IN THIS ISSUE: As the Athens Olympics slowly winds down and my sleep deprivation reaches an all time high from too much late night viewing, I’m left with a whole host of irrelevant thoughts of almost Olympic proportion. Actually, I’m not being quite fair to myself. In fact, some of the musings from my late summer haze may border on the intelligent and meaningful. If I can, I’d like to share a few of these random thoughts with you right now. When you think about it, the Olympics provide a wonderful, on-going, two- week workshop for all us mere mortals. If we pay close enough attention, we, the viewers can possibly learn all kinds of very valuable lessons, many which transcend sport. There are lessons about the value of hard work and an unending commitment to excellence. There are teachings on the power of “reboundability” or a “never-say-die” attitude and the resilience of the human spirit. You’ll find stories of selflessness and the value of teamwork, not to mention lessons about humility and sportsmanship. What I’d like to start with in this special installment of The Mental Toughness Newsletter are some thoughts about the thousands of “Olympic hopefuls” who never made it to Athens or to your TV screen. These are the innumerable athletes who carefully nursed their Olympic dreams over the past several years, worked their hearts out in pursuit of those dreams and who were not fortunate enough to see them materialize. These athletes may have been good enough to qualify for the US Olympic Trials in their sport, but for whatever reason, they were unable to successfully make the team. Whether their failures were a result of bad luck, out of control nerves, bad timing or just plain not being good enough, these dedicated individuals got to join you and I on the couch as viewers instead of participants. Does their failed attempt make them less Olympian than those fortunate few who made it? Do they deserve any accolades or should we not waste any brain cells thinking about them?
“SO WHO’S REALLY AN OLYMPIAN?”
We’re a nation obsessed with outcome and winning in almost everything we do. Our competitiveness spills over from our athletic games into our professional and even our personal lives. Do we have the best job? Are we making more money than our neighbor? Do we drive a better car? Are we taking the best vacations? Are our children going to the best day care centers and elementary schools? Are we using the finest personal hygiene products? Are we drinking the best cola and leasing our cars from the #1 car rental company?
For those of you with a high degree of testosterone coursing through your system, i.e. all the males reading this, that competitiveness seeps into just about every non-competitive aspect of your life, including what happens to you when you get behind the wheel as well as how you “perform” in the bedroom. In fact, the typical American male can make almost any activity a competition, including stupid, self-destructive ones like alcohol consumption. Just give us males a chance to bolster our ego and we’ll immediately grab onto it like a dog with a bone. OK. Quick Questionnaire for those with too many hormones coursing through them: As a male, how aggressive and competitive do you get when you get into your car? Do you stay calm and relaxed when someone cuts you off and/or passes you or do you feel just the tiniest of urges to exert your dominance and shut them down? How often are you plagued by courteous and polite urges when you drive? And don’t even get me started asking questions about all the competitive hang-ups men have in relation to certain parts of their body and sex.
Yessiree! The American way is all about being “numero uno.” We’ve got to be the fastest, strongest, smartest, toughest, or richest. Quite simply we have to be the “best” (whatever that really means) and unless we are, we feel like there is something very wrong with us. Let me give you an Athens Olympic test: Can you name 5 Olympians in swimming that did not medal? No. Well how about track and field? Know anyone who failed to place in the top three in any of those events? No. Well how about naming a US athlete in the women’s marathon who came up empty? Can you name a wrestler or boxer from the States who didn’t get to stand on the medal platform? How about an archer? A rower? Gymnast? Underwater basket-weaver? Not doing so good are you? What’s that you say? You want me to ask you about how many gold medals swimmer Michael Phelps won. You’d like to comment on the gold medal winning women’s beach volleyball team. Perhaps you’d like me to ask you about Paul Hamm and his gold medal comeback?
Do you get my drift? Our national media doesn’t spend a whole lot of time and energy covering the so-called “losers” or “also-rans” and telling you their stories. We don’t give them front-page coverage. We don’t award them with lucrative endorsement deals. We don’t stick them on a box of cereal or let them sing the virtues of any important soft drinks. We won’t even let them hawk underarm deodorant. Want to know why? It’s almost un-American and embarrassing of you to have to ask, but I’ll give you a break here. The answer is quite simple: They didn’t win gold! Heck, they didn’t even medal! They might have come in 12th, 24th or dead last. They aren’t the best so what’s the point?
