The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen.
(Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p.3)
There are many things to learn from sport and the Olympics is the biggest stage for elite international competition. In the next two parts we explore what it takes for an athlete to perform at the highest level and what lessons L&D can make in order to replicate the highest performance in the organisations this it serves.
The Rio 2016 Olympics is deep into its second week of competition and the GB Ladies Hockey team has just made it through to the final to compete for the Gold or Silver medal and the Brownlee brothers have just won medals again for the second games in a row. These are not the first example of GB success this Olympics, as they follow a long list of superior performances from the team. So what is it that drives them and the 89 other GB medal winners so far, to peak performance and how could L&D learn from their success?
You might think it obvious to start with passion. Of course, an Olympic athlete has passion for their sport but what is striking is the amount of passion and the level of dedication to it. Across all 42 sports it comes through every time in every country. Stories of daily training sessions 6 days a week and training camps away from home with little social life are common in every sport. There are also many examples of competitors coming back again and again. The likes of Katherine Granger who continues to put herself through what appears to be deep lows in a quest to feel the high of an Olympic medal once again.
The Olympics provides an athlete with a powerful cycle of clearly defined targets and levels of achievement every 4 years. It is exactly this clarity that helps to drive and motivate an athlete to compete. They will receive constant feedback leading up to an Olympic year from a range of sources including training data, coaches and competition results. It is this knowledge that tells them if they have the skills and abilities to reach their dream and what they have to do if they aren’t there yet.
The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practised without discrimination or any kind, in a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.
(International Olympic Committee, IOC)
Alongside the Paralympics, the Olympics is the biggest stage in which to promote diversity and the benefit it brings. The inclusion of the Refugee Olympic Team this year is testament to this. With exception to Egyptian Judo player Islam El Shehaby, competitors at this year’s games compete without discrimination and promote themselves and their sports positively, providing good examples for others to follow.
Even during individual events the value of the team does not go unmentioned. Each competitor relies heavily on the vast array of people that work in the background in order to achieve success. A competitor’s entourage is made up of coaches, nutritionists, physiotherapists, sports psychologists, sports scientists and biomechanics experts, data analysts and in some cases designers and engineers who create the equipment that they use. The GB Ladies Hockey and Diving teams both highlight how much time they spend with each other during training and socially and how they are all close friends. The power of a shared experience is huge when it comes to teams and teamwork. This connection through shared experiences usually comes from a shared goal and a passion to reach it, which all Olympic teams have gone through and are going through right now
As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi states in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Happiness, the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.
The challenge of achieving Olympic/Paralympic gold most certainly holds this statement true for an athlete during competition. All athletes choose to be there and choose to make the sacrifices required to compete in the games, giving themselves the chance of winning. What seems to be clear is not that winning is the most important thing to happiness, but it’s the ability to have the choice to set the challenge for themselves and that they believe it a worthwhile pursuit. Not winning is feedback and an opportunity to set new goals.
In all of the events, technology is key to the success of the athlete and to the function of the sport. Global Positioning System (GPS) and Augmented Reality (AR) have been available to aid the athlete and the coach during training for a while now as well as aiding the viewing experience. Technology also exists in the game play of the event. Hawk eye is now available in Tennis and Badminton which can be used to question an umpire’s call. A great deal of technology and engineering goes into producing equipment from a road bicycle, fit for the mountains to a running suit fit for a sprinter. The common theme with all the technology, is that it acts as an aid to the performance although it is still the human competing. The American track cycling team believed that by moving the front gearing from the right hand side to left would provide them greater aerodynamic properties yet they were still unsuccessful to win in any of the classes on the track.
The reward of a medal is the greatest of all when it comes to the Olympics. It is what drives all of the athletes competing. Some have even said that this reward is life changing and in many cases it doesn’t have to be gold, as any colour is enough reward and recognition.
Success creates Success
Finally as the games go on, it appears that the success of one drives the success of others. It has acted as a driver of belief systems throughout team GB who have seen successes in events that were previously not seen. As confidence grows, it has almost become an expectation that we will be successful in cycling and sailing and that Mo Farah couldn’t possibly lose, could he?