Sunday, August 12, 2012

6 Things I Learned From The Olympics

One of the few up sides of having mono is the opportunity to watch plenty of the Olympics. I've never been as engaged in the Olympics as I have been this year, and I've made some good observations.

I've been working with a sports psychologist and many of the things I'm learning from him have been demonstrated by these athletes. I doubt I would have picked up on any of these things without his guidance. But the fact that I did pick up on them shows that I am really beginning to evolve my thinking and attitude about my own running.

1. Don't compare yourself to others.
Kristian Ipsen and Troy Dumais
I would assume that all athletes are competitive by nature, so how do you not compare yourself to others? How do you stay focused on your own performance, your own training, and your own goals when the sport is, by nature, competitive? Surely once you get to the Olympic level you are comparing yourself to others constantly, right?  Wrong.

I was watching the men's synchronized diving, and there was an interview with one of the divers shortly after his dive. (I think it was Troy Dumais.) He said that usually once he finishes his dive, he doesn't watch the other people dive or watch for their scores. He just waits to see how things play out. He was just very focused on his own performance and not at all concerned with the other divers in the competition. I thought to myself, "What a healthy approach! If that were me, I would probably have my eyes glued to those diving boards and the divers' scores."

2. Focus on the race itself, not a time goal.
More generally speaking, focus on the process, not the outcome. One of the things I have been trying to overcome for years is focusing too much on my time goals. I've tried hard to not think about about time goals, but my sports psychologist says that that approach is just avoidance, without a real strategy for what else to focus on.

After one of the track semi-finals, a reporter was interviewing one of the runners. She said that his times were close enough to potentially beat the world record and was that something he was aiming for in the finals? His response was that he was not focused on beating on the world record, but just to run the best race that he could. (I forget who this was and if he did actually beat the world record, but regardless, he's very much on target with being focused on the process, not the outcome).

3. Your sport is not who you are. It's something you do.
It's plastered all over running magazines and Facebook walls: I AM A RUNNER! According to my sports psychologist, it's a much healthier attitude if your sport is not who you are, but rather something that you do. Separation. You cannot let your sport consume you and determine your mood 24 hours of the day. You focus on running when it's time to run or to work on a training plan. Otherwise, you should be focused on whatever else you are doing-- working, spending time with the family, relaxing, getting together with friends.

Nope. Running is something that I do, which is important to me.
I could write a whole blog post on this (and I will at some point) but for now I'll stick to the Olympics. If you're at that level, how can it not consume your whole life? I mean, what else is there if you are training 10 hours a day and are at the top of your sport!?

I saw some interviews with Katie Ledecky's friends in Bethesda, MD. For those of you who haven't been following the Olympics, Katie is a 15-year-old who won gold in the 800m freestyle. Her friends all said pretty much the same thing about her: "If you were talking to her, you wouldn't even know she was a swimmer. She's really down to earth and modest about it." It sounds like that when Katie is socializing with friends, she's focused on her friends and not telling them all about her swimming. I would guess she's done a great job at keeping her swimming life in the pool and other elements of her life separate.

4. If you look for failure, you will be sure to find it.
Very similar to "you can't please everyone all of the time." For some reason, people are so quick to judge these Olympic athletes. As a perfectionist, I hate the idea of anyone thinking that I did something wrong or that I failed at something. But the reality is that we can't control other people, and there will always be critics.

Gabby Douglas won the individual all-round gymnastics gold medal. And yet many people were criticizing her hair. I was shocked to learn this because a) who cares about her hair-- she's fantastic! And b) what's wrong with her hair? It's pulled back like everyone else's! Even if you win a gold medal at the Olympics, there will still be critics. External critics are a fact of life, we can't control them. But we can make sure that we aren't our own internal critics.

5. Performance is dynamic. You aren't a machine.
One of my largest frustrations as a runner (and I'm guessing most runners share this frustration) is when you run a race significantly slower than what you know you are capable of. You have an off day. I tend to really beat myself up when this happens, but my sports psychologist is constantly reminding me that performance is dynamic, I'm not a robot, and there are no guarantees that I will be able to perform at my peak on race day. In fact, he said that among the world's top marathoners, most of them say that only 1 out of every 5 marathons is a good race for them. Bottom line--  you cannot expect peak performance at every race, and sometimes it's just not there. No further explanation other than some days are simply better than others.

Gymnast McKayla Maroney performed a near perfect vault in the team competition and was expected to easily win gold in the individual vault competition. But she fell on her butt-- something that she had never done at a competition before. Does this mean McKayla suddenly became any less of a gymnast? Did her abilities disappear overnight? No. She just had an off day, and it's normal for something like that to happen. Of course the poor girl was a target for criticism and joking when she was seemingly unimpressed with her silver medal (okay, I had to laugh at this too), but at age 15, can we really expect her to just pretend like she's thrilled after such a disappointment? She learned the "performance is dynamic" lesson the hard way.

6. It's okay to wear Jewelry.
Kara Goucher and Shalane Flanagan wore earrings.
This is one that my sports psychologist did not point out to me in advance. Growing up as a dancer, you weren't supposed to wear jewelry. This translated into my opinion that jewelry interfered with performance and was really unnecessary. I would actually get a little annoyed with women who showed up to races with earrings, necklaces, bracelet, etc, thinking "it's not a fashion show, it's a race". But there I would be in my zebra print skirt and matching gloves, still insisting that it wasn't a fashion show!

Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher both wore earrings during the marathon. And nobody's arguing that they aren't "hard core". So I guess that means it's okay!

Even though I am not doing any physical training at the moment, I am certainly exercising my mental muscles by watching these athletes perform and listening to their interviews. I think it's going to be a long road back for me, so I need to keep all of these things in mind once I am able to train again.


  1. I think #3 is so important, for athletes at ALL levels. My goodness how we make ourselves suffer when we (inevitably) get taken out by illness or injury or other circumstances. Also, admitting that your sport is NOT your identity does not mean that it is less important. But we are SO much more! Great blog post! : )


  2. What a great take-away! I agree that it's too easy to focus on the wrong things.

  3. Interesting post. I agree that the olympics and other sports events are really educational - both for what TO DO and what NOT to do.

  4. I love this post! There are some great reminders/life lessons that can be learned from the people we look up to. Thanks for sharing.

    PS - I always run with jewelry :)

  5. What a lovely, thoughtful post! As you know from reading my blog, I'm working on a lot of the same issues re: perfectionism (in training and in life!), and I find it incredibly helpful to see how elite athletes handle the obstacles we face. I remember reading a story about Kara Goucher realizing that she's not A RUNNER, but a person who runs, as she was working through an injury. I just thought, 'Good gravy—if she can do that, I'm sure I can!' Keep up the good mental work—you'll be extra-strong when you make your comeback!

  6. I love everything about this post.
    Agree with all of it too.
    For sure though,. #1, learning to not comparing myself to others has really helped improve my performance and enjoyment from it.

  7. Love these! I wish I had watched more of the gymnastics. It sounds like it was interesting!