You see, the “true” American way is all about winning, about being number one. Good or bad (and it’s mostly VERY BAD), this is the yardstick with which we measure success in this country. It’s how we pick our heroes and heroines. It’s how we determine who are the “real” winners. If you’ve been reading my newsletters long enough, then you’ll know that I have some serious problems with this myopic measuring system. First of all, it’s downright short sighted and inaccurate. Secondly, the overemphasis on winning as the only “real” option for an athlete or team causes tons of slumps, blocks and other performance problems. Finally, and most important, this measuring stick leaves out most of the real champions.
Every four years as the Olympics roll around the American sports media gets hyped up about the “medal count.” It’s the burning question on too many people’s minds including those of all the US sports associations. How many medals will the United States win? More important, how many gold medals will we secure and will our numbers be better than everyone else’s? So, the Olympics are over and we won more than everyone else. What’s that prove? We’re better than everyone else? We’re the best? Pardon me, but doesn’t this sound just a little too much like that spoiled, entitled 5 year old boy who selfishly thinks that he’s the doggie’s woof and everyone else is the doggie’s you know what?
I have nothing against winning or competition. I like to win and I’m as competitive as the next guy, if not more so. However, focusing on being number one is NOT how we should be determining who is a success and who is not. As I say this I’m thinking about the half-dozen or so Olympic hopefuls that I worked with this season. Dedicated, totally committed, hard working athletes who temporarily gave up their schooling, income and personal lives to pursue a dream. Individuals who truly sacrificed and went for it and, in the process, qualified for Olympic Trials. Do you know what an honor it is just to qualify for your sport’s Olympic Trials? Do you know how difficult a task that is? Those few who do are truly in an elite class by themselves. Does the media cover that?
Many of these athletes had life-time best performances at Trials but even their best wasn’t good enough. They still came up empty. That day there were others who were just plain stronger, faster or more skilled than them. Are these athletes losers? Are they less worthy of the “champion” label or the attention than their more successful competitors?
There are so many levels of talent and skill in sports today. It’s like the fish in the pond metaphor. You may be a big fish in your little pond, but when you move into the next larger pond, you are no longer so big and bad. Suddenly, there are many others who could have you as a sushi appetizer if they so chose. In turn, when those bigger fish decide to move into yet a larger pond, they then make the unsettling discovery that they aren’t nearly as lean and mean as they once thought. And the cycle goes on and on. That’s what this whole Olympic process is about. Hundreds of athletes qualified for Olympic Trials from a pool of many, many thousands. But being at Olympic Trials is like being in a very big pond indeed, so only a select few were actually good enough that day to make the team.
As you move to the Olympics, the pond gets to be the largest yet, filled with the biggest, baddest, meanest and leanest fish in the world. In that pool, only a select few actually rise to the surface above all others. These are the medal winners. But medal or no medal, being an Olympian is an honor of a lifetime, just like qualifying for Olympic Trials. If you’ve put the time, energy and blood, sweat and tears into the process, then the outcome doesn’t determine your success. You have already determined your worthiness to call yourself a champion and a winner by the journey that you undertook, by the risks taken and sacrifices made. Regardless of the attention or media coverage that you may or may not attract, regardless of what others may say or think about you, you are a winner, even if you didn’t end up as “the best!”
You have to keep in mind that there are always going to be bigger fish than you, swimming around in larger ponds than the one you may be doggy paddling in right now. There will almost always be someone better than you. That does not make your quest any less Olympic or important. It does not take away anything from your efforts. It does not make you a lesser person. If you commit yourself to pursuing excellence and do everything in your power to reach that goal, that’s what really counts! It’s not the accomplishment of the goal per se, but the process of your pursuit that’s truly important in determining whether you are a champion. So keep your eye on your path. Don’t get distracted by other people’s definitions of success. They will only confuse and discourage you. Do the very best that you can, as often as you can. When you get knocked down, get yourself back up over and over again. Face your doubts, discouragement and fears and continue to move towards them. Only listen to people who support your dreams and efforts. Commit yourself to the journey and go all out. Embrace the challenge. This is what it really means to be a Olympian.
