Seven life lessons from the Olympics

It’s the last day of London 2012. For two weeks I’ve been running (dashing to the nearest TV screen to see the latest race), jumping (for joy and with frustration as I will Team GB to win) and screaming (at the TV, because surely that helps our athletes to win!)

Being in London has swept me along with the excitement of it all. There’s a buzz in the air, a purpose in our day, and pride in our hearts. I think I’ll feel bereft once it’s all over – and I’ll be holding my breath until the Paralympics start in a couple of weeks’ time.

The Olympics are truly inspiring a generation. (pic: istockphoto.com/jokerproproduction)

As I reflect on two phenomenal weeks of athleticism, determination and sheer brilliance, here are seven life lessons the Olympics have taught me:

1. Having support puts wind beneath your wings. You just have to hear the roar of the crowds for Team GB athletes to know that our competitors are lifted that little bit higher and run that little bit faster. I’m sure the crowds and all the support helped Jessica Ennis win a decisive 800m to clinch the heptathlon title, encouraged Mo Farah to win his second Gold in the 5000m race, and made Sir Chris Hoy the most decorated British Olympian of all time. It’s got me thinking who’s supporting and cheerleading me in my career as a writer (and aspiring novelist). There’s a lot to be said for the psychological power of a winning streak.

2. Deal with distractions and keep your eye on the prize. Some athletes block out the noise with headphones, so they can focus via their favourite tunes. Others are taught to ignore the ‘mind games‘ that their competitors use to psyche them out and put them on the back foot in the race. Don’t let anybody put you off your game.

3. Self-belief = confidence + humility. I’m struck by how humble the athletes are, and how grateful they are for their victories. They have put their minds, bodies and spirits to the ultimate test and come out on top (whether they leave with a medal or not). When Usain Bolt was under pressure before his races against friend and training partner Yohan Blake – and some commentators were beginning to doubt Bolt’s ability to take Gold again – he said he was confident he would win “because I know what I can do”. He even chatted to one of the race officials before the gun went off, showing just how confident he really was.

4. It’s the detail that counts. I’ve been fascinated to discover the theory of ‘marginal gains’ applied to the British cycling team (who won Gold after Gold in the velodrome). The Team GB cycling coach Dave Brailsford says it’s the aggregation of a series of tiny little improvements that adds up to the big wins. So, it’s not only the athletes’ mental and physical prowess that he seeks to improve, but the holistic care of the competitors, down to how they wash their hands and what pillow they sleep on. It got me thinking about the painstaking sentence-by-sentence editing I do of my novel, making sure each comma and cadence really counts. My grandmother used to say ‘take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves’. I think that’s the case here: all the tiny details add up to something larger than the sum of their parts.

5. It’s OK to cry in public. I call them ‘happy tears’: the crying you do when you’re overwhelmed, proud,  astounded. All the emotions, in fact, that we’ve seen at the end of events and on the Olympic podiums. London 2012 has been dubbed the Crying Games, because weeping has become our national pastime over the last couple of weeks. As a nation known for its stiff upper lip, I think it’s refreshing to start showing our feelings.

6. Partying can wait. Listening to how so many of the athletes ‘made it’ has confirmed to me how dedicated and ambitious they are. That doesn’t make them superhuman. It just means that they’ve made choices about how they want to spend their lives. They’ve chosen to put the celebratory beer on ice until they’ve achieved their goals. Unlike average teenagers who party into the wee small hours and   chase their next boyfriend or girlfriend, these young athletes are choosing to make social sacrifices so they can achieve personal and national glory. I’m reminded of the Jim Rohn quote: “We must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.”

7. Athletes are the new celebrity role models. Forget the ‘celebrities’ who think plastic surgery, fake tan and tabloid notoriety is the route to long-lasting success. The real celebrities, in my eyes, are all the athletes who have achieved something amazing in their lives and act as role models not just to the little kids who aspire to earn their own medal one day, but to the millions of adults who are inspired to get off their sofas and do something meaningful with their lives.

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