Bravo, Athletes! Here's What I Learned Watching You

08/13/2012 12:36 EDT | Updated 10/12/2012 05:12 EDT

As one of the most physically unathletic people ever, I found myself almost glued to the television for the duration of the Olympics, curious to catch a glimpse of some of the world's most gifted in their chosen sports. Watching excellence in athletics is always awe-inspiring for me.

My curiosity had me ask over and over again why an individual chose his or her particular sport, and what passion and drive moved them from a simple love of a sport to become an Olympic athlete? It's a question perhaps without one absolute answer.

This questioning is probably due to the fact that when I was young, I ran the other way (actually not really ran, more like cowered and hid in the corner) whenever the word sports or physical activity was mentioned. I actually convinced my mother, (who had spent her youth as a consummate athlete), on numerous occasions to write me notes to take to my public school Phys Ed teacher asking her to excuse me from class.

My fear and terror of anything to do with equipment, especially the balance beam or pummel horse, was pretty monumental. And ropes, yes ropes were especially terrifying in gym class when you had to climb them. I even had nightmares in university that I would fail my year if I did not complete the compulsory physical education class. Kind of unusual, as I was a business/marketing major, so I have no idea where a nightmare like that would come from.

So as I watched each of the various sports at the Olympics I kept asking myself, "Why did they choose that sport over another?" Why running or sprinting and not diving?" It seemed to fascinate me and had me fully engaged, watching with intrigued observation. I somehow couldn't get enough.

We learned that Russian pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva was training to be a gymnast, but when she grew too tall, she had to switch and moved to pole vaulting. I kind of get that, as flying through the air does sound somewhat appealing to me.

Then there is the phenomena named Michael Phelps, who reportedly took to the pool, partly because of influence by his two older sisters and partly as an outlet for his excess energy. Imagine the hours and hours of training required to create this unrivaled best-in the-world champion! At a taller than average swimmer height of 6'4", he has excelled in the pool like no other athlete in history. Phelps is so great that he has dominated the last three straight Olympics, winning a total of 22 medals, with the International Olympic Committee creating a special award for him: "Greatest Olympian of All Time."

And talking about height, Usain Bolt, measuring in at 6'5" is also a most unlikely candidate to become a top sprinter. His Olympic setting record of back-to-back gold medals in both the 100 and 200 metres, just might make him the most extraordinary sprinter in track-and-field history.

And not only because he's so fast, but because he's so big. A Journal of Sports, Science and Medicine study, found that "world champion sprinters ranged between 5-foot-9 at the low end to 6-foot-3 at the absolute max." And then there is the now legendary Usain Bolt. Defying what should be possible.

This idea of defying what should be possible, is a big theme for me. I believe that we do live in a world of unlimited possibilities, so that's why a favourite for me was South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius. Nicknamed the "blade runner" or "the fastest man on no legs," because of the prosthetic carbon fibre limbs he runs with, he made history for being the first double amputee to be granted the right to run along side able-bodied athletes. His drive and dedication to achieve his dream has been inspirational to the world, but also proved to me that almost anything is possible. Actually take out the word almost...anything is possible.

I've also been curious if innate talent is at the root of the decision as to which sport an individual chooses to pursue. Are great athletes born or are they nurtured and made? I've read repeatedly that it isn't necessarily that certain people are gifted and just naturally excel in a particular area. It seems this rule of 10,000 hours keeps popping up as a standard for what is needed to become an expert, or to master not only a sport, but any pursuit one goes after in life.

I'd read about this in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and also heard about this 10,000 hour or ten-year rule being explained in Learning from Wonderful Lives by Nick Baylis. Simply put: the 10,000 hour rule is the idea that it takes approximately 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master a skill.

For instance, it would take 10 years of practicing three hours a day to become a master in your subject. It would take approximately five years of full-time employment to become proficient in your field.

Although this might sound overwhelming, simply work out how many hours you may have already invested and calculate how many more you need to put in before you reach 10,000. In the area of mental gymnastics, I would venture to say that I have achieved expert status, having deliberately practiced (thinking that is) most of my life.

Apparently the key word is deliberate. In a CNN money piece, writer Geoffrey Colvin states, "It's activity that's explicitly intended to improve performance, that reaches for objectives just beyond one's level of competence, provides feedback on results and involves high levels of repetition." The on going research conclusion is that "nobody is great without work. It's nice to believe that if you find the field where you're naturally gifted, you'll be great from day one, but it doesn't happen. There's no evidence of high-level performance without experience or practice."

It's indeed a very interesting topic and personally, I'd like to believe that a passionate interest, plus natural talent and the drive to put in the required practice, are all equally important pieces of the success puzzle. Someday, I'd love to interview top athletes to find what the impetus was that led them to choose the particular sport in which they excel. How do they see that natural ability fueled their passion, leading them to invest the time to truly champion their chosen sport.

What I learned, or more accurately confirmed, by watching the Olympics, is something I truly believe: all things are possible. With a goal and a dream, hard work, plus a little bit of unexplained magic thrown into the mix, you truly can achieve anything. Although I've never really doubted it, and watching the 2012 Summer Olympic Games was certainly an exhilarating way to reaffirm it.

Congratulations not only to those who won medals, but to all the athletes who made it to the Olympics and had the chance to live a little bit of their own personal dream. From an admitted non-athlete, with the utmost respect, I personally thank-you all.

Where have you defied what should be possible?


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