“THE BEST TEAM ALWAYS WINS AND OTHER MYTHS IN SPORTS”
I do not want to step on any toes here, and I certainly don’t want to spend too much time on this, but I feel compelled to talk about our “dream team,” the US men’s basketball team. So they underachieved big time and won a bronze medal. In the process they were soundly beaten by Puerto Rico, lost to Lithuania, finished a stunning 4th in group “B,” the weaker division and made a compelling argument for the “dream” in dream team to be, in waking reality, a nightmare.
So what really happened here? Some will point to the fact that coach Larry Brown didn’t have the “right pieces” to work with. That is, a lot of the better pros made the decision not to go to Athens leaving Brown with only a few seasoned players and many more rookies. Others will point to the ridiculously bad officiating by the international refs who gave new meaning to the word, incompetence. Many will explain that the US lost so much because they couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. Despite the fact that the three-point line was two feet closer than the traditional NBA line, the dreamers shot only a little better than 25%. Actually in their 19 point, first round lost to Puerto Rico the Yanks shot a torrid 3 of 24 from behind the arc. Then there was the “defense” or actually, the lack thereof. Truth be told there were times defensively that the dreamers looked like they were a mediocre high school team.
I think the bottom line in explaining what happened to our vaunted team was something even more basic. I don’t think this group of individuals played as a team. Despite the fact that we had some of the best athletes in the NBA (yes, of course there were many who didn’t play who would have made the team far better), Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan, etc., the guys couldn’t seem to match up against seemingly lesser players who just played better together. Actually that’s the simple point I’d like to make here.
It’s not the best team that always wins. It’s not the best individual players. It’s the team that plays best together that most often comes out on top. Basketball is a team game. Individual greatness will consistently lose to team greatness most any day of the week. It seemed like most of the competition that the US faced played brilliantly together. The US’s opponents looked and played like teams instead of groups of individuals thrown together to play round ball on the same court. Truth be told, these other teams looked good and were fun to watch. The US, on the other hand looked like some unnamed NBA teams that only bring the ball up the court, clear out one whole side and then wait for their superstar to make something happen. Not only is this poor team play, but it’s downright boring.
There’s no question that as far as successful professionals, we probably fielded the most famous and well-paid team. I don’t know what the combined incomes were for the dream team, but I have no doubt that there was no other team that the US faced that could even come close to the combined salary of these superstars. However, Athens was a serious wake up call for us. If you don’t play together as a team, you lose. Awesome individual talent, huge endorsement deals, and a mega salary do not cut it. No longer will the opposition stand by gawking with open mouths as our world famous players beat up on them.
The dream team was a bit of a nightmare but a good one at that. To be painfully embarrassed by these kinds of losses is in the end, actually good for one’s character. A little humility goes a long way. In fact, it’s great for future motivation. So I sincerely hope we can learn from these experiences and use them as the helpful feedback that they are. In 1992 the US humiliated all of its’ opponents with ridiculously one-sided victories to win the gold medal. This is much-needed payback. Competition is good for the spirit. Competition builds strength. It will be interested to see what happens four years down the road in China.
“IT AIN’T OVER TIL IT’S OVER”
Humor me a little here. I know that American gymnast Paul Hamm has already gotten a tremendous amount of publicity. I know that his gold medal winning performance in the all around competition was marred by a judging mistake and controversy. I also know that many people including the International Gymnast Federation think that because of the judging error Hamm didn’t deserve the gold medal and that he should do the right thing and give it back. I don’t want to get embroiled in that particular mess right now. Instead I want to talk about an Olympian’s character. I want to talk about a wonderful, success generating quality that enabled all this silly controversy to happen in the first place.
