for months. We might not win gold in the decathlon, but we might watch with pride as our book tops the New York Times Bestseller list.

I always love getting glimpses behind-the-scenes; I cheered along with the rest of Canada as Andre de Grasse carried the hopes of our nation down that 200 m track. As impressive as his gold medal was, what struck me most happened earlier in the competition during an interview after a qualifying heat. He talked about how critical the support of his family was to his success; then he talked about heading back to his room, getting as much sleep as possible, drinking lots of water – taking time to replenish his body. His desire to win a gold medal impacted all his lower-level goals and intentions.

So what can I learn from an elite athlete? There are lots of lessons, but here are four that came to mind after watching that 2-minute interview:

  1. The importance of my support network. Coaches, family, teammates, national sponsorships and training programs, physical therapists, sports phsycologists. No one reaches the top in isolation. It takes an intricate choreography from many people behind the scenes to propel an athelete to greatness. Takeaway = I need support. Parents, mentors, counselors/therapists, friends, collegues. We’re better – stronger – together.
  2. Focus, focus, focus. Most top athletes participate in a single or, at most, handful, of events. When my daughter, very earnestly, said she wanted to compete in every sport, she failed to recognize the intricacies of perfecting certain skill sets. Don’t expect to see Simone Biles competing in the high jump or discus competitions. You train your body and mind differently for the 100-metre dash than you do for the marathon. To truly excel in one area, you have to hone your body and mind for the specific nuances of that particular discipline. Takeaway = focus on my skills and interests. The rest may be white noise. Also, nobody is good at everything, but everybody’s good at something.
  3. Sleep, sleep, and sleep some more. The media is saturated with articles that extol the wonders of sleep. After years of glorifying people who could “burn the candle at both ends,” the narrative is shifting. Sleep is in. I recently read an autobiography of a marathon runner (talk about fascinating behind-the-scenes insights); she wrote about waking up and enjoying a leisurely breakfast, completing a long run, coming home to recuperate by taking a long mid-afternoon nap, before heading out for her evening running session, and then home for more sleep. Sleep was a critical component of her training program; without proper rest she was never going to excel at running. Takeaway = I need more sleep. Naps would be a nice addition to my weekly repetoire as well.
  4. Nutrition and water matter. Eating the right food, not too much, and staying hydrated is a foundational element in athletics training. Takeaway = what I put in my body matters. In general I feel so much better when I’m consuming whole foods, limting sugar/caffeine, and drinking plenty of water.

Tom Seaver was one of baseball’s greatest pitcher. He died a year ago, but left behind a legacy of sporting excellence and spoke of how his relentless pursuit of improvement and success in his field coloured every decision in his life.

Pitching…determines what I eat, when I go to bed, what I do when I’m awake. It determines how I spend my life when I’m not pitching. If it means I have to come to Florida and can’t get tanned because I might get a burn that would keep me from throwing for a few days, then I never go shirtless in the sun…If it means I have to remind myself to pet dogs with my left hand or throw logs on the fire with my left hand, then I do that, too. If it means in the winter I eat cottage cheese instead of chocolate chip cookies in order to keep my weight down, then I eat cottage cheese. 

Pitching is what makes me happy. I’ve devoted my life to it…I’ve made up my mind what I want to do. I’m happy when I pitch well so I only do things that help me be happy.

Tom Seaver

I’m not heading out to run a 200 m sprint tomorrow morning and I doubt I’ll hurl a giant spear the length of a field (or, if I do, it won’t be televised). I’m most certainly never going to be a major-league pitcher, and I don’t see any need to start petting dogs with my left hand. But I am in the busy middle years.

So how can I build a support network that will propel me forward? I want to be intentional; what am I working toward, what do I want my focus – or foci – to be? And then, how can I ensure I get enough sleep, wholesome food, and water so my mind has the benefits of a strong and healthy body?

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