The fact of the matter is that Hamm should never have even been in a position to medal. NEVER! EVER! He was long gone. He screwed up big time. He totally blew it on the biggest competitive stage of his life. Stick a fork in him because he was well done. The defending world champion and hands down favorite to win gold in the all-around, Hamm was in first place going into the vault, one of his strongest events. What happened next was totally unexpected and devastating performance wise. On his landing, Hamm was unable to control his balance and went flying sideways, off the mat landing at the feet of the judges. Instantly he went from first place to twelfth. With two events left that was it. There went just about any chance for a medal, never mind gold. As TV announcer and retired gold medal winning gymnast Tim Dagget put it, “That’s it! He’s out of the competition!”
So bring on the cliché’s: “There’s a possible in every impossible”; (the politically incorrect) “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings”; “Never say never”; “Do you believe in miracles?”; “It’s never over until it’s over”; etc. etc. Drum roll please… In his next to last event, with virtually nothing left to lose, Hamm nails his routine and gets the highest score of the day. Suddenly, several gymnasts in front of Hamm become overwhelmed with a premature case of the holiday spirit, the spirit of giving. They begin to make silly mistakes. A wobble here, an extra step there, and before you know it Paul Hamm is now in fourth place with a legitimate shot at a medal. Not a gold medal mind you, but perhaps a bronze and, in a fairytale ending, maybe a silver. In the parallel bars Hamm’s routine is breath-taking and he sticks his landing to earn another improbable high score. The judges do the math and suddenly the impossible has happened, Hamm has won the gold medal.
Forget for a moment the judging boo boo and the issue of whether Paul did not fairly win the gold medal. Let’s just take a look at the unbelievable mental feat that this Olympian pulled off. In the middle of the competition, with his hopes and dreams crumbling all around him, he kept it together. He maintained his focus, refused to give up hope and kept his concentration on the task at hand, the next event. His ability to temporarily put aside his mistake, and his big failure on one event and concentrate completely on the next one is in sharp contrast to another gymnast at the last Olympics in Sydney. Svetlana Khorkina, the moody, temperamental Russian gymnast was the hands down favorite to win the all around in 2000. However, because of a huge blunder by the officials who set the height of the vault too low, Khorkina sat both her vaults down. She was so distraught with her poor performance on vault and the possibility that it had cost her the gold medal, that she took her upset into the next event, the uneven bars. There Khorkina fell twice to completely take herself out of the medal chances.
Here we have two Olympians struggling with the same issue but in two very different ways and, as a consequence, with two very different results. There is absolutely no question in my mind that what Paul Hamm demonstrated in his miraculous comeback is THE most important mental skill out there. This is what separates the very best from all the rest. How do you deal with your failures? How do you deal with your mistakes? When you are in the middle of a performance and the foundation is crumbling all around you, how do you handle it?
Champions take their screw-ups in stride. If they mess up in the middle of a game, they don’t wring their hands and pull their hair out. They may feel like doing that but they know, deep down inside, that it really is never over until it is over. They intuitively understand that almost anything can and does happen in sports. When the unlikely happens you need to be ready for it. You need to put yourself in a position to take advantage of this good fortune that sometimes follows your bad fortune. The only way that this can possibly happen is if you can continue to keep your head on straight. You need to maintain a positive attitude no matter what. NO MATTER WHAT! Don’t quit. Don’t give in. Don’t pull a Khorkina!
Instead keep your focus in the moment. Stay in the NOW. Focus on one thing at time in the present and you can then set in motion the wheels of a comeback. When I talk to football teams I like to talk about the concept of RED. RED stands for READY EVERY DOWN. If you are ready every down then you can make a difference in the game. If you are ready every down then you can turn the complexion of the game around, even if you have previously screwed up big time. So I ask athletes, “if you knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the game’s outcome hung in the balance of the next play, how focused would you be?” The answer I always get is obvious: “Are you kidding! I would have laser like focus!” Then I’d ask, “But what if you had already screwed up and, as a result, you cost your team a touchdown?” And the reply I get back is equally as predictable: “So what man. That screw-up of mine won’t mean Jack because this is the game winning play?” So I continue to ask, “Would it matter if you were sore and tired from getting hammered all game?” Answer: “Of course NOT man!” I persist: “But what if you had a slight pull in a muscle or a bad headache? Would that matter?” “Of course not Doc! Who cares about a little old pull or head ache when the game deciding play is coming your way right now. This would be the only thing that counts!”
And then I continue. “Well what if that play ended and you knew for a fact that this play, right NOW is the one that’s going to decide the game and you are going to be in on it. Would you go all out on this play?” Once more the answer is spontaneous yet totally predictable: “Of course I’d go all out Doc, who wouldn’t. I mean if you knew that the play of the game was coming right through you, you’d better believe that I’d be ready!”
So what’s my point? When you compete have a Paul Hamm, RED attitude. What just happened is much less important than what is going to happen right NOW in this play. Therefore, it is imperative for you as an athlete to get your focus of concentration back in the game. You have to let go of your upsets, screw-ups, disappointments and failures and move on to the next play, move or technique. This is what champions do and this is what makes them champions!
“A CLASS ACT OF OLYMPIC PROPORTIONS”
Michael Phelps. Michael Phelps. Michael Phelps. Going to win 8 gold medals. Going to break Mark Spitz’s record of 7 golds set back in 1972. Rumors abound about how cocky and brash this young man is, how stuck up and full of himself. On the cover of Sports Illustrated. Getting media coverage up the ying yang. Why the Olympics weren’t even over and he was hawking mobile telephones, credit cards and a ton of other stuff.
So when the dust settled young mister Phelps walked away with 8 medals, 6 gold and 2 bronze. Pretty darn impressive if you ask me. However, what strikes me as more impressive is that in Phelps’ last race, the 400 medley relay, Michael in an unheard of act of generosity gave up his spot in the final to let a teammate, Ian Crocker swim in his place. Phelps had earned the final spot by winning the 100 Meter butterfly. However, Crocker had been feeling ill and had swum poorly in the 4 X 100 relay earlier in the week. Crocker’s slow relay split had cost the American team the gold medal and Phelps a shot at history and a potential one million dollar bonus from US Swimming. So what does Phelps do to pay Crocker back for screwing up his chances? He gives him a second chance! He graciously steps down out of the limelight and gives a teammate a shot at glory.
Pardon me but that sure doesn’t sound like a spoiled, stuck up, cocky brat. It sounds like and was a class act of Olympic proportions. It was unbelievably generous and a powerful demonstration of selflessness, a quality that is far too rare among our great athletes today. Part of the problem is that we take athletes like Phelps, Lebron James, Tiger Woods and Derek Jeter to name a few and we place them up on very high pedestals. We treat them like pampered royalty. We make special exceptions for them. We do things for these athletes that the common man would never see. Then we the public get all hot and bothered when these athletes act like selfish brats. DUHHH!
It’s very easy when you’re as good as a Michael Phelps to get cocky and mistakenly believe that your poop doesn’t stink. Just start watching the NFL season as it opens soon and you’ll see what I mean. We’ll have some primadona pulling a pen out of his shoe and autographing the touchdown ball, or whipping out a cell phone and calling the president. It takes no character to act like a stuck up, narcissistic twit. What does take character, what is much rarer is to see is a great athlete who doesn’t need to have his ego continuously stroked, the athlete who doesn’t need to always be on center stage.
It’s rare indeed to find a great athlete who is secure enough about himself that he can take the time to really tune into those around him. Too many athletes who mistakenly believe that “I’m the greatest” aren’t capable of stepping into another’s shoes to really feel what that other individual is going through. On his day, at his Olympics, on the biggest stage of his young life, that’s exactly what Phelps did. He was tuned into his teammate and top rival’s feelings! He cared about how this guy felt and he gave something up for him.
To be honest, I don’t know very much about Michael Phelps the person. I’ve heard some from his competitors but I have nothing first hand to go on other than what I just witnessed in Athens. And if what I saw was any indication of who this young man is, then his generous bowing out of this last relay to give a discouraged teammate and top opponent a second chance is enough to convince me of what a true Olympic champion he is